Many a slip twixt Lipton cups

An Irishman’s Diary about the link between a tea tycoon and a 100-year-old soccer trophy

Arts Minister Heather Humphreys unveiling the Lipton Cup. Photograph: Lorraine Teevan

Arts Minister Heather Humphreys unveiling the Lipton Cup. Photograph: Lorraine Teevan


The tea magnate Thomas Lipton was associated with many cups in his time, ranging from the domestic variety his products filled to the great sailing trophy the America’s Cup, which as a yachtsman he became famous for not winning.

But he also once sponsored the silver trophy for an Irish soccer competition, possibly the oldest of its kind. And the recent reemergence of this Lipton Cup shines a light both on the story of the man himself and on the modern history of the country of his ancestors.

Lipton’s parents were from Clones, but moved to Glasgow during the Famine years. Thus the future tycoon was born in 1848 in the notorious Gorbals, where he grew up in abject poverty. But the family opened a small grocery business after a time, and his own flair for business became quickly evident.

Refused a pay increase (from four to five shillings a week) in his late teens, he sailed to New York, and made enough money in a few years there to return to Glasgow and buy his own shop. From then on, his Lipton stores multiplied – there would be hundreds eventually – propelling him en route into the tea business that made his name.

Lipton’s attachment to the land of his parents was a mixture of the emotional and the pragmatic. Of his time in the US, he quipped that he was either “a Scottish Irishman or an Irish Scot, according to the leanings of the company I happen to be in at the moment”.

But much of the food for his stores came from Ireland, via Westport in particular, which at one time was supplying 6,000 hams, 16,000 eggs, 16 tons of bacon and 10 tons of butter every week.

As a wealthy man, he named his residential yacht “Erin”. And the five different vessels with which he tried to win the America’s Cup were each named Shamrock. He was planning a sixth Shamrock, and yet another attempt on the trophy, when he died aged 81.

By then, his obituary in this newspaper had to remind readers that he was a Scot, despite the “popular misconception” of his Irishness. His will underlined the emigrant reality. Unmarried and with no offspring, he left his fortune to the poor of Glasgow, with particular reference to women and children.

There are many stories about Lipton’s marketing genius. One concerns a journey to Ceylon in the late 1880s, when the ship ran into trouble in the Red Sea and had to dump cargo to lighten the load. In the midst of the crisis, he disappeared below deck briefly and returned with a stencil, brush, and paint, before inscribing all the crates to be thrown overboard with “Use Lipton’s Tea”.

Having dispatched these free advertisements to the Arabian coast, he then made sure – once the ship reached port – to be first to telegraph news of its safety back to London, ensuring his name was carried by all the newspapers.

Even his sporting setbacks were turned into good press. So well known did he become, not just for losing in the America’s Cup, but for losing with grace, his US hosts struck a special trophy just for him. The then mayor of New York joked it was for “possibly the world’s worst yacht builder, but absolutely the world’s most cheerful loser”.

As for the aforementioned Lipton Cup – the one for Irish soccer – it was donated to a club in Clones in 1913. The club inaugurated a competition for it, with teams in the Cavan-Monaghan-Fermanagh triangle, during the fateful season of 1913-14. And therein lies the explanation why the trophy was played for only once.

In was won by Enniskillen Corinthians. Then the Great War intervened, and after that the Troubles, then another war, then more Troubles. Somewhere along the way the Lipton Cup went underground, with the idea that it not be played for again until there was peace in the world, or at least this part of it.

The cup passed into the safe-keeping of a Clones solicitor, Joseph Black, and later his son Richard. Then last week, 100 years after August 1914, it re-emerged shining into the light, unveiled at a war commemoration by the new Minister for the Arts, Heather Humphreys.

The immediate future of the trophy – older than the FAI Cup by a decade – is unclear. But the general intention is to press it back into service soon, in some cross-Border competition. Talks are under way to this effect. If I were Clones Football Club, I might also be consulting tea-leaves.


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