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The humble spud who turned into a hot potato

Ray Coyle has been described as the "Willy Wonka'' of the Irish crisp world. Next year he hopes to open his own theme park, inviting tens of thousands of Irish children to see his crisps sizzling away in the factory.

After they have seen Tayto crisps coming off Ray Coyle's assembly line near Ashbourne, Co Meath, families will be able to encounter the snack supremo's unusual menagerie of animals on his farm.

The somewhat unorthodox crisp baron is creating a 55-acre Native American wildlife theme park, complete with totem poles, tepees, racoons, mountain lions and birds of prey. Taking pride of place in this visitor attraction will be Coyle's herd of 270 buffalo.

When he is not making crisps, Ray Coyle likes to relax by looking after his bison.

"They're the best guard dogs anybody could have,'' he says.

He once started a new crisp flavour in honour of his much-loved herd of buffalo which came originally from Utah.

This Christmas, the crisp king from Ashbourne has caused a sensation in the publishing world by producing a bestselling book, Mr Tayto, The Man Inside the Jacket.

International publishers must be scratching their heads in bewilderment this week as the comical autobiography of the snack icon stands at the top of the bestseller chart. The book is written by Ciaran Morrison and Mick O'Hara, the creators of the RTE puppets Podge and Rodge and Zig and Zag.

With 60,000 sales in the bag, it is apparent that the Irish public is happier to read the story of Mr Tayto's eventful and productive life than the autobiography of Bertie Ahern, Dan Brown's latest conspiratorial yarn and the countless torrid accounts of the downfall of the Celtic Tiger that litter bookshelves.

Ray Coyle admits that his crispography will not even make a profit. So why did he bother producing it ?

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"We came up with the idea for the book earlier this year. With all the doom and gloom in the country we felt that people would like something that would raise their spirits.''

The rise of the book to the top of the charts is seen as an outstanding example of guerrilla marketing.

Like Michael O'Leary of Ryanair, Ray Coyle has mastered the art of commanding attention through effective public relations stunts.

Two years ago, Mr Tayto's face was seen all over the country on lamp-posts as it was announced that he was running in the general election.

"We'll make no gain and no loss from the book," Coyle says. "It's just a great way of getting the brand into people's homes. People may not pick it up and read it from cover to cover at one sitting, but they will pick it up at some point.''

The book combines the sort of jokes normally found in Christmas crackers ("Q: What's a chiropodist's favourite crisp? A: Cheese and Bunion!'') with a semi-factual, semi-spoof account of Tayto's history. Did you know, for example, that Eamon de Valera was a fan of the crisps, and the snacks were served at his inauguration?

Ray Coyle was not, of course, the creator of Tayto. Having gobbled other legendary crisp names, including Perri, Kings, Sam Spudz and Hunky Dory, the Meath man bought Tayto for €62m in 2006.

The man who actually created Tayto, Dubliner Joe 'Spud' Murphy, is still celebrated by snack historians as one of the great crisp pioneers of the 20th century.

Murphy had apparently shunned a life in the priesthood -- two of his brothers were priests -- by announcing: "To hell with this, we need one sinner in the family.''

Spud Murphy came up with Tayto in 1954, because he found other crisp flavours, salted or unsalted, rather insipid.

He started his crisp empire on O'Rahilly's Parade in Dublin with one van and eight employees. The crisps were cooked by hand in two deep-fat fryers, with Murphy's wife Bunny helping to slice the potatoes.

One of his early employees, Seamus Burke, was charged with perfecting the revolutionary new cheese and onion flavour. Burke, working on what was essentially nothing more sophisticated than a kitchen table, experimented until he came up with a flavour that his boss judged to be acceptable.

The brand name Tayto had its genesis in Joe Murphy's eldest son Joseph's inability to pronounce the word 'potato'. As a child, he called potatoes 'tatos'. So with the addition of a 'y', Mr Tayto was born -- a cartoon-like potato-shaped figure in a hat and shop coat, printed on the bright, eye-catching crisp bags.

By the 1960s, Spud' Murphy was a millionaire. He drove around Dublin in a Rolls Royce and was hailed by then-Taoiseach Sean Lemass as the very acme of Irish entrepreneurial spirit.

Stories about "Spud'' Murphy abound. On occasion he was reportedly hauled into court after a "foreign body'' found its way into a Tayto packet. When it was put to him that the object was dangerous he picked up the offending item, popped it into his mouth and swallowed it. The case was dismissed.

Another tale, possibly apocryphal, suggests that when the Tayto founder was buried at sea and his body lowered into the depths in 2001, cheese and onion crisps were gently scattered on the waves.

The rise of Ray Coyle to the throne of the Irish Tayto crisp kingdom is in some ways equally dramatic as that of Spud Murphy.

By the late 1970s, Coyle was a potato farmer who had fallen on hard times. He was heavily indebted to the bank after the price of spuds collapsed.

Faced with financial ruin, Coyle came up with the innovative idea of holding a raffle to sell his farm. Five hundred tickets were sold for €300 each. The farm lottery attracted national attention and when the property was sold the penniless potato grower was able to pay off his debts.

Coyle started in the crisp business in Meath with just one fryer. Gradually expanding and acquiring more crisp brands, he built up a vast snack empire that extends to Eastern Europe and Africa. He now produces 10 million packets of crisps a week in Meath and Donegal.

When his visitor centre finally opens next year, Ray Coyle hopes that up to 200,000 people will visit annually. The visitor centre is all set to become the Disneyland of the crisp world.

After the book and the theme park, where will it all end? Mr Tayto, in his autobiography, speculates that he could become the first potato in space -- Spudnik. There is also talk of a charity single, Cheese Release Me, and a film -- The Spud Who Loved Me.

And, of course, there will be more jokes, which may or may not match the standard of those in the book:

"Two Tayto crisps walk into a bar, one was a salted ... ''

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