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Lyons Tea: Is it as Irish as we think?

The history of Lyon is not what you might expect, writes Tom Clonan.

Tom Clonan

THE COVID-19 CRISIS has given many of us pause for thought. 

Personally, I’ve had a chance to read a bit more than usual. One book in particular, Thomas Harding’s bestseller The House by the Lake, moved me very much and caused me to reflect on family, memory and identity. 

Harding’s Jewish grandmother, Elsie Alexander – on his father’s side of the family – spent many summers in the aforementioned house by the lake just outside Berlin during the 1920s and 1930s.

The house by the lake

Built by her father, Dr. Alfred Alexander, the house was confiscated by the Nazis. In 1936, the entire Alexander family was forced to flee to London. 

Harding’s book charts the history of the family house over 100 years from its construction in the 1920s to its confiscation and subsequent occupation by four other families – including a Nazi composer and after the war, a Stasi informer.

The book takes the reader on the Alexander family’s journey through prosperity, persecution, exile and war.

Without giving anything of the plot away, the book’s destination lies in reunification, reconciliation and healing.

It is an unusual and extraordinarily uplifting book.

When I finally put the book down, I felt restless. The book affected me deeply. Disturbed me to the point that I decided to risk reaching out to the author over social media – something I would not normally do.

I found Thomas Harding on Twitter and congratulated him on the book. I did not expect a reply.      

However, Thomas did reply and asked me for my email address with the enigmatic statement: “I have a question for you.”

A fascinating email correspondence followed in which Thomas outlined his mother’s side of the family – also Jewish – and their connections with the legendary Irish tea company, Lyons Tea.

Lyons Tea is synonymous with Ireland, and Irishness. According to Unilever – its parent company – “Lyons tea is the number one tea brand in Ireland and is a quintessentially Irish brand. 

“It has enjoyed generations of Irish families growing up with it and seeing it as synonymous with the notion of home.”

Unilever go on to say that “in 1902, the Lyons family started their little tea business on High Street in Dublin near Christchurch Cathedral, moving to Marlborough Street behind the Gresham Hotel”. 

If Barry’s Tea is synonymous with Cork and the famous Barry family – then according to Unilever, Lyons tea is as Irish as Riverdance and as Dublin as Rashers Tierney.

Except, it isn’t.

A London enterprise

Lyons Tea was not founded in Dublin by the Lyons family. Nor was it a little business.

As Thomas Harding informed me, Lyons Tea was in fact set up by his mother’s family, the Salmon and Glucksteins, who were a German-Jewish immigrant family based in London.

The Salmon and Glucksteins established a catering empire in London and by the turn of the 20th century, it was a thriving international business.

In 1895, the Salmon and Glucksteins appointed Joseph Lyons as chairman of the company.

He became the public face of the business and starting in 1904, ‘J Lyons’ began selling packaged tea through the Salmon and Glucksteins network of teashops.

Such was the success of their in-store packaged tea, ‘Lyons Tea’ was subsequently distributed and sold through other retailers  in the UK, Ireland and thereafter, all over the globe.

By 1921, the Lyons Tea factory in Greenford was the largest of its kind in Europe.

Far from being a humble, Irish home-start business, Lyons Tea was in fact, a Jewish-owned, London-based manufacturing giant.

The Salmon and Glucksteins had created an international tea emporium.

In the meantime, in Ireland, in 1962, J Lyons and Company (Ireland) became Lyons Irish Holdings.

Merging with Allied Irish Breweries in 1978, Lyons Irish Holdings became part of Allied Lyons, subsequently Allied Domecq.

Allied Domecq was sold to Unilever in 1996.

At some point, during these decades, Lyons Tea – beloved of Irish consumers – morphed into an Irish cultural phenomenon.

Ably assisted by clever marketing and advertising campaigns in Ireland, Lyons Tea, as a brand, became an Irish icon.

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In 2010, in their clever ‘Talk into Tea’ campaign, Lyons Tea successfully associated the Irish traditions of tea drinking and storytelling with the intrinsic ‘Irishness’ of their product.

However, consistent with many of the tall tales of Irish wit and repartee, the inherent ‘Irishness’ of Lyons Tea is – as Donald Trump might put it – fake news.

Thomas Harding’s latest book, Legacy: One Family, a cup of tea and the Company that took on the World, seeks to rectify the “fake Irish history of Lyon’s tea”. The book will be published in Ireland on 27 August. 

In our email correspondence, Thomas Harding sent me a photograph of his great-grandfather Isidore Salmon accompanying King George on a tour of their Greenford tea factory in 1923.

He also sent me photographs of women workers milling tea and of their Lyons tea rooms in London during the early decades of the 20th century.

36 Isidore Salmon gives King George tour of Greenford 1923 courtesy Salmon and Gluckstein family Isidore Salmon gives King George tour of Greenford in 1923. Source: Salmon and Gluckstein family

My own memories of Lyons Tea are deeply ingrained in my Irish psyche. I remember my parents bringing Lyons tea bags on their first foreign holiday to Greece in the 1980s. My late father remarking that there was no “decent Irish tea” in Crete.

As an army officer serving in the Middle East, I vividly remember the catering boxes of Lyons Tea in our position at Al Yatun in south Lebanon. Caught in the crossfire between Hizbollah and the Israeli military – we took comfort in our “Irish” tea and the memories of “home” that it brought.

A complex truth

Thomas Harding’s family history is a story of emigration, ingenuity and industry. As immigrants and as Jews they suffered unimaginable and unspeakable tragedy during the 20th century. 

Despite all, they prevailed. Part of their triumph became a unique and singular icon of our so-called ‘Irish-ness’.

To me, both of Harding’s books are especially relevant in a time of immigration in Ireland – and at a time of the mass movement of refugees internationally.

In Ireland, there are ever more strident voices within our public and political discourse that decry ‘difference’ and seek to demonise those of different ethnic or religious backgrounds.

Harding’s books demonstrate conclusively that we are all brothers and sisters in the struggle to survive and prosper – no matter where we find ourselves.

His books show that diversity brings transformation and progress. With our history of emigration and the success of our diaspora, Thomas Harding’s work speak directly to our sense of self – and to the intimate knowledge that diversity is the key to human survival in the 21st century. 

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About the author:

Tom Clonan

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