Last month, Harry was conferred with an honorary doctorate of science by UCD in recognition of his contribution to potato breeding.
When asked how he felt at the time about their successes, Harry says, "I didn't have time to feel, I was too worried about getting money to survive. We were nearly closed down several times. That's why I had to look for funding." This led to the establishment of one of Ireland's longest and most successful public private partnerships, with Irish Potato Marketing (IPM) given exclusive rights to market Teagasc varieties.
"Developing potatoes is a slow and thus expensive business," says Harry. It takes at least 15 years to develop a new variety and at least 20 before it is established.
"You never know when a variety is going to be successful. It could take as much as 100,000 seeds or you might get one out of 100. If anything showed a weakness, you just dumped it and started again," he states, unsentimentally.
Harry says his "memory isn't as good as it was" but one thing he has no problem with is variety numbers, which, rather than name, is how he knows "thousands" of different potatoes.
When asked if he now grows a few spuds himself, his response is matter-of-fact as usual - "too much work." It's easier to get them off Martin (his son who grows a sizeable acreage of potatoes).
As to the potato's rival, pasta, his response is a dismissive "Aah," adding only, "it's not as nourishing."
Harry retired in 2003 at the age of 68. Thus he never had much spare time but did play a bit of rackets (an indoor game like squash in which two players use long rackets). More recently he was playing some golf but has had to put that on hold due to an Achilles problem.
However, Harry is sanguine. "I enjoyed my work and the research programme is on a sound financial footing. No, I don't regret anything."
The origins of the Rooster uber-tuber
Harry Kehoe always believed there should be some significance to the name of a potato. So the quirky story behind his most famous variety, Rooster, is quite fitting.
There comes a point in the development process when the variety need to be tested on-farm and, over 25 years ago, some new red-skinned potatoes were sent to Owen Phelan in Kilkenny.
This is according to Joan Dillon, who was Harry’s assistant in Oakpark for 35 years and is delighted he is getting some due recognition for his achievements.
The Phelans were selling potatoes “fork to table” and, one day, Owen’s father, whom Joan only ever heard referred to as “Mr” Phelan, gave a woman a few potatoes out of a bag that was left over from the trial.
The following week, the woman came back looking for more.
Then she asked Mr Phelan, “what’s their name?”
He hesitated at first, then looked out the window where there was a heap of dung with a red rooster standing on top and just said what popped into his mind, “rooster!”
Joan says the story was the source of great fun within the team but when they thought about it — the potato is bright red, after all — while Harry himself liked the name, so it stuck.
Joan has often been asked if this is what really happened but she says, “I was there through it all.”
Rooster, which has been dubbed the ultimate all-rounder and uber-tuber, is Ireland’s most widely grown potato, accounting for two-thirds of the market.
With yellow flesh and a deep earthy flavour, its smooth skin and uniform shape make it easy to peel. Though floury, it retains its shape on being boiled and is also suitable a range of other uses.
Appropriately enough, Rooster is also Harry’s own favourite brand of spud.