This is a news story written about us in the Irish times in 2007 by Rose Doyle.
Most of us may take salt for granted, but not Martin McGuire. A man who knows a thing or two about sodium chloride, he says it’s “very interesting, an ancient product that has a major place in our lives still”.
Ancient it is. The Egyptians used salt to preserve mummies. Salt was produced in China for more than two millennia, has been a bartering tool through the ages and had medical uses without number. It’s made its way into most cultures and into countless wisdoms: salt of the earth. Taken with a grain of salt. Pour salt on a magpie’s tail.
Put in this context the McGuire family, dealing in sodium chloride since 1890 – the year Martin McGuire of Limerick bought John R Tinsly’s salt importing and distribution business – are mere blow-ins to the world of salt.
There’s been a lot of continuity since then. The company is still known as John R Tinsly and a Martin McGuire is still running things. The latter tells the story with economy and an easy flow.
“John R Tinsly was mayor of Limerick around the 1840s; his name is on the Treaty Stone of Limerick. He was in politics but was an entrepreneur as well. He set up Tinsly Salt Importers in 1840, bringing salt in in bulk from the UK, then packaging it into smaller units and selling it, in those pre-refrigeration days, for the preservation of meats and food stuff.”
Limerick, in those days and for a long time to come, had a thriving meat industry. “The city was famous for its bacon,” says Martin. “Salt was required to cure bacon so he sold to the bacon factories. There was big business, too, in curing the hides of animals, which required salt. The hides were taken in their raw state from the animal and sent off cured to make furniture and clothing. He sold fish, too, such as herring, which was salted, laid down in layers in barrels and sent off by train. This was a particularly lucrative business during Lent, when people didn’t eat meat.”
There’s not much known about the personal life of John R Tinsly. Limerick’s City Trades Register shows a JR Tinsly, Salt Stores, at Upper Williams Street in 1875.
Fifteen years later, in 1890, James McGuire, who owned a food exporting business, purchased John R Tinsly Ltd. “James McGuire had a lot of business in London, in the grain industry there, and had empty barges and ships coming back. He seized the opportunity to fill these empty vessels with salt. Martin McGuire, who was the father of James McGuire, had been involved at the time with milling, and with animal food stuffs. The McGuires were a merchant family, involved in different things. Salt, in the 1890s when James McGuire bought Tinsly, was still in use for the processing of meat and curing of skins. They went on, for years, to supply the meat factories of Clover and Matteson.”
The salt imported by John R Tinsly, then and now, comes from mines in Cheshire, England. (Martin McGuire has been to Wieliczka, near Kracow, Poland to see the famous Salt-Works Museum there, where the underground excavations are 700 years old.)
James McGuire ran his newly acquired salt business separately from his other businesses from the beginning. “The brand name stood for premium quality salt so he kept it,” Martin McGuire explains. “McGuires at the time had a name for other things so it was best to keep them separate.”
Things “progressed along nicely” over the years, with John R Tinsly continuing to provide the meat and bakery businesses with salt. In the mid 20th century, around the 1960s, Martin McGuire, grandfather of today’s Martin McGuire, moved from milling to warehousing. In 1970 today’s Martin McGuire’s father (yet another Martin McGuire) moved all their business to Dock Road, Limerick.
“I remember my father delivering tons of salt to Mattesons,” Martin says. “There are two types; the very fine kind used in processing of meat and curing of hides, and granular salt, which is like hail stones, and used for water softening in areas of high limestone. I remember as a kid going with my father to Mattesons . . .”, he’s nostalgic, recalling too how the “meat industry in Limerick had virtually gone by the early 1990s”.
His father was known as Mattie, an attempt by his grandmother Jean (nee Nixon) to relieve the confusion of having two Martin McGuires in the house – her husband and son.
Martin McGuire, after much time working with Unilever in the UK, Poland and Russia, and with Waterford Crystal, came to the company about 18 months ago. His father is “still the MD of John R Tinsly Ltd and principal shareholder. The name’s still the same. I don’t want to be the man to change it after one hundred and something years!
The company’s a lot smaller these days, with three of us running things. I’m a director of the company, John Airey is office manager and Gerry Gray is in charge of operations. Tommy Tracey helps out with the driving.”
John R Tinsly “continues to do well as a business today”, Martin assures, “though the nature of the business has changed. We now primarily supply pharmaceutical and manufacturing industries with granular salt for water softening. It’s used as a domestic water softener, too, and in dishwashers and such. It’s necessary in areas that have a high level of lime in the water supply. We still sell fine salt – though about 80 per cent of what we now sell is granular. At one stage it would have been 95 per cent fine table salt. It’s still used as an ingredient in food, of course, and used to salt roads in snowy weather.”
The company still gets its salt from Cheshire. “We haven’t gone further afield because they’ve always produced a high quality product. At one time it came in in bulk, now it comes in pallets and 25-kilo bags and all is relatively automated.”
He becomes almost lyrical about salt, and its value to humankind. “It’s an amazing substance and has been around so long. The Romans used salt as a currency. It has such a long and interesting history and, unlike oil, there’s an unlimited supply of it!”
Tinsly may have remained as a name – but the endless line of Martins is about to change. Today’s Martin McGuire has called his son Sam. “Couldn’t take any more of the Mattie/Martin stuff,” he laughs.