Lyla Steele obituary: Businesswoman who built global food business in Monaghan

The woman behind Silver Hill duck farm blended a no-nonsense approach with charm

Lyla and Ronnie Steele and, left, their son, Stuart

Lyla and Ronnie Steele and, left, their son, Stuart

 

Born: April 5th, 1932
Died
: March 9th, 2021

Lyla Steele, the co-founder of Silver Hill Foods in Emyvale, Monaghan, has died following a long illness. Lyla, a dynamic, astute and innovative businesswoman, built from scratch with her husband, Ronnie Steele, one of Ireland’s most successful poultry-based food businesses and what is widely believed to be the biggest and best duck farm in Europe. Silver Hill duck is now served in smart restaurants in Paris, Berlin, Singapore, Hong Kong and Beijing, the home of world-famous Peking duck dishes.

It was often said that Ronnie and Lyla were “Steele by name and steel by nature”, and while Ronnie drove duck breeding and production at home, Lyla built up clients by travelling with sales managers to trade fairs across Europe, studying German and French to be able to converse with distributors there. She was a formidable businesswoman and trailblazer whose no-nonsense approach was softened by her charming manner and great interest in people.

Silver Hill Foods was one of the first Irish food companies to exhibit at the Paris Fine Food Trade Shows and at Berlin’s Green Week, an international trade fair for agriculture, horticulture and food industries. The company won many national and international awards, and London-based chef Heston Blumenthal – who visited the farm on a number of occasions – gave it the ultimate accolade when he designated it “the best duck in the world”.

Lyla and Ronnie Steele outside Silver Hill Foods in Emyvale, Co Monaghan. Photograph: Philip Fitzpatrick
Lyla and Ronnie Steele outside Silver Hill Foods in Emyvale, Co Monaghan. Photograph: Philip Fitzpatrick

The duck farm tracks its origins to the gift of 100 duck eggs from Lyla’s parents’ family farm at Cornaslieve, Virginia, Co Cavan, in 1962. From these modest beginnings, Lyla and Ronnie built a poultry enterprise that produced 20,000 duck eggs a day and more than five million ducks a year. The enterprise starting off with one employee but went on to have more than 400, including the first in-house geneticist for a poultry or livestock farm in Ireland. The genetic model to create the Silver Hill duck was a patented cross between the Chinese Peking duck and the native Irish Aylesbury duck.

High-tech innovations

Silver Hill Foods was also the first to use ultrasound technology to measure the lean meat content of live ducks prior to selection for breeding and production and to dry duck feathers to make high-value duck-down quilts and pillows, which became sought after in high-end hotels across the world.

Lyla grew up on a farm in east Cavan, the eldest of 10 children of Patrick and Anna Brady. The name Silver Hill comes from the family’s small farm, where a silver-coloured wildflower covered the hill. Following her secondary school education at Gilson Endowed Schools, Oldcastle, Co Meath, she studied for a year at St Martha’s Rural Science and Economy School in Navan, also Co Meath. From there she progressed rapidly to managing the Elmbank chicken hatchery in Cavan, where thousands of chicks were hatched, batched and distributed to small farmyard poultry producers across Ireland. She was then recruited to head up the duck breeding and production at the British Oil and Cake Mills poultry research farm in Selby, north Yorkshire. At that time her employers were one of the largest agricultural commodity traders in the world. And as head of their poultry breeding and production enterprise, Lyla was the first and only woman in the 1950s to hold a senior management position with the group.

She moved back to Ireland to marry Ronnie Steele in 1960, and the couple bought a small farm outside Emyvale. They later bought and restored the nearby former rectory, Errigal House. Together with their four children, the family divided their time between it and their second home in Rathmullan, Co Donegal.

Peace process

Lyla was a great cook, gardener and hostess. She also made a significant contribution to the Northern Irish peace process as a director of the International Funds for Ireland for several years in the 1990s. Ronnie and Lyla Steele’s love of food and new cultures spurred travel to Alaska on a fishing trip and to France to forage for mushrooms. They also mentored local entrepreneurs and sponsored the exhibitions of emerging artists.

Officially retiring at 65, both Ronnie and Lyla maintained an active interest in the business, which was latterly run by their son, Stuart. After her husband’s death in January 2019, Lyla spent more time with her children, grandchildren and extended family. Also in 2019 the Silver Hill duck business was sold to Fane Valley Group, an agrifood business based in Northern Ireland that had been Silver Hill’s feed nutrition partner for more than 20 years.

Lyla is survived by her brothers and sisters, James, Michael, Marie, Kathleen, Ollie, Tommy and Eileen; her daughters, Christina, Orla and Fenella; her son, Stuart; grandchildren; and one great-grandchild. She was predeceased by her husband, Ronnie, and her brothers Patrick Donal (PD) and Francie.