The not-so-great and the not-so-good, no. 29: Joe “Spud” Murphy

As for the numbering of this irregular series: E&OE.

To be fair, the only “not-so-good” in this post belongs to the (ig)noble Montagu family. Well, OK: a certain Taoiseach gets a mention  — but, thanks to the competition among the holders of that office, he is squeezed out of the medal places for blackguardry. Beyond that …

And, no, it’s not April Fool’s Day.

In 1954: the world changed

Seamus Burke invented the cheese-and-onion crisp.

He did so at the behest of Joseph Murphy, a go-getting Dublin entrepreneur who deserves his place alongside the Tony O’Reillys and Michael O’Learys. But Joe Murphy got there before either of those luminaries.

Joe sprang from Dublin “trade”: his father ran the builder’s business, his mother the retail side with a paint shop. His education was the Synge Street Christian Brothers, which was to south Dublin’s inner city as Eton was to the English rolling acres: it was a tougher number, but the students were better people.

A Malcolmian aside

Put it like this: in recent years Synge Street CBS worked out why so few of its boys were applying for university entrance though the Central Applications Office — entries had to be made in January, when post-Christmas parents were strapped for cash.

Solution: Con Creedon, a past pupil, made a legacy, and the trust fund provides scholarships. Now nearly 60% of Synge Street boys are getting the Leaving Certificate points and going on to tertiary education.

Eat your heart and your ‘academies’ out, Mickey Gove. 

Sinning

When he left school, in his mid-teens (a sign of ambition in itself: too many Dublin lads towards the end of the 1930s — and later — had left school far younger), he went into the storeroom and then behind the counter of James J Fox & Co, conveniently across the road from Trinity’s Front Gate and the Bank of Ireland. During Malcolm’s Trinity years, Dear Old Dad prompted a once-a-year visit for a Christmas present (usually a briar pipe).

That move in retail was a decided move by Joe: the family already had two of his brothers in the priesthood, and that would have been a natural career move for an upwardly-mobile CBS boy. “To hell with this,” he allegedly declared, “we need one sinner in the family.”

The deep fat fryers of O’Rahilly’s Parade

O’Rahilly’s Parade is off Moore Street, Dublin, a bullet’s shot from the GPO, noted for two events (only one of which seems publicly memorialised).

It is named for the Director of Arms of the Irish Volunteers, Mícheál  Ó Rathaille. Ó Rathaille claimed the headship of his clan, and insisted therefore he was The O’Rahilly. On the Friday of Easter Week, O’Rahilly volunteered to reconnoitre an escape route out of the GPO. He was either mown down by British gun-fire in (then) Sackville Lane), or died of wounds much later through intentional British neglect.

Anyway, in O’Rahilly Parade, the other legend — that of Joe “Spud” Murphy — took shape. Already he was on the up: he had realised that Ribena was not available in the Republic, so he imported it. Ball-point pens were another (for Dublin) innovatory line. By then he had a van and eight employees. He had an addiction to the potato crisp, and he had his wife — officially Bernadette, but always “Bunny” — slicing potatoes, to fry them in a couple of deep-fat fryers. Even Murphy’s prodigious appetite could not keep up with the production, and so the notion came to market the surplus.

Findlaters, the grocers to Dublin’s ton, were already taking Murphy’s Ribena and other products and imports, and agreed to market his crisps — which were now officially Tayto Crisps (again, allegedly, because that was how Murphy’s infant son called them). Murphy’s genius for marketing had the packets emblazoned with Mr Tayto, whom we met, above.

Now flavoured!

This was a time when all crisps came in two flavours: unsalted and salted — consumer choice involved locating the small screw of salt in each packet, adding it to the other contents, and shaking the bag. Decades on, reinventing the blue salt sachet was to be another marketing break-through.

This was not good enough for Joe: like Alexander the Great, he yearned for new worlds to conquer. So, Seamus Burke experimented with a kitchen table of condiments and additives, until — ta-rah! — Joe was satisfied with the cheese-and-onion variant. This was released upon an unsuspecting world in 1954, and Joe’s fortune was made.

Well-shod Joe, not from Hannibal, MO

By the start of the 1960s Joe was a millionaire, and being hailed by Seanie Lemass as the epitome of Irish drive and success.

The Tayto neon sign guided South Dubliners back to safety from forays across O’Connell Bridge. There was a regular sponsored Tayto programme, and insistent ad-spots, on Raidió Éireann. Joe wafted around the city in his Rolls-Royce (never more than two years old). Valet-parking it for Joe was an opportunity to double a flunkey’s weekly wage. He was a universal Mr Affability.

Joe never really got the hang of his wealth. He would arrive at an outfitters — Brown Thomas or Switzers in those good times when they faced each other off across Grafton Street — and ask to see shirts or (a particular favourite) cashmere golfing sweaters  — both of which he had like Imelda Marcos had shoes. He avoided decisions of colour or cut by ordering the lot presented to him.

Expansion and retirement

Tayto continued to grow, buying up other manufacturers, and was employing 300 by the start of the 1970s. Tayto even crossed the Border: the Castle at Tandragee, County Armagh, became Tayto Castle. This had been the seat of the Dukes of Manchester (their other pad was Kimbolton Castle) until the 9th Duke went broke, retired to hunt heiresses in the USA, and survive as a con-man. The Castle was requisitioned for military use, and suffered further indignities at the hands of the US Cavalry, until Tommy Hutchinson bought it in 1955.

By now the Tayto empire was being stalked by international predators: a Chicago food group had a stake as early as 1964. By 1983, Joe celebrated becoming sixty by selling out and retiring to Spain. He continued to decorate the golf-courses around Marbella, in his cashmere sweaters, and to delight the pro shops by constantly updating his clubs, until his death in late 2001.

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5 Comments

Filed under advertising., Dublin., History

5 responses to “The not-so-great and the not-so-good, no. 29: Joe “Spud” Murphy

  1. Pingback: Bram Stoker - Born 8th November 1847. - Page 6

  2. Pingback: Browne study | Malcolm Redfellow’s Home Service

  3. Peter murphy

    Joe was my father ,and a wonderful role model for me ,my brothers and my sister , along with my mother ,provided a wonderful childhood our family motto was and is to to this day show me don’t telly me .i think of him frequently and what he would have said or done in life’s Journey

  4. Pingback: Gracias, Dacre! | Malcolm Redfellow's Home Service

  5. Pingback: The not-so-great and the not-so-good, no. 30: Guy Aldred & friends | Malcolm Redfellow's Home Service

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