The Irish consumer: a strange beast
We take pride in ‘Irish’ goods made overseas but take much local produce for granted. We complain to the wrong people. And it’s brother against brother in the war over two samey teas
Convivial drinking in a pub is grand, despite what the new puritans might have you believe (see also: red fizz, stage left). Photograph: Getty Images
Mr Tayto (capped for Ireland in the Trapattoni era), whose crisps are now owned by Largo Foods
It will surely rain on your parade on St Patrick’s Day. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
Ahead of Ireland’s big day, we thought we would take at look at just some of the ways Irish consumers are unique and a couple of things we think belong to us but probably don’t.
The king of crisps
Mr Tayto has appeared on the cover of critically acclaimed indie records, made his way into the suitcases of generations of our emigrating young and had a theme park designed in his honour.
He now even has a shop in Dublin where crisp sandwiches are selling like hot cakes. But it’s a long way from pop-up shops he was reared.
Mr Tayto was born in a two-room premise on Moore Street in 1954. His father, Joe Murphy, started out with just 500 quid and a van full of crisps that sold for 4p (in the old, old money). In its first year, Tayto sold fewer than 350 bags a day; today it sells more than 500 bags every minute. And every one of them is a miracle of salty goodness – even if they are made by one-time bitter rival Hunky Dorys, having been sold to Largo Foods in 2006 for €62 million.
Incidentally, Tayto also used to be a great way of measuring inflation, as the bags used to feature the price prominently. (What’s the lowest you can remember?) Sadly, that practice was discontinued nearly 20 years ago.
Irish people seem to delight in the “fact” that theirs is the only race in the entire world that thanks bus drivers. There is even an ad that celebrates this. The actual fact, however, is that British people, San Francisco hippies and Aussies – to name just three other countries picked at random – think they that they, too, are the only people in the world who thank their bus drivers.
Are you a Barry’s person or have you the soul of a Lyon? Chances are you’re one or the other, as between them they control nearly 70 per cent of the substantial Irish tea market.
We have a very strong, almost emotional connection to our cuppa and are fiercely loyal to certain brands. But much of that loyalty is misplaced, and the difference between brands is hard to detect.
In the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s, when Irish families were deciding which tea camp they belonged to, quality did differ dramatically.
Such is the uniformity of production now, however, that very few people would be able to distinguish between any of today’s gold-label black tea brands.
We have got a little better at it in recent times, but Irish consumers are, generally speaking, poor complainers. Unless a waiter actually spits in our soup while hitting on our date, we will likely give the thumbs up to the end-of-meal question “was everything okay?”
Some of our problem stems from ignorance. Repeated studies from the body formerly known as the National Consumer Agency (now the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission) show that we complain to the wrong people about the wrong things and at the wrong times.
Another problem is the dismissive way many companies approach the complaints we do make. They put so many obstacles in our way that many of us just give up.
Never mind your fancy-Dan French fries or home fries; you can’t beat proper chipper chips from the likes of Leo Burdock in Dublin city centre, Beshoff’s out in Howth or McDonagh’s in Galway city. They might not be great for you, but proper chipper chips are great all the same.
When was the last time you tasted red lemonade? Or bought it? Chances are it has been a long time, but, despite relatively low sales and the passage of time, most Irish people have a soft spot for this uniquely Irish drink, which served as a mixer for our youths – and, perhaps unwisely, our whiskey.
Cork people also have Tanora. That’s red. And lemonadey. But they probably think it is in some way special in that way that they do.
Who are you coddling?
Okay, so this is a Dublin tradition, but it deserves more attention. Made properly, with fancy sausages and chickpeas and the like, coddle can be a uniquely Irish 21st-century foodstuff. Made with onions, sausages of dubious provenance and potatoes, however, it can be a little on the grim side.
Rain? Who knew?
We have some of the least extreme – and wearingly predictable – weather in the world, but we still manage to obsess about it almost constantly and get caught out by it all the time. If it rains when you’re at a parade in Ireland on St Patrick’s Day (as it surely will), just look around and take note of how many people in the downpour don’t have an umbrella or some kind of rain poncho. Guess how many of them will be Irish? All of them.
Convivial drinking in a pub is grand despite what the new puritans might have you believe. But drinking 12 cans of some class of cheap lager before midday just because it’s St Patrick’s Day is not grand. It is a long way from grand.
Last year, Pricewatch made the mistake of wandering down Grafton Street at about 3pm on the big day and was, frankly, mortified by the bemused looks on tourists’ faces as they tried to navigate their way around fighting teenagers while stepping over mountains of discarded plastic tricolours and rivers of vomit. Sadly, that is only the slightest of exaggerations.
Alongside St Patrick’s Day, Good Friday – when all pubs and off-licences must close by order of God and DeValera – is the other big boozing day for Irish people.
So, on Holy Thursday, queues will form outside drink stores all over the country as citizens prepare for the 24-hour alcohol drought like they were heading into a nuclear winter. Some will give out about the religiously enforced closures; others will say it’s no bad thing to have the pubs closed for a day.
Pricewatch is all in favour of the rule, but only because one Good Friday in Temple Bar we walked past an angry English stag party surrounding their party organiser as he weakly shouted: “Well, I didn’t facking know did I?” We still chuckle at the memory.
What can we say about potatoes? They are the quintessentially Irish vegetable and still a perennial in a world suddenly full of pasta, rice, couscous and quinoa. If you want to make chips, you can’t beat a Maris Piper; when it comes to mash, a rooster can’t be topped. Both work well for roasting. When it come to new potatoes, Queens are your only man.
We also have a soft spot for the ugly Lumper. It was the predominant variety of potato in Ireland before the Great Famine, and in the early 1840s was eaten by 80 per cent of the population. Blight blackened its name and the Lumper all but disappeared until it was rescued a few years ago by Michael McKillop of Glens of Antrim Potatoes. You can find them on the shelves of Marks & Spencer occasionally.
If you see them, buy these potatoes, which neatly straddle the waxy and the floury camps.
Try this: say “Would you put the messages in the press” to anyone not from Ireland and watch as their brows furrow with confusion.
During the boom years, ripping off Irish consumers became something of a sport for international retailers, who dubbed Ireland Treasure Island, so vast were their profits here. They were probably gouging us for generations, but the advent of the web and online shopping laid bare all the higher-than-everywhere-else prices here.
Their cough was softened slightly with the recession and the arrival of discount retailers such as Lidl, Aldi and Ikea. Still, we should always be on our guard: the rip-off merchants haven’t gone away, you know.
Great bales of fire
When it comes to lighting an Irish fire, the briquette is hard to beat. Not only is it one of the very few fuels we actually produce, it is also relatively clean and – critically – you don’t need to be much of a fire-starter to get one going. They are a nightmare to carry, however, and who among us hasn’t had their hands ripped to bits by the plastic orange ties?
We rightly give out about a lot of things, but when it comes to dairy produce, Ireland is one of the best-served countries in the world. Our butter can’t be topped – and not just because of the ads with immortal lines such as “Who’s taking the horse to France?” or “Put a bit of butter on the spuds there, Andre”. And our cheese, while perhaps not as varied or as fancy as what can be found elsewhere in Europe, is also worth celebrating.
And then there is our milk. We take it, and the farmers who produce it, for granted, but to borrow a line from a 1970s health and safety infomercial, wouldn’t you die if anything happened to it?
One of Ray D’Arcy’s last acts on Today FM towards the end of last year was to host a rather wonderful best-in-Ireland competition that celebrated all of the great things about Ireland and Irishness. The programme honoured the country’s best post people, the best neighbours, the best cafes and the best coaches, to name just three categories.
It also found the best sausage in Ireland after a very long, very artery-blocking judging session, which Pricewatch was delighted to be involved in. The winners were John and Marian Shannon from Kiltimagh, Co Mayo. But there are dozens of other great sausage makers in Ireland, and all of them deserve to be celebrated.
Ask many Dublin people what their favourite sausage is and they are sure to say Superquinn’s. The shop is gone but the sausages remain. It is an odd legacy for Feargal Quinn to have.
The Scots might wish to claim white pudding as their own, but we know its roots lie here. It is slightly more tasty and slightly less gruesome than black pudding – made, as it is, without blood – and is that perfect marriage of random bits of pork that we’d rather not think about, oatmeal and salt. Hard to top.
In cider trading
It might not be the best cider in the world, but it is hard to beat a pint bottle of Bulmers and a pint glass filled with ice of a summer’s day.
Never mind your fancy ciabatta or bagels: the white batch loaf smeared in loads of salty butter is a thing of beauty. It might not be entirely great for our health, but it remains the tea of champions.