Peter Barry obituary: Hard-headed politician turned Barry’s Tea into a success

As minister he helped overcome British reluctance during Anglo Irish Agreement talks

Saturday mornings in the Cork city centre grocery store owned by former Fine Gael tánaiste and minister for foreign affairs, Peter Barry, who died on Friday at the age of 88, were always marked by ritual.

At weekends during the 1960s and ‘70s, the hard-headed politician would leave the corridors of power in Leinster House and revert to being one of Cork’s most successful businessmen.

Joining his master tea-taster in the rear of the busy shop in full view of the customers, they would noisily slurp a range of different teas and spit the dregs into a bucket.

This scene was an integral part of the business acumen of a somewhat reserved man who could be equally tough in politics or business. Resembling a vineyard owner tasting wines to be laid down for the future, Barry saw the publicity value of using the weekly spectacle to promote the tea business established in 1901 by his grandfather James J. Barry.


The shop on Princes Street has long since been replaced by a base on the Kinsale Road where the tasting ritual is now carried on by his son Tony, who had his father to guide him as chairman, and now runs the business. He has a 55 per cent stake in the family firm while five others each hold a 9 per cent share.

Merchant prince

The somewhat hackneyed label of “merchant prince” is now more than ever associated with the Barry family, largely because of the former government minister’s achievement in turning the business he inherited from his own father, Anthony (Tony) into a multi-million euro success story.

Barry's Tea is a truly Irish brand that every emigrant wants their mother to put in the proverbial parcel from home.

Knowing that Ireland is a nation of tea drinkers, with one of highest per capita consumptions in the world, Barry pioneered the distribution and wholesaling of tea, first selling it to other shops in Cork, then expanding into the suburbs, and eventually putting it on supermarket shelves throughout the rest of the country.

Keeping ahead of the opposition as its popularity grew, the group made a profit of €13.7 million in 2003. Employing over 70 people, the firm claims it now has around 40 per cent of the Irish tea market, putting the company’s turnover at more than €30 million a year.

However, as the company is controlled through several unlimited entities, it is not obliged to file financial information.

Despite his wealth, Barry was not given to flamboyance. Few people in Cork were aware, for instance, that he and his wife Margaret, who died in 2013, took rooms every year in a quiet hotel on the French riviera and brought the entire family there on holiday.

In 2007, their six children also realised €41 million between them from a distribution of assets, with each getting an equal nest egg of almost €7 million, following a reorganisation of the tea company.

The beneficiaries of the distribution were: Tony Barry, Deirdre Clune, Donagh, Conor , Peter jnr and their sister Fiona MacCarthy.

Cut his political teeth

Remarkably, Barry’s success as a businessman was more than matched by his achievements in a lifetime devoted to politics and the Fine Gael party. In the time-honoured tradition of family dynasties, he cut his political teeth on the doorsteps of Cork city, canvassing on the hustings, first in local elections and then in the hunt for a Dáil seat for his father, who was also a successful businessman.

In 1934, Anthony Barry was awarded the Empire Cup for tea blending, confirming his expertise in the trade.

With politics stamped on Barry’s DNA, it was only natural that he would follow his father into the council chamber at City Hall where he too was expected to wear the lord mayor’s gold chain which Anthony had worn and then follow him into Dáil Éireann.

Bringing his own children on the canvass, Barry duly won a council seat, became lord mayor of Cork and was then elected as a TD in the 1969 general election. His daughter, Deirdre Clune, also inherited the political gene, becoming the third generation to sit in the lord mayor’s chair and replacing him in Dáil Éireann when he retired from active politics.

Now an MEP, she famously told delegates at the 2014 selection convention : “I was born with a Fine Gael membership card in my hand and grew up in a house steeped in Fine Gael and its politics.”

When he was granted the Freedom of Cork in 2010, Barry was described as “unquestionably the best taoiseach this country nearly had”. Then aged 82, despite a handful of token objections, it was clear that respect for him crossed the political divide.

As lord mayor Dara Murphy put it: "In Peter Barry I believe we have a man that embodies all that is best about Cork people. We put great stock in Cork in family business. There probably is no family business that sums up Cork better than Barry's Tea. We are very proud of that sense of tradition."

Sense of tradition

Having been elected on the Fine Gael ticket as TD for the Cork city South East constituency in the1969 general election, he went on to hold his Dáil seat for 28 years. When Fine Gael regained power in the 1973 general election, he was appointed minister for transport and power by taoiseach Liam Cosgrave.

What seemed to be a somewhat easy looking job suddenly became a political hot potato when a global oil crisis blew up. Arab producers, seeking higher prices, simply imposed a blanket embargo on oil exports to Europe and the US. Without warning, Barry and Ireland were catapulted into the eye of the storm when tankers began moving crude oil from the Gulf terminal on Whiddy Island in Bantry Bay to oil-starved refineries on the continent. At a regular briefing of reporters at his home, the minister admitted he was powerless to stop the oil shipments.

In 1976 he became minister for education and three years later was elected deputy leader of the party with Garret FitzGerald as Fine Gael leader. From 1981 to 1982, Barry served as minister for the environment and was then appointed by FitzGerald as minister for foreign affairs, a post he held for five years.

Any analysis of his strong handling of that vital role, must acknowledge the importance of his service to Ireland, North and South, in the course of extremely difficult negotiations which culminated in the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985.

Anglo-Irish Agreement

In a bizarre twist to the 1986 Northern by-elections, triggered when the 15 Unionist members of the Westminster parliament resigned in protest at the Anglo-Irish Agreement, Wesley Robert Williamson changed his name by deed poll to Peter Barry and stood in each of the four constituencies in order to guarantee a contest. Despite not campaigning, he won over 6,000 votes.

As well as being the first joint chairman of the Anglo-Irish Inter-Governmental Conference formed by the Irish and British governments, Barry was a key member of the FitzGerald team of negotiators and rightly shares in the legacy of the peace process which has transformed the political landscape of modern Ireland.

In 1987, he became tánaiste for a brief spell when the Labour Party withdrew from the coalition government led by Fine Gael in a row over budgetary proposals. When Fine Gael lost 19 seats in the ensuing general election, FitzGerald resigned as party leader, effectively clearing the way for a three-man race in which both Barry and John Bruton lost out to Alan Dukes.

A man who did not forget those who had helped him, he attended the funeral at Carrickmore, Co Tyrone of Mgr Denis Faul whose dying wish was that the IRA would reveal where the "disappeared" were buried so that their remains could be recovered. In the same year, he witnessed history being made when Britain conferred an honorary OBE on the veteran London Editor of the Irish Press, Aidan Hennigan, on "Irish soil", namely the Irish Embassy in London.

Analysts are agreed that it was Peter Barry’s hard-headed leadership as minister for foreign affairs that ensured British reluctance was overcome during the Anglo Irish Agreement negotiations. Ultimately, in political terms, that accord will be his lasting achievement.

Predeceased by his wife, Margaret, he is survived by their children Tony, Deirdre, Donagh, Conor, Peter Jnr, and Fiona.