You may not be immediately familiar with the name John Joseph Silke, but you will know his legacy. Kerrs Pink are just one of the varieties of potato that he introduced to Donegal in the early 20th century.
“My father was sent here in 1914,” said the Very Rev. John J. Silke, dean of the diocese of Raphoe. “He would find out what farmers could do, and encourage them and show them. He found the climate here very conducive to the growth of potatoes.” Mr Silke was instrumental in developing the Irish potato industry of the early 20th century.
“He went for the British chip trade,” Father Silke recalled, saying that his father also developed markets for Irish potatoes in Malta, Cyprus and North Africa. JJ Silke also grew a world-record yield of potatoes, more than 35 tons per statute acre in 1929; and was the only Irish man ever to win the Lord Derby Gold Medal, which he did in 1944 for the Doon Eire potato.
“He was always on the look out for new variety,” Father Silke said. Mr. Silke had begun by distributing Scottish seed to Donegal smallholders, travelling by light railway and bicycle. “He was a remarkable man,” his son said.
Last month, Bishop Philip Boyce, bishop of Raphoe, launched Father Silke’s new book, “From Courleigh to Creeslough: J.J. Silke and the Irish Seed Potato Industry”. On the same day Bishop Boyce also launched a new book by Father Silke, diocesan archivist; and Moira Hughes, assistant archivist, called “Raphoe Miscellany 1”. The compilation details the early foundations of the diocese and Donegal more generally.
“We have a good deal of material and we thought why not make it available to the public?” Moira said. The diocesan library and archive are private collections, but are open to the public by appointment. They are located directly behind the bishop’s residence and offices in Letterkenny, in what had been the old coach house.
JJ Silke was a County Kilkenny man who was sent to Donegal in 1914 and married a Donegal woman two years later. Father Silke, born in Creeslough, is the last surviving Silke sibling of four boys and two girls. He attended St. Eunan’s College in Letterkenny and seminary in Maynooth. He was not particularly interested in history at Maynooth but later was sent to University College Dublin for further studies. There he worked with history Professor Robin Dudley Edwards.
“I’ve been working at it since,” he said. “I’ve spent a lifetime working on these things.”
In all, Father Silke has written more than 20 books and articles on many subjects, from Reformation in the Armagh Province, to Kinsale: The Spanish Intervention in Ireland at the End of the Elizabethan Wars, to Irish Scholarship and the Renaissance. He has written a guide to subjects of particular Irish interest in Rome, and a book on Donegal churches.
During his career Father Silke also taught at Manhattan College in New York City, was an archivist to the Irish College in Rome and parish priest in Glenswilly, among other postings in Ireland and abroad.
Father Silke has an historian’s ease with storytelling and detail. As he and Moira guide a visitor around display cabinets, they move easily from the provenance of one item to the next, from one century to another. The cabinets hold a Stone Age arrowhead and a flint, thousands of years old. There are heavy, episcopal rings of far more recent centuries, holding the bishop’s traditional amethyst.
A golden ring from the early 1560s, with a delicate engraving of the Holy Family, belonged to Bishop Domnall MacConghail, a Killybegs man. The ring was found in a bog outside Glenties and presented to the bishop of Raphoe in the early 1900s. There are ceremonial, decorative trowels marking new churches, an 18th-century penal cross and other crosses containing holy relics.
There is Colmcille’s Chalice, a squarish, hand-sized piece of basalt with a cup in the centre about the size of a tennis ball. Round imprints on the four sides may have been jewelled, Moira explained. A priest brought the chalice from Tory Island to the bishop in 1915.
The diocesan archive arrived in its current spot in 1995, though Father Silke had been collecting before that, retrieving Raphoe materials that had been housed in Armagh and other locations. Moira joined the staff in 2001, and the staff now includes librarian Marie Fanning, Fás worker Jenny O’Neill and Paddy Friel, who volunteers his services after working professionally at the National Archives in Dublin. Father Lorcan Sharkey, now parish priest at Glenfin, also worked in the archives for a number of years
They are currently cataloguing and summarising correspondence to Raphoe’s bishops, a collection that dates back to the mid-19th century. There is never a shortage of projects. Father Silke and Moira said the archive has received strong support from Bishop Boyce. In 2008, they received 100,000 euro from the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism under the National Development Plan, 2007-2013, after Father Silke made a direct appeal to then-Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern. The funds were used to develop the first-floor library, to provide the special conditions needed to store documents and oversized Ordnance Survey maps, and to introduce book-binding facilities.
Mr. Ahern’s office had contacted Father Silke to ask him to speak at an event marking the Flight of the Earls. Father Silke politely sent his regrets, but in his correspondence he told the taoiseach what they were doing at the archive and how much money they needed to advance their work. “It works to go to the top,” he said, and grinned.
Father Silke is in his element, working with the staff to bring order to these compelling pieces of Donegal history.
“I’ve been at it all my life,” he said.
“From Courleigh to Creeslough: J.J. Silke and the Irish Seed Potato Industry” and “Raphoe Miscellany 1” are available at the Books Direct shop in the Letterkenny Shopping Centre and local shops around the county, at the Ards Friary Bookshop and at the diocesan archive, which is open from 10.30am to 5pm, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. The archive can be reached by phone, 074 9121208, and email, firstname.lastname@example.org.