Ray Coyle’s untimely passing at just 70 years of age has shocked all of Ireland, for he had made himself a household name.
Farmer, entrepreneur, theme park creator - he was a larger-than-life character.
He first sprang to prominence 40 years ago, when he, like many young farmers, found himself in financial difficulty.
Having built up an 800-acre operation in Meath from a modest grain and cattle farm, the sudden rise in interest rates coupled with the loss of a contract with Tayto that underpinned his potato operation saw him face financial ruin.
With debts in excess of £1m, he decided to raffle his farm. With tickets priced at £300, it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to acquire a farm. Tickets were limited to 4,000, so people had a genuine chance of winning.
The 280-acre farm was worth over half a million pound, land was making £2,000/acre at the time, so the prize was worth over 1,500 times the stake for ticket buyers.
It worked a treat, with the raffle raising £1.2m, clearing Ray Coyle’s debts. If memory serves, legislation was subsequently passed to close off a tax loophole Ray had spotted.
At just 30, Ray Coyle had turned a crisis into an opportunity. He founded Largo Foods, to provide competition in the Irish crisp and snack market, where Tayto reigned supreme.
He built up a number of brands, including Sam Spuds and Hunky Dory.
In 2006, Largo Foods acquired the Tayto and King crisp brands from food giant C&C for £62m. Ray Coyle’s reversal of fortune was now complete.
The iconic Tayto brand was built upon, with Mr Tayto standing for 'election' and looking for love. An autobiography of Mr Tayto, co-written by Zig and Zag, Podge and Rodge creators Cíarán Morrison and Mick O’Hara topped the Irish bestseller list.
Ray Coyle stepped away from Largo Foods and embarked on a project to build Ireland’s first theme park, based around his famous brand.
It sounded like a cross between Disneyland and Knock Airport. Tayto Park opened its gates in 2010, not 200 metres from Ray Coyle’s home farm.
It has become one of Ireland’s leading attractions, with over 630,000 people visiting in 2019, the last year where lockdown wasn’t impacting.
Boasting Ireland’s only wooden roller coaster, an adventure zone, a zoo and a 5D cinema, it was Ireland’s own 'if you build it, they will come' Field of Dreams story.
Ray Coyle died on 8 June 2022. Our sympathies to his wife Rosamund and children Charles and Natalya. May he rest in peace.