Northern Ireland potato wizard behind Maris Piper who gave us chips with everything
Published 25/04/2013 | 00:00
He was the man who unearthed a secret formula to growing what was to become the UK's most loved potato.
And now the achievements of John Clarke – widely-regarded as the 'potato wizard' and the man behind the Maris Piper – are to be immortalised.
The Ulster History Circle will today unveil a blue plaque at Mr Clarke's north Antrim home to commemorate his work.
Still very much a local hero but largely forgotten in the wider world, Mr Clarke dedicated much of his life to growing the perfect potato.
Born in 1889 near Ballintoy, he left school at 12 to work on the family farm, and had no further formal education.
A lifelong fascination with the vegetable set in when, in his teenage years, he began to research potato breeding in Ballycastle Library.
Intrigued by the science behind the humble spud, Mr Clarke spent long days researching and experimenting to ultimately become a recognised expert on potato breeding.
He produced dozens of varieties, with his first Ulster Monarch certified in 1936.
Over the next 51 years he was to have 33 varieties certified, of which the first 30 had the prefix Ulster.
The most widely-grown potato in the UK, Maris Piper, is the 'grandson' of one of his varieties.
Chris Spurr, chairman of the Ulster History Circle, said: "When I first heard Maurice McHenry speaking on Radio Ulster about John Clarke I knew that here was a first-class subject for an Ulster History Circle blue plaque.
"Planning the plaque has been a fruitful collaboration with the National Trust team at the Causeway, and we would especially like to thank the trust for funding the plaque. Between us, we are all delighted to celebrate John Clarke with this permanent reminder of his life and achievements."
When Mr Clarke married schoolteacher Angela Hayes in 1947 the couple set up home close to the Giant's Causeway.
Their farmhouse was named Innisfree on account of Angela's love of the poetry of WB Yeats, and it and its outbuildings are now part of the National Trust complex at the Causeway and home to the trust's Community and Learning Centre.
Mr Clarke was hugely respected by contemporaries and by specialist scientists such as Dr RN Salaman FRS, a leading expert on the potato, who ran a botanical research centre near Cambridge.
From his north Antrim base, Mr Clarke worked closely with Salaman in researching resistance to viruses in potatoes, and supplying virus-free stocks to outlets throughout the UK.
He won many accolades including the Lord Derby Gold Medal in 1948, a Master of Agriculture Degree from Queen's University Belfast in 1950, the John Snell Medal from the National Institute of Agricultural Botany, Cambridge, in the mid-1950s, and in 1957 the Belfast Telegraph Cup for Outstanding Achievements in Agriculture. In 1969 he was awarded the OBE.
John Clarke died on May 28, 1980, knowing that his life's work had been for the benefit of everyone who enjoys their spuds.
Roy Bailie, chairman of the National Trust in Northern Ireland, which funded the plaque, said: "The National Trust team here at the Giant's Causeway is delighted to celebrate such a remarkable figure in the history of agriculture and potato growing – not just here on the north coast but across the whole island of Ireland.
"Most notably, this is the first Circle plaque at a National Trust property. However, it is not just about history, we are working in partnership with local schools to grow a selection of Clarke's potato varieties to ensure that the work of John Clarke and the importance of the potato in all our lives is not forgotten."
The unveiling will take place at Innisfree, Causeway Road, Bushmills, at 10.30am today.