Spirit of the fighting Irish

THIS IS shaping up as the Christmas when everybody wants to support local industry.

A recent report from Guaranteed Irish shows that even an extra €4 a week spent on Irish goods and services would create an extra 6,200 jobs. At present, the average Irish household spends just under €16 a week on Irish products and services.

“This figure shows just how important it is that we support Guaranteed Irish services and products as much as possible during these tough economic times,” says executive director of Guaranteed Irish, Tom Rea.

Attitudes to the Guaranteed Irish sign show that the vast majority of Irish consumers believe it is more important today to buy Irish goods and services than it was five years ago, and instils a sense of national pride in supporting our own. We visited three indigenous firms to see how they were coping this year.

HAIRY BABY Little Island, Cork Founded: 2004 Employees: 6 + 3 part-time Product: T-shirts Market: Domestic and export Future: Exports to grow further

“Christmas is huge for us, we start preparing for it in July or August,” says Darragh Murphy. “It was never actually our plan to become big suppliers to the Christmas market, we thought we would just be selling cool t-shirts to the general public. But what’s happened over the years is we’ve become part of the gift market without any specific marketing, and Christmas has become a major part of our year’s turnover now.”

As a result of the recent exodus of job seekers to foreign shores, Hairy Baby t-shirts have become one of the big seasonal sellers for ex-pats in places like New Zealand, Australia, the US and Canada.

“Social media has allowed us to stay in touch with this generation, and we’re finding the emigrant of 2011 prefers to wear a slogan like ‘I’m A Savage For Bacon & Cabbage’, whereas 10 years ago it might have been a county GAA jersey or Irish soccer shirt. Hairy Baby provides a specific Irish identity overseas for a generation who have left these shores,” he adds.

A former sound engineer who saw an opening in the market for contemporary t-shirts, Darragh started the company on a shoestring from his garage. He raised his seed capital by DJ-ing discos and weddings for a year.

“Irish t-shirts up to 2004 were a green sea of shamrocks, leprechauns and harps,” he says. “I thought, why don’t we source some organic cotton, cut it to the shape we want and put what designs we want on the front? And that’s just what we did.”

The Hairy Baby lexicon includes Who’s Taking The Horse To France?, Keep Her Lit, No Better Buachaill, Stall The Ball, and that old phrase uttered by everybody’s Granny when things were getting seriously out of hand — Jesus, Mary & Joseph.

“The market for our product keeps growing,” he says. “We spend hours coming up with good slogans that are immediately recognisable to native Irish people, but, ironically, the t-shirts are also getting very popular with tourists and visitors who want something besides the Blarney Stone across their chests.”

GOSLING GAMES Clonakilty, Co CorkFounded: 1987 Employees: 2 + 2 part-time Product: Games Market: Domestic and export Future: Very optimistic for continued growth

“We do about 70% of our annual business between Halloween and Christmas,” says company founder Mary Gosling. A native of West Cork, her keen business instincts saw her begin with a summer tea room over Long Strand beach that eventually became a B&B business.

Listening to guests’ tales of their adventures on the highways and byways of Ireland inspired her first board game — Discovering Ireland. Launched in October 1987, it became the best-selling family board game that Christmas, and remains one of their top sellers today. Since then Gosling Games has produced 12 games products, including Discovering Europe, Antics, Irish Wildlife Cards and Celtic Puzzle Cube.

In recent years Gosling Games have established a working relationship with Celtic artist Courtney Davis leading to last year’s Make It, Bake It Cupcake Recipe Puzzle. This Christmas they’re continuing the bake series with a jigsaw puzzle recipe for car-shaped cookies that come in a cake tin.

“After the success of the cupcakes last year, we decided to do something with boys in mind and the cookies in the shape of cars is our answer,” she says. “We always try to invent games that will make participants learn something as well as have fun,” says Mary. “We test every idea on our own family and friends first. If there’s anything wrong with the prototype of a new game, we hear about it when they are all clustered around the kitchen table trying it out,” she says.

Christmas is the traditional season for board games and family gatherings — both of which play to the Gosling Games ethos. “Christmas is all about games and family fun,” she says. “We really start preparing for Christmas in January by going to trade fairs. Any new ideas we would have will be in the prototype stage then, and we refine the idea as the months go on. Conception to birth of a board game can take quite a long time,” she adds.

“Consumers are extremely keen to buy Irish this year, and we are very gratified by that. People understand that supporting our own economy is the only way up for the country and it is an attitude that definitely seems here to stay.”

SKELLIG CHOCOLATES Dingle, Co Kerry Founded: 2004 Employees: 9 + 2 part-time Product: Chocolates Market: Domestic and export Future: A new factory and further expansion

Much of 2011 was a year to forget for the staff of Skellig Chocolates after a fire completely destroyed the premises late last year.

Having temporarily relocated to Caherciveen for the summer months, the company has once again returned to a spanking new facility at its home base in St Finian’s Bay.

“Last Christmas got cancelled, so this year is even bigger than ever for us,” says CEO Colm Healy. “After Easter, Christmas is the most important period of the year for our business.”

Operating in the premium sector of the chocolate market, Skellig produce seasonal favourites like Christmas Pudding truffle, egg nog chocolate and a Hot Toddy whiskey and chilli truffle. Over the years, the company has won a number of Great Taste Awards for creations like Brandy Plums and Apricot Amarettos — all of which take five days to produce in their artisan fashion.

“We can make more than 60 different varieties of truffles and rotate our flavours with the seasons, including Violet & Champagne for spring, and Raspberry & Coconut for summer.”

Having bought out an existing business seven years ago, Colm Healy saw a niche market for exclusive chocolates to be exploited and took the leap into self employment.

“I had a business background already and also had my own capital, so I was able to get up and running quite quickly without the pressure of bank loans,” he says.

Now solidly established as a recognised brand, the public demand to support local industry has helped Skellig overcome its disastrous fire and plot a confident forward momentum for 2012.

“Everybody wants to support Buy Irish now, they are hugely vocal about it. But consumers will not support inferior products, they want quality, good value and the knowledge that their euros are helping give employment and help the economy. For small operators like ourselves, this attitude of helping our own has been a Godsend.”

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