Made in Ireland? Probably not

Sat, Sep 1, 2012, 01:00

You might think it would be a doddle to travel around Ireland using only Irish transport, eating only Irish food, wearing only Irish clothes and listening to music played only on Irish instruments. You would be very wrong.

IS IT POSSIBLE to survive on Irish-made produce alone? I decided to put it to the test, to set myself the challenge of using only Irish transport, eating only Irish food and wearing only Irish clothes for a new TG4 series, Déanta in Éirinn. How hard could it be?

I would first need transport, but when I turned up at Heuston Station the Iarnród Éireann spokesman told me the company hadn’t built anything for more than 30 years. Most of the fleet now comes from South Korea, he said, as well as Germany and Spain.

A decade ago I could have hopped on to an Irish bus with ease, but it’s much harder now that much of the fleet is made in six other European countries, with only a few Irish buses manufactured by Wrightbus, in Ballymena.

I considered a bike, until I learned that Raleigh closed its Dublin factory here in 1980 when it realised it could supply the entire Irish market from its Nottingham plant.

The world’s first mass-produced private transport, the Model T Ford, was built in Cork from 1923 to 1927, and I could have got myself a Cork-built Ford until 1984, when cheaper competition from abroad closed the factory.

I heard rumours of a fish-tailed 1950s roadster, the Shamrock, built in Castleblayney, Co Monaghan, and eventually tracked one of the four remaining specimens to Drogheda, but I couldn’t get a loan of it. I considered the TMC-Costin, Ireland’s greatest sports car, made in Wexford in the 1980s, but the few that remain are mostly kitted out for racetracks.

I was beginning to despair. There had to be a car that was 100 per cent made in Ireland. A car that still exists and could take me around the country in all its Celtic glory. And there is, but I had been looking in the wrong place, focusing on the past when I ought to have gone back to the future.

The DeLorean DMC-12 is not only an Irish-made car but also one of the most beautiful in the space-time continuum. Between 1981 and 1983, 9,000 of these aluminium angels were produced in Belfast, and I managed to get hold of one of them. My journey could begin – once I found some Irish fuel.

The environmentalist and broadcaster Duncan Stewart told me that while it was entirely feasible for Ireland to produce all its own transport fuel using anaerobic digesters to create biogas from farm slurry, grass and food waste, none is commercially available.

Anaerobic digesters are already widely used in China and Africa. Biomethane fuels 13 million vehicles in Europe, including most of Stockholm’s buses. But in Ireland I must either hitch the DeLorean to a donkey or compromise my ideals and buy some foreign petrol.

As hunger struck, I turned to the supermarket for some Irish food and realised just how complicated this was going to be. Packets of almonds and coconut were labelled Guaranteed Irish. Irish coconuts? Some of the coffee even boasted a Love Irish Food label.

Further reading revealed that most Boyne Valley honey isn’t Irish (though some is) and that some Donegal Catch is actually farmed off Chile. Little of it is caught in waters off Donegal.

The colourful Siúcra packaging still looks reassuringly Irish, apart from the line “Packed in the UK for Nordzucker”. The closure of the Irish sugar-beet processing factories dealt a blow to our food independence and a further blow to my consumption of anything sweet on this pilgrimage. We’ve been making jam in Ireland for thousands of years, yet while we still have oodles of fruit, the sugar now needs to be imported.

To ease my sugar cravings I went for a pint, but just as I was bringing the Guinness to my lips I began to question the Irishness of this quintessentially Irish drink. The master brewer at St James’s Gate reassured me that the barley, the yeast and water were Irish but said that the hops came from Australia, the US and Germany. So Guinness was out.

I thought wine would be too until I heard about David Llewellyn’s vineyard, in north Co Dublin, producing rich full-bodied wines from Rondo grapes, which thrive in northern Europe. That was when it dawned on me that if I was to enjoy this trip at all I would have to look to artisan food producers.

I turned my trusty DeLorean towards the People’s Republic of Cork and the Mahon Point farmers’ market, on the city’s outskirts, at which 48 out of the 50 stalls sold Irish food made with Irish ingredients. There was even mozzarella made from Irish buffalo milk.

Fingal Ferguson’s salamis and chorizo were made with his own pork and herbs grown by his sister, Clovisse (with some imported spices). Ferguson is the son of Giana Ferguson, who founded Gubeen, the Irish cheese that helped kick-start our pride in indigenous produce.

BACK IN DUBLIN, Ed Hick of Dún Laoghaire made me sausages with pork and venison from Wicklow, sloes from the Dublin mountains, sea salt from west Cork and peppery Alexander seeds from Inis Meáin. But he warned me that elsewhere I couldn’t be sure meat products labelled Made in Ireland were made with Irish meat. How could I tell? The only real way, he said, was to get to know your supplier: know your butcher’s first name and get him to look you in the eye when he sells it to you.

Hick sells his sausages to Chapter One, Ross Lewis’s Michelin-starred restaurant, which uses almost 80 per cent Irish produce. An impressive figure, but not many people can afford to dine there no a nightly basis. And, in general, all this high-end, artisan stuff can be expensive and difficult to find.

How did the likes of Burger King and Supermac’s fare? Well, they use a large amount of Irish produce. The beef, the chicken, the baps and the lettuce are all Irish. The one problem is with the chips. Ireland imports 50,000 tonnes of British potatoes a year, and potato production fell by 16 per cent here last year. Burger King’s chips come from the Netherlands, and Supermac’s are Belgian, according to the companies.

MEANWHILE, I STILL hadn’t clad myself and was getting cold. I turned to Dunnes Stores, which prides itself on its Irishness, but despite repeated efforts by the production company, the spokespeople wouldn’t say whether it stocked any Irish clothes.

I tried Penneys, whose marketing department proved equally tight-lipped. No other high-street shop proved any better. I did find some Paul Costelloe suits, which excited me until I learned that he is now based in London.

Eventually, I decided to get some tweed, so went to Magee in Co Donegal, which has been making clothes since 1866. It stocked some beautiful Irish linen jackets and tweed trousers but said its products are now manufactured in Morocco using Irish fabric. Magee claims it kept the work in Ireland longer than was economically viable, and that to have continued would have been to risk the future of the business. A pair of Magee trousers costs €190. I bought nice linen shirts made entirely in Donegal, as well as a tweed cap, knitted socks and a cardigan, so from the waist up I was Irish clad, just naked below.

In Dublin, Louis Copeland offered to hide my blushes by getting his tailors to sew me a suit using Magee tweed, but it would cost €900. When Copeland’s father ran the shop 90 per cent of the stock was Irish and he employed 30 tailors.

Even as recently as 10 years ago the Irish clothing industry turned over more than €800 million a year, with almost 300 companies, but the lifting of quotas on clothing imports from developing countries meant that the Irish market was flooded with cheap imports. Since 2008 Ireland has imported more than €2.5 billion worth of foreign clothes. There is no way Irish companies can compete.

Yet, lest we get nostalgic, it’s important to remember that the quality, choice and affordability have improved exponentially from the drab, dreary fare on offer when Irish companies controlled the market.

I STILL NEEDED SHOES, which I thought would be easily got from Dubarry, Boylan’s or Clarks, but all these factories have now stopped producing in Ireland. In 1971 5,700 people worked in shoe manufacturing: now fewer than 60 do. Whelan’s shoes in Cootehill, Co Cavan, still makes Drifters and Irish dancing shoes; they are beautifully made but not what I wanted for everyday use.

I went to Naas, in Co Kildare, where the Tutty family have been making footwear since 1946. George Tutty was able to make me a fine pair of shoes for €400, although even he couldn’t guarantee the leather was Irish, as Ireland no longer has any tanneries, he said. All our cattle hides are now exported.

Jen Kelly, a Dublin-based clothes designer whose clients include princesses, passionately believes Ireland could become a great high-end clothing producer again. He showed me some lush velvet from Thomastown, in Co Kilkenny. It was decorated with gold and silver leaf and had been made for the king of Morocco.

The textile trade used to employ 40,000 people as glovemakers, knitters, lacemakers and weavers, but now it employs fewer than 4,000, says Kelly. And while traditional skills are being lost here, the fashion houses of Paris are investing vast sums to revive them.

If our clothing factories and firms were revitalised, then major Irish designers with international reputations could have their work manufactured here.

Looking for Irish entertainment, I tried going to an Irish session until I learned that a lot of traditional music is now played on foreign instruments. Pakistani flutes are flooding the market, but they don’t sound the sweetest. Uilleann pipes and bodhráns are coming in from China. Good musicians still invest in Irish instruments, but young players tend toward inferior imports.

Even hurling can no longer be enjoyed by a Déanta in Éirinn zealot, as almost all sliotars come from China and Pakistan, and some hurls too. Some hurls are brought in from Poland, in addition to the Irish-made versions.

My reading matter, I realised, would be restricted also, as Irish newspapers are printed only partially on recycled Irish paper, and many of our great authors use publishers abroad, although Pat McCabe kindly offered to write me a story with a quill and squid ink.

Michael O’Doherty, the publisher of Kiss, TV Now, Stellar and VIP, continued printing his magazines in Ireland even after receiving cheaper offers from British printers, until eventually they made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. I asked him why he had held out for so long, why buying Irish was so critical.

“It’s a simple circle,” he said. “We get revenues from our wholesalers for having sold magazines, and I pay staff wages with that once a month. They go down town and spend their wages in Irish shops on Irish goods. And the people who work in the shops and get their salaries from that then go out in the evening and buy my magazines, and it comes back.”

It really is that simple. If everything Irish could be as wonderful as my DeLorean, my Tutty’s shoes or the Gubeen salami, and if Irish goods weren’t so difficult to find, I’d never buy an imported product again. But, for the moment, all I can think of right now is that I want something sugary and I want it now.

The four-part series Déanta in Éirinn starts on TG4 on Thursday, September 13th, at 10pm

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