Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the favourite of them all? That is what we set out to find out a couple of weeks back when took to Twitter to see which Irish brands Irish people could simply not imagine the world without?
We received hundreds of responses in just a few hours and what became pretty clear pretty quickly was that there was absolutely no consensus. Don’t get us wrong: certain names came up over and over again – we’re looking at you Kerrygold, Guinness, Tayto, Flahavan’s (the progress oatlets) and Barry’s (or Lyons if you’d rather); but there was nothing that would allow us to declare one product a brand apart.
So we thought we’d widen the debate and ask more people a simple question. If you had to pick just one Irish product from the many thousands that are on our supermarket shelves to survive as all the rest disappeared , what would it be?
Now, we realise such a question might be hard to answer in a vacuum so we figured we’d round up some of the usual suspects to help you out. So here, in no particular order, are some of the Irish brands Pricewatch and its Twitter followers think you should consider.
Flahavan's: These aren't just any oatlets, they are progress oatlets. And it is a real family business unlike – say – Guinness, which has not been a family enterprise for generations. The Flahavan family connection to porridge goes all the way back to 1785, when Thomas Dunn took over an oat mill in Waterford. Dunn was the great-great-great-grandfather of John Flahavan, the managing director of the company today. If there is a more Irish company – or a company that makes better porridge – we've not come across it.
But we realise this is all incidental and what you really, really want to know is why they are called progress oatlets. We contacted the company and a spokeswoman explained that Flahavan’s added a new and innovative technology to their mill in the 1930s which “allowed them to created rolled oats. This new product was hailed as extremely “progressive” at the time as cut down the cooking time of porridge from approximately 30 minutes to just five minutes, hence the name progress oatlets”. You. Are. Welcome.
Kerrygold: This brand is proof that not all butters are created equally and over the last 40 years – thanks to its salty, creamy goodness and a whole string of memorable and occasionally racy ad campaigns – it has become more a part of who we are as a nation than any butter should rightly be. But did you know it was created by Anthony O'Reilly in 1962 when he was the head of what used to be known as An Bord Bainne. The Kerrygold brand name was selected from a not so short list of 60 and was initially launched in the UK and only started appearing on shelves in the Republic in 1973.
While Kerrygold is synonymous with butter in this country – and, depending on your age, the Aga Khan trophy – it makes and exports all manner of products from milk powder to booze. It even has a street renamed in its honour in the west German town of Neukirchen-Vluyn.
Guinness: We were not sure if we should be delighted or saddened that one brand many, many people instantly identified with Ireland, one they said they would struggle to live without was alcoholic in nature. But then we figured that as this is a celebratory piece we'd go with delighted. As you no doubt know, Arthur Guinness signed a 9,000 year lease for the four-acre site that would become the St James's Gate brewery in 1759 and agreed to pay an annual rent of £45. You might not know that initially Arthur made only ale and he was more than 10 years into his enterprise before he even heard of porter – an English beer invented in London in 1722 .
In the 1770s he started making it in Dublin and in 1799 he stopped brewing ale altogether. Fast forward to 1997 when Guinness merged with Grand Metropolitan in a £24 billion deal and became Diageo. What does Diageo mean? It comes from the Latin word for "day" and the Greek word for "world" and was so chosen – the company says – "because every day, around the world, millions of people enjoy the company's brands". Stout is sold in more than 150 countries, with 10 million glasses downed every day.
Obviously, when it comes to booze, Guinness is not the only game in town and there are also Harp, Smithwicks, Bass, Beamish, Murphy’s, Bushmills, Paddy, Powers, Jameson, Bulmers . . . You get the picture.
Tayto: Ah, Mr Tayto. What a man. He has appeared on the cover of critically acclaimed indie records (Julian Gough's Toasted Heretic), made his way into the suitcases of generations of our emigrating young, had a theme park designed in his honour, has popped up in shops where crisp sandwiches sold like hotcakes and for generations was used as a reliable measure of inflation (back when prices appeared on packets).
He was born in a two-room premises on Dublin's 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. They are made by one-time bitter rival Hunky Dorys, having been sold to Largo Foods in 2006 for €62 million.
Lyons and Barry's: Are you a Barry's person or little Lyons man/woman? Chances are you're one or the other, as between them they control nearly 70 per cent of the substantial Irish tea market. For the sake of full disclosure, Pricewatch should say that it spent much of its childhood in Cork so was reared on Barry's. Other people swear by Lyons even of it is owned by Unilever, and the tea is packaged in a PG Tips plant in Manchester.
Have you ever wondered why Irish tea is so good when compared with the tea found elsewhere in the world? Well, here’s the answer. Just before the start of the second World War, Ireland was, per capita, the third-highest tea-consuming nation in the world. The Free State imported more than 11 million kilograms of tea through London’s tea market every year.
With war came export controls and we lost 75 per cent of our supply of tea. The Irish minister for supplies, Seán Lemass, set up a new importing agency that could store up to two years' worth of the dried leaves. Tea Importers Ltd insisted Irish tea makers dealt directly with producers in countries of origin. So Irish tea merchants started travelling, and quickly they found that darker teas from east Africa – as opposed to the lighter Indian and Sri Lankan leaves popular in England – went down a treat here. Tea Importers then got into the lending game and renamed itself the Irish Bank of Commerce in the early 1970s, and then Anglo Irish Bank Corporation a few years later.
TK Red Lemonade: TK Red Lemonade was a pioneer in the soft drink market in Ireland and was set up in 1888. It has been a long, long time since Pricewatch tasted it and we have absolutely no idea what is in it , or what makes it red. The ingredient list tells us little, apart from the fact that it is a long, long way from Mother Nature this product was reared.
It is made with carbonated water, sugar, citric acid, flavourings, potassium sorbate, aspartame, saccharin and – critically – colours: "Sunset Yellow, Quinoline Yellow, Carmoisine, Green S". Yum. We were alarmed when we saw the Tesco a safety warning, which reads: "Sunset Yellow, Quinoline Yellow, Carmoisine may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children." A little more research (looking it up on Wikipedia) and we found that in 2008, the Food Standards Agency of the UK asked food manufacturers to voluntarily stop using six food additive colours, Tartrazine, Allura Red, Ponceau 4R, Quinoline Yellow WS, Sunset Yellow and Carmoisine. They were known as the Southampton Six. Then in 2010 a European Union regulation said food manufacturers must include a label on foods containing the Southampton Six stating: "May have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children."
Sudocrem: In 1931, Thomas Smith, a pharmacist in the Liberties area of Dublin, invented a cream to treat nappy rash, eczema, pressure sores and all manner of other minor skin lesions. Initially he called it Smith's Cream. Then, no doubt realising that that was a terrible name, he called it Soothing Cream. Dubliners struggled with the pronunciation of the "th" (or so the story goes), so it became known, first unofficially and then officially as Sudocrem. In the 1970s it was launched in the UK and quickly became the market leader for nappy rash cream there as it was here. It is now available in more than 40 countries. And is still made in Dublin.
WaterWipes: This is a much newer brand that operates in a not dissimilar realm to Sudocrem. It might have less history – it is only nine years old – but its potential is massive because of its chemical-free nature (it is made with 99.9 per cent water and grapefruit seed extract) so can be used on the skin of newborns. It is already the market-leading wipe in Ireland and available in 33 countries from the US to China. It was invented by Edward McCloskey after the birth of his first daughter, who developed bad nappy rash. That prompted him to look at the ingredients in the wipes he was using and he was horrified to see all manner of chemicals listed so, spent years making a better alternative from his Irish Breeze operation in Drogheda.
MiWadi: Have you ever wondered how MiWadi got its name? Us neither. It turns out that its name was an the abbreviated name of Mineral Water Distributors, a company formed in 1927 in Nassau Place in Dublin. Under the C&C name it also made Club Orange. It was massive in Ireland in the 1970s when Fancy-Dan soft drinks such as Coca-Cola and Cidona (another great Irish brand, incidentally) were served only at Christmas – at least in the Pricewatch house – but sales declined in the 1980s and 1990s. The good news for the brand – thanks to its reimagining as a sugar-free drink and the (tiny bit irritating) slogan – "It's not your wadi, it's MiWadi" – it has seen a resurgence in recent years and is now top of the cordial pile in Ireland once again.
Avonmore: Irish milk is the best milk in the world. Fact. Well, we can't say for sure it is actually a fact but thanks to our happy, grass-fed cows it is the best milk we have ever tasted. People have a loyalty to particular brands depending on where they are in the country but this brand earns its mention because it is the biggest brand in the country. The Avonmore Creameries Federation was set up in 1966 when 36 smaller co-ops joined forces. They built a milk-processing facility in Ballyragget, close to the Avon river from which it gets its name.
While Avonmore may be number one, we do also love Glenisk (for making organic almost commonplace in our supermarket's dairy sections) and Glenilen (for making the best yoghurt we have ever tasted).
Ryanair: What can we say? It is not the most lovable brand that has ever emerged for our island but it has had a much bigger impact on all our lives – and in a largely positive way – than any of the others. We delved into its history last week – recent and not so recent, good and not so good – last week, so we'll not revisit that. We will say that there was a time when air travel was the preserve of the super wealthy . Today anyone with a tenner can afford a flight somewhere.
Chupi: Ireland is lucky to have many great jewellery designers – Alan Ardiff and Elena Brennan to name just two – but we have long had a soft spot for the work of Chupi Sweetman. The stuff she makes is brilliantly unique and we love her reliance on "wild and natural things" found all over the Irish landscape. He signature piece is the I Can Fly Swan Feather ring cast in solid silver and plated in 18k gold "from a delicate swan feather found along the banks of Dublin's Royal Canal"; and there are twig rings which have at their core small hawthorn branches found in our forests. Everything is designed, manufactured and finished in Ireland.
Jacobs: Kimberley, Mikado, Coconut Cream and Fig Rolls are almost certainly the most nostalgia-filled biscuits on the Irish market. Jacobs made its last biscuits in Ireland 2009, after which the manufacturing moved overseas, but the legacy of the brand lives on. It was set up in Waterford in 1851 by two Quaker brothers, William and Robert Jacob, and moved to Dublin's Bishop Street – a site which was occupied by rebels in the Easter Rising. It merged with Boland's – another biscuit site occupied by rebels in the 1916 Rising – in the 1970s and then everything was transferred to Tallaght. Rosie Hackett – of the bridge fame – was a union organiser at Jacobs and was sacked by the company for her role in the 1913 Lockout. If she knew how the company got the figs into the fig rolls she never told anyone.
Avoca: Outside of the religious and educational spheres, this must sure be the oldest business in Ireland that is still operating? It started life in Avoca, Co Wicklow – shocker – and has the oldest working woollen mill in Ireland, dating all the way back to 1723. For two centuries it weaved away until it was taken on by three Wynne sisters in the 1920s. They brought a dash of colour to proceedings and the company took off, making waistcoats for King George VI and baby blankets for the British royals no less. Then, in the 1970s, Avoca fell on hard times. It faced closure until it was bought by Donald Pratt, a solicitor engaged to handle the sale of the mill. It has grown and grown since then, and, along with all the fancy throws, sells clothes, jewellery, brilliant gifts and gorgeous food .
Batchelors Beans: Ah do you remember Beany and Barney? "It ain't what you do it's the way that you do it. And Batchelors do it best," they used to sing. And they were right. Well, Heinz baked beans are pretty good too, to be fair. Beany and Barney were voiced by actors Chris Curran and Frank Kelly. Kelly was – obviously – Fr Jack in Father Ted but you may not know that Curran played the role of Fr Jim Johnson, Jack's similarly drunken equivalent on Rugged Island.
And all the rest: it is only when you start thinking about it that you realise how many unique brands we have in this country and we've not had time to talk about Johnston Mooney & O'Brien – and their deadly batch bread, HB (or Hazelbrook Farm as millennials might recognise it). There is the always brilliant people at Ballymaloe, the Clonakilty sausage folk. But what do you reckon? If you were to pick just one brand what would it be? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will come back to it.