The mighty potato
An Irishman’s Diary: How one man transformed how we grow potatoes
“In the early part of the 20th century, most of Ireland’s seed potatoes were imported, often from Scotland. JJ Silke got new, healthy varieties from there – mainly Kerrs Pink. The new varieties, properly manured, and well sprayed to reduce parasites, soon paid off for the local farmers whom he had helped supply and train.”
You know it’s the summer when you see the new potatoes arrive. And they’re from pretty far afield: Cyprus, Egypt and, occasionally, from their land of origin in south America.
Our own native breeds also start to come on stream – Roosters, Golden Wonders, Home Guards, Kerrs Pinks – all the old favourites. Strangely, the acreage of spuds sowed has been falling for some years – this year it looks likely to be down to about 350,000 tonnes, from some 21,000 acres. In 1845, before the potato blight struck, the acreage cropped was 2,516,000.
Despite our national image of potato fields, 80 per cent of the tubers are grown in some six counties of the Republic: Meath, Dublin, Wexford, Louth, Donegal, and Cork. One of these, Donegal, achieved worldwide acclaim back in the 1930s, when farms in the Creeslough area recorded 36 tonnes per acre.
Telling some farming friends from west Limerick of these results, they were amazed. While the “average” per acre is about 17 or 18 tonnes, most farms seem to get only about 10 tonnes per acre.
North Donegal was fortunate in the early years of the 20th century in that it had, as an agricultural adviser, a man called John (JJ) Silke. Silke, from Courleigh near Paulstown in Co Kilkenny, was born in 1884, and studied agriculture at the department of agriculture’s colleges in both Athenry, and Clonakilty.
He began his career with the department of agriculture (then under British administration) in 1913. His salary was £65 a year (with a bicycle allowance of £10 a year) and he was sent, as an assistant agricultural overseer, to north Donegal, which had been part of the Congested Districts area.
Despite some opposition from the more conservative local farmers, Silke’s farming ability and training soon won them over and he taught them the best methods of growing the potato. While the potato was the staple diet of both people and many farm animals such as pigs, it can be prone (as the Famine had shown) to a variety of diseases, many of them carried by insects.
However, despite comparatively poor soil, the Donegal area has, thanks to the Gulf Stream, very mild conditions. These, together with a moist and windswept climate, helps check the spread of greenfly aphids. Many other diseases of the potato are absent from the north and northwest of Ireland, and the light soils and long summer days are helpful. As JJ Silke found, Donegal is a good area for many other plants besides potatoes.
After marrying a local teacher, Susan McGinley, Silke got his own farm, where he grew an assortment of vegetables and fruit– even such exotica as plums and pears (not too usual in north Donegal). Many of the farms in the area had been clawed from rocks, bog and open hillside.
In the early part of the 20th century, most of Ireland’s seed potatoes were imported, often from Scotland. Silke got new, healthy varieties from there – mainly Kerrs Pink. The new varieties, properly manured, and well sprayed to reduce parasites, soon paid off for the local farmers whom he had helped supply and train. By the late 1920s, farmers around Creeslough were getting yields of 29 tonnes an acre, while by 1929 Silke himself got a yield of more than 35 tonnes of Arran Banners.
By the late 1930s, Irish seed potatoes were being exported to Britain, much of Europe and the Mediterranean countries, and as far as Syria and Venezuela. The outbreak of war in 1939 dampened many of these export markets, but exports to Britain continued to increase.
JJ Silke retired in 1949. He became an exporter of potatoes himself, as John J Silke & Son, but continued to help the local farmers with their crops and training, until his death in January 1960.
Little remains of the seed potato industry around Creeslough. As a farmer said to me a few years ago: “Mostly now we just grow silage for the big farmers around the Lagan [near Letterkenny].”
Emigration has also taken a toll on the farmers of the area, and the IFA estimates that the cost of preparing one acre for growing spuds can be as high as €2,000. And always in the background is the memory of the blight.
Despite dietary changes, we still spend more than €160 million a year on potatoes.
We have come a long way from the jokey phrase: “How do ye ate ‘em?” “Shkins an’ all.”
JJ Silke’s son, Fr John Silke, has written about his career in a book, From Courleigh to Creeslough: JJ Silke and the Irish Seed Potato Industry, available from the Raphoe Diocesan Office in Letterkenny, for €12.