Hands that changed the barley

 

Social HistoryThis is the fascinating story of John Bennett, the father of Irish barley, his antecedents, his remarkable step-daughter, Dorothy West, and their lives at Ballinacurra, on Cork Harbour, near Midleton.

Combining genetics and Guinness, it will surely take its place in the next edition of Ingenious Ireland (Mary Mulvihill's chronicle of science in Ireland), but be sure it is a book for anyone with an interest in the social and economic history of modern Ireland.

John Bennett (1862-1935) joined his father in 1879 in the long-established family firm, which grew and malted barley on commission for Guinness. On the death of his father he took over the ailing firm, aged just 23. He built a life of family, friends and community, of industry, science and sport, and of public service, in a country townland. His life as a Protestant businessman and farmer spanned the first World War (in which his only son was killed), the Rising, the War of Independence, the foundation of the Irish Free State, the Civil War and the Great Depression. An adaptable unionist, "utterly incapable of bigotry or intolerance", he put his life into the simple idea of "improvement", for the benefit of all around him.

The top people in Guinness realised that young Bennett was a man of principle, a moderniser with an interest in science and agriculture. He kept meticulous records of accounts and yields, of the many miles cycled across the local countryside for business and pleasure, and later of his success in shooting game birds and as a sailor winning big races in Cork Harbour and on the Clyde.

In the late 1800s, many farmers grew barley from their own kept seed. The yields were small, highly variable from plant to plant, and from farm to farm, and dependent on the weather. The native barley, with long stems, was easily knocked over by wind and rain to lodge and rot. Bennett, anticipating the Green Revolution, began to compare the qualities of different seed varieties, growing them on adjacent quarter-acre plots. With support from Guinness and advice from Horace Plunkett's officers at the government's Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction (DATI), these experiments were extended to several farms in Cork and Tipperary, trialling varieties on different soils. Guinness set up an experimental brewery to test the quality of the malt made from different varieties of barley in the different plots. As the benefits of using selected varieties became obvious, Bennett persuaded the local farmers, who supplied him with barley, to use the better varieties, and toured the south of Ireland lecturing on their value.

In 1901, DATI founded a Cereal Breeding Station on Bennett's farm at Ballinacurra, with financial support from Guinness. Herbert Hunter, who had graduated from Leeds University, was appointed in 1904 to work at the Ballinacurra station, in co-operation with Bennett. When Hunter returned to England in 1915, Bennett took charge of the full operation. Success came from the crossing of two varieties, Spratt and Archer, leading in 1912 to a much-improved hybrid, Spratt-Archer. Introduced in 1919, it gradually became the main Irish barley (and was widely sown in Britain) persisting until it was replaced by other Ballinacurra varieties. In due course breeding passed to the Department of Agriculture, though no longer at Ballinacurra.

Hunter went on to become director of the renowned Plant Breeding Institute at Cambridge. The book contains a generous tribute to Bennett by Hunter. Through Hunter, Bennett was linked to Gosset, Pearson and Fisher, key figures in the development of the fields of both statistics and genetics.

When Bennett died in 1935, Dorothy West took over, becoming the only woman known in Europe, or beyond, to be the head of a malting company. She led the firm through the difficult economic conditions of the war and its aftermath, and continued in charge, till her retirement in 1969, when Guinness bought the remaining family shares.

In the 1970s, several originally family- owned Irish malting companies merged and a huge new plant was built in Athy, later to be taken over by Greencore. Bennett's successors in the Irish malting industry now produce more than 700,000 tonnes of malt per year, most of which is exported to countries all over the world. Drink a toast to John Bennett, an amateur geneticist, and have this fine book by his grandson in hand - beautifully designed and bound with evocative illustrations and photographs, recording the life and times of a fine man and his daughter.

David McConnell, a molecular geneticist, is Professor of Genetics at Trinity College Dublin

Malting the Barley: John H Bennett - the Man and His Firm By Trevor West Charleston House, 171pp. € 30