The Times We Lived In: Selling your soil for Ireland

Published: January 24th, 1984Photograph by Matt Kavanagh

Will you look at the smile on this man? Delighted with himself, so he is, with his little baggies of good old Irish clay.

But not just any clay. Following the historic discovery that the townland of Doolis, near Ballyporeen in Co Tipperary, was the ancestral home of US president Ronald Reagan, local entrepreneurs, including the publican John O’Farrell, came up with the brilliant wheeze of bagging up local soil and selling it to visitors in the Ronald Reagan gift shop.

This, needless to say, all took place before and after the visit of Ronald and Nancy Reagan to Ireland in June 1984. In marketing terms, it's sheer genius. The sloganeering potential alone is almost unlimited. ("Dirt cheap." "Soil be seeing you, sucker." Or, to be brutally frank about the thing, "Sod all".)

As ruses go it was harmless enough. The little packets sold for just 50p, within easy reach of visitors who couldn’t stretch to the souvenir T-shirts or the Ronald Reagan placemats.

Our photograph gives the impression that Mr O’Farrell is a solid sort of man. His sensible tweed jacket and neatly-knotted tie are certainly the attire of somebody you’d be happy to buy a bit of Tipperary from – while the twinkle in his eye suggests he knows the whole “Reagan ancestry” story is probably as hokey as they come, and he knows you know it too.

(Actually, for a moment there, while reading up on the former president’s Star Wars-style bloopers, it was hard not to feel nostalgic for the Ron and Nancy show. But no. The 21st-century world is in a perilous enough state without that “evil empire” rhetoric.)

One way or another, Ballyporeen did Reagan proud. And he responded in kind. The visit to his ancestral home, he declared, had “given my soul a new contentment”.

Soul, soil – ah here. Let’s call the whole thing off.