A NEW book by local historian Maurice McHenry, a founder member and chairman of Ballintoy Archaeological and Historical Society, was launched earlier this week at the recently opened Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre.
John Clarke: A Potato Wizard explores the life and achievements of the pioneering north Antrim potato breeder and was launched by Paul Watts, head of potato research at the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute, Loughgall.
In addition, those present also heard about the National Trust’s exciting new potato project from Max Bryant and had an opportunity to see boxty, a traditional Irish potato dish, made by Padraic Og Gallagher, the owner of Gallagher’s Boxty House, Temple Bar, Dublin.
The launch was also attended by leading players in the potato breeding industry, including Dr Harry Kehoe, who for many years led the Plant Breeding Station at Teagasc, Oak Park, Carlow and produced the Rooster variety, which is now the predominant potato grown in Ireland.
Mr McHenry explained: “Largely self-educated, Clarke understood the principles of the emerging science of genetics and applied them to the breeding of potatoes.
“A talented botanist, Clarke developed 33 certified varieties, the vast majority of which have the prefix Ulster in their name, and was a key figure in the struggle to breed varieties which were more resistant to potato blight.
“Remarkably Clarke, an independent breeder with only modest resources and facilities at his disposal, was able to compete on at least equal terms with the specialist government-sponsored plant breeding institutions that were established during his lifetime.
“As well as being a good scientist, Clarke had a natural flair for selecting the best seedlings.”
Clarke’s achievements earned him an international reputation as a highly successful potato breeder.
Mr McHenry says: “He was much respected by his contemporaries who worked in this field, including the influential Dr Redcliffe Nathan Salaman and Dr Harold Howard.
“Both Salaman and Howard travelled from England to Broughgammon, near Ballintoy, to exchange ideas and potato varieties.
“Clarke received many prestigious awards in recognition of his important contribution to the potato industry, including the Lord Derby Gold Medal in 1948, the highly prized John Snell Medal in the mid-1950s and the OBE in 1969. In return, Clarke has left us a lasting legacy – his potatoes.”
Sadly today, the role played by John Clarke is largely unknown and there is a real danger that his achievements will be forgotten, even in his native north Antrim.
But Maurice McHenry, a well-known retired head teacher and sheep farmer from Ballintoy, has, however, over the past few years led a crusade to rescue Clarke from obscurity.
This has motivated him to research and present a passionate, fitting and timely tribute to John Clarke. Mr McHenry’s book will ensure that Clarke is remembered and celebrated. Moreover, it fills a major gap in our agricultural and scientific history.
John Clarke: A Potato Wizard by Maurice McHenry. Priced £7.95 and can be bought at McLister’s Newsagents, Ann Street, Ballycastle or from Maurice McHenry at a price of
£9.50 (including p&p). Contact Maurice on 028 2072093 or email email@example.com