He was the Harry Potter of Potatoes!

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A PIONEERING North Antrim potato breeder is the subject of a new book by the well-known retired head teacher and sheep farmer from Ballintoy, Maurice McHenry.

Entitled John Clarke: A Potato Wizard, the book was launched at a high profile event held at the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre last week which was attended by approximately 150 people, including several relatives of John Clarke.

Irish harp music played by two talented Portrush sisters, Tiarna and Siofra Gillan greeted those attending the event. As the compere, Robert

Corbett, explained it was more than merely a book launch, it was a celebration of Clarke’s achievements and our potato heritage.

Before the formal proceedings, Padraic Og Gallagher, the owner of Gallagher’s Boxty House, Temple Bar in Dublin, demonstrated how to make boxty, a traditional Irish potato dish. In addition, there were 100 varieties of heritage potatoes on display arranged by David John Langford from Swinford, Co. Mayo.

Councillor Sandra Hunter, Chairman of Moyle District Council, opened proceedings by welcoming everyone to the locality and emphasised the importance of remembering and celebrating the achievements of local people from the past, such as John Clarke. Cllr Hunter commended Mr McHenry on his determination to rescue Clarke from obscurity and ensuring his achievements are recognised.

The book was, then, formally launched by Paul Watts, Head of Potato Research at the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute, Loughgall. Mr Watts commented that Clarke had developed 33 certified varieties and explained that this was a remarkable achievement given that the breeding of new varieties of potatoes is a difficult and demanding task. He noted that in John Clarke’s era, potato breeders worked closely together, sharing ideas and stock, and this partly explains why Clarke was such a prolific breeder. Mr Watt congratulated Mr McHenry on producing a long overdue record of John Clarke’s successful career.

The author, Maurice McHenry, explained thatsince he was a young boy, he knew that John Clarke was a successful breeder of new varieties of potatoes. His late father, John McHenry, had constantly extolled the brilliance of John Clarke, who he felt had not got the recognition he deserved. He explained that this early influence and the encouragement he received from Clarke’s relatives had motivated him to tell the story of this forgotten genius.

Mr McHenry thanked all those who had helped him with the preparation of the book by providing information, sponsorship and other assistance, including the printers, Impact Printing, Ballycastle.

Max Bryant, The National Trust’s General Manager with responsibility for their properties on the North Coast, then enlightened the audience on why

the Giant’s Causeway Visitors Centre was the appropriate place to launch this book on John Clarke. He explained that Clarke and his wife, Angela, had lived in the late 1940s in the farmhouse known today as Innisfree, which is an integral part of the Giant’s Causeway site, hosting the Education Centre. Mr Bryant also described the exciting heritage potato project currently being undertaken by The National Trust.

The event was brought to a close by Harry Kehoe, who prior to his retirement had led the Plant Breeding Station at Oak Park, Carlow. Mr

Kehoe, who developed the Rooster potato, which is the predominant variety grown in Ireland today, explained that he had worked closely with John Clarke and held him in the highest regard. He commented that Clarke’s greatest gift was his natural ability to select, by eye, the best seedlings.

John Clarke was described by J Roland Bainbridge in The Farmers Weekly in 1946 as being a‘wizard with potatoes’, hence the sub-title of Mr McHenry’s book. Clarke, who was born in 1889 in the townland of Lemnagh Beg near Ballintoy, was largely self-educated. However, he 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.

The book is published by Ballintoy Archaeological and Historical Society, printed by Impact Printing, Ballycastle, and costs £7.95.

The book is available from McLister’s Book shop Ann Street, Ballycastle.