John Clarke

Potato Breeder
1889 – 1980

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John Clarke was born on 1 February 1889 at Lamnagh Beg, Ballintoy, on the North Antrim coast, son of Daniel and Margaret. He attended St. Mary’s Primary School at Ballinalea, but left, aged about 12, to work on the family farm in Broughgammon, and obtained no further formal education. Despite this, by dint of extensive reading in Ballymoney Library, and ongoing research and experimentation throughout his life, he became a recognised expert on the science of potato breeding, producing dozens of varieties, some of which are still widely grown. John’s father was known to have tried to produce new potato varieties, but his son pursued this activity much beyond what Daniel Clarke had achieved.

In 1947 John married Angela Hayes, a local schoolteacher, and the couple set up home in a farm close to the Giant’s Causeway. The 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.

In 1923 Daniel and John Clarke had their potatoes certified by the Ministry of Agriculture’s Seed Classification system. John specialised in the first early varieties, harvested in June and July. His first variety Ulster Monarch was certified in 1936. Over the next 51 years he was to have 33 varieties certified, of which the first 30 had the prefix Ulster. Thanks to John Clarke, that most popular of potato varieties, Maris Piper, was produced. It is the ‘grandson’ of one of his varieties.

John was respected by his contemporaries and by specialist scientists such as Dr. R.N. Salaman F.R.S. and Dr. H. Howard. Dr Salaman was a leading expert on diseases of the potato, and lived near Cambridge, running a botanical research centre. He researched and promoted resistance to viruses in potatoes, and set out to multiply virus-free stocks to supply outlets throughout the UK. Clarke worked closely with Salaman in this endeavour, setting up greenhouses in Broughgammon and at Innisfree.

John Clarke won many accolades. He was awarded the Lord Derby Gold Medal in 1948, a Master of Agriculture Degree by QUB in 1950, the John Snell Medal by the National Institute of Agricultural Botany, Cambridge in the mid-1950s, and in 1957 the Belfast Telegraph Cup for Outstanding Achievements in Agriculture. John was awarded the OBE in 1969. He died on 28 May 1980.

Date of unveiling: 25 April 2013

Location of plaque: 60 Causway Road, Bushmills

Report of Plaque unveiling available HERE