Peter Barry: The tea tester who proved to be a classic blend

Peter Barry receiving the freedom of the city in 2010. Picture: Denis Scannell

From paving the way for peace in Northern Ireland to spearheading the growth of a tea empire, former tánaiste and foreign affairs minister Peter Barry was a man of many parts, a classic blend if you like, which helped make him one of those rare politicians to win respect across the political divide.

The grandson of a blacksmith and the son of a shopkeeper and TD, he was as at home talking and tasting tea with experts in his family’s Barry’s Tea headquarters in Cork City as he was negotiating the Anglo-Irish Agreement in the cauldron of Northern Ireland politics at the height of the Troubles.

His business and political colleagues and critics recall his no-nonsense approach, his wit, and modesty. He wasn’t one for small talk, but when he spoke, everyone listened. In many ways he wasn’t a natural politician, avoiding petty political spats and much more interested in getting things done.

His approach to both business and politics was, no doubt, shaped by his childhood and early retail career in the Cork of the 1930s where, although growing up in comfortable surroundings, his daily contact with customers in the family shops served as a constant reminder of the struggles facing “ordinary people”. And he always remained acutely aware of his family’s humble origins.

Barry’s Tea was founded in 1901 by Mr Barry’s grandfather, James J Barry, a blacksmith from Ballyhooly in north Cork who came to the city to work as an apprentice grocer in Simcox’s on St Patrick’s Street.

James “jumped the counter” to open his own shops, first on Bridge St and soon afterwards on Prince’s St. James married Annie Ryan, a stridently independent woman who was reported to be the first woman in Cork to ride a bicycle in public — an activity which was deemed at the time to be improper for the “weaker sex” — an act of defiance which saw her pelted with tomatoes on occasions.

But it was James’s son, Anthony, the eldest of their 11 children, who decided to specialise in the sale of loose tea, a strategic decision which would lay the foundations for what would eventually become the Barry’s Tea empire.

Anthony married Margaret Costelloe, the daughter of a Cashel jeweller, and Peter was born in August 1928. Six years later, Anthony was awarded the Empire Cup for tea blending, confirming his expertise in the tea trade.

As Peter was schooled first at the Model School and then at Christian Brothers College on Wellington Rd, Anthony maintained the retail business during the Second World War, and Peter joined the firm in 1946. He married Margaret O’Mullane, from Wilton, in 1953. The couple would have six children — four sons and two daughters.

Anthony continued to source tea mostly from India and Sri Lanka, selling it from the shop on Prince’s St, and the blends grew in popularity. He also became involved in politics and was a Dáil deputy for the borough constituency of Cork from 1954-57 and 1961-65, and Lord Mayor of Cork in 1961-62.

By the early 1960s, Peter was becoming more involved in the business pioneered the concept of wholesaling tea, sourcing it from East Africa and selling first to other shops in Cork, expanding into the suburbs, and then to the rest of the country.

There was an incredible reaction to these new blends, and they became a Barry’s Tea signature.

Peter Barry: The tea tester who proved to be a classic blend

Building on this success, it was Peter who spearheaded the rapid expansion of the company during the 1970s to a point where, by the end of the decade, it held a 30% stake in the Irish tea market, worth more than £40m at the time.

Following approaches from Fine Gael in the late ’60s, Peter decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and enter politics. And while he continued to remain interested in the tea business, his day-to-day involvement in the firm lessened as his life became dominated by politics. He was a TD for Cork South Central from 1969-97, and was deputy party leader from 1979-87, and again from 1989-93.

He was transport and power minister during the 1973 oil crisis, before moving to education. He also held the environment portfolio in 1981 in the Fine Gael-Labour coalition before being appointed foreign affairs minister in 1982, a position he held for five years.

During this time, he negotiated the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 — a moment he regarded as the highlight of his political career — and he was also foreign affairs minister when Ireland signed the Single European Act, and negotiated the enlargement of the European community to include Spain and Portugal.

Peter Barry, Dick Spring, and Tom King witness Garret Fitzgerald and Margaret Thatcher signing the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985
Peter Barry, Dick Spring, and Tom King witness Garret Fitzgerald and Margaret Thatcher signing the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985

After Garrett FitzGerald resigned as Fine Gael leader in 1987, Barry and John Bruton contested for the party leadership, but lost out to Alan Dukes. His failed leadership bid led to Barry becoming known as the best leader Fine Gael never had.

He was also influential locally, playing a key role in setting up the passport office in Cork, in retaining the Bord Gáis headquarters in the city, in the development of the Ringaskiddy Deepwater Berth, in securing an extension to the main runway at Cork Airport, in behind-the-scenes talks which led to the takeover by Heineken of what was, at the time, a troubled Murphy’s Brewery, and in the development of the visionary Land Use and Transportation Study for Cork.

Reluctant to pressure his children into politics, Barry was influential in encouraging the late Hugh Coveney, a former minister and father of current Housing Minister Simon Coveney, with whom he had business relationships, to run for office.

Despite his influence in politics and business, Barry disliked the merchant prince label, preferring to describe himself as a tea taster, and he became the stuff of legend early in his Dáil career, when he filled out a Dáil occupation query form, describing himself as a “tea merchant, importer and taster”.

Questions about his considerable wealth were also batted away, answered in one interview with an understated “I’m comfortable”.

In 1970, he became the second generation of his family to be elected Lord Mayor of Cork, as he watched with great pride from the public gallery of City Hall in 2005, when his daughter, Fine Gael MEP Deirdre Clune, also took the chain of office, cementing the family’s reputation as one of Ireland’s great political dynasties.

Peter Barry with his daughter and current MEP Deirdre Clune and former Fine Gael TD Lucinda Creighton after he received the Freedom of the City of Cork on June 12, 2010. Picture: Denis Scannell
Peter Barry with his daughter and current MEP Deirdre Clune and former Fine Gael TD Lucinda Creighton after he received the Freedom of the City of Cork on June 12, 2010. Picture: Denis Scannell

Mr Barry retired from politics ahead of the 1997 general election, and his seat was won by Ms Clune, which she lost in 2002 but regained again in 2007.

In retirement, he kept a low profile, in a bid not to overshadow his daughter’s political ambitions. But he was thrust reluctantly into the limelight in 1998, when it emerged that he spent £43,000 to buy in trust the 300-strong collection of Kitty Kiernan’s love letters to Michael Collins. He said he bought them because “the State appeared to be making no effort to keep them in the country”.

In 2010, at the age of 81, he was finally conferred with the Freedom of Cork by the then Fine Gael Lord Mayor, and current European Affairs Minister, Dara Murphy, who said the honour was long overdue. Mr Barry was joined at the celebration by his beloved wife, Margaret, and their six children. Margaret died three years later.

In an interview in 1998, Mr Barry singled her out for praise: “In everything I did, Margaret was an equal partner.”


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