The Praties They Grow Small is a lament widely thought to have been written during the Great Famine in Ireland in the 1840s. It is sometimes referred to as the Famine Song, although it never mentions the famine directly.
The origin of the song is uncertain but if it does date from the Great Famine, it probably first appeared around 1845 when the blight first struck.
This is likely because although 1845 was bad, there was worse to come in the following few years.
By 1847, people were less likely to be talking about potatoes being small; they were more likely to be lamenting the fact that they were hardly growing at all and had failed completely in some areas.
The song is written in the present tense, suggesting the writer is describing events that are happening around him at the time rather than looking back at a tragedy from the past.
It’s a very simple yet powerful song with a repetitive structure. The first lines of each verse are repeated twice, similar to a 12-bar blues song. It’s almost like the singer is too exhausted to hold more than one thought at a time but is determined to get his main point across.
The first verse tells us that the praties, potatoes of course, are growing small – so small that they have to eat the skins as well.
People ground into the dust by starvation
Some versions of the song have the line, “the praties they grow small and we dig them in the fall”. This is unlikely to have been part of the original song. It may be an example of how Irish songs are brought to America where they are adapted then sent back in a new form that takes over from the original.
This may have happened with The Praties They Grow Small through the recording of the song by American singer Carolyn Hester.
Whatever the case, it’s unlikely to be authentic because the Irish during the famine would not have waited until the fall to dig their main source of food. The crop would have been dug much earlier.
The second verse describes how the people are ground into the dust by starvation. But Ireland was a deeply religious country and there’s always hope that God will provide, as shown in the line, “the Lord in whom we trust, will repay us crumb for crust”.
Those who survived faced a life of hardship
In the third verse, the people are reduced to envying the geese eating corn. The final line looks forward to the “hour of our release”. It is left open as to whether this means release from crop failure, a release through emigration or the more final release of death.
All three possibilities applied in Ireland at that time. More than a million people died of starvation and associated diseases, and as many more emigrated to countries like America, Britain and Australia. Millions more, of course, survived although they faced a life of continued hardship.
This video features American singer Carolyn Hester singing The Praties They Grow Small in 1963 at the height of the folk revival in America.
Praties They Grow Small
Lyrics and Chords