A PERSONAL PROFILE
At the age of thirteen, Murray Heasman wrote to Airfix, the model aircraft makers, to suggest they produce a range of model birds. They did just that, and thus began Murray’s future career in the toy industry.
But Murray started with the Ordnance Survey as a cartographic surveyor in 1980. His skills as a technical draftsman which he developed at school and his attention for detail made this an ideal first job, with posts in Glasgow, London and Southampton.
It was whilst he was in Glasgow that he met an old man on the towpath on the River Clyde carving a love spoon for his girlfriend, that inspired him to carve a wooden chain in one piece of wood. He also played a Neapolitan mandolin, and it was whilst he was in London, that a friend suggested that he buy an electric mandolin. The instrument was bought and much fun had but he couldn’t find a short guitar strap, so the same friend lent him a book on Celtic knotwork. After experimenting a little, Murray began carving and painting the most elaborate Celtic knotwork mandolin and guitar straps. A few commissions were made, and then Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin contacted him to invite him to their rehearsal studio. Jimmy loved the straps and now has one. That was a seminal moment; the realisation that there was something very special in this Celtic knotwork. Murray is always one for a challenge and he wanted to build on that. Next, the idea that he would tie a real Celtic knot in rope; a wrought iron frame was commissioned and then he proceeded to weave 240m of cotton rope around it in one single knot. It was an exercise in pure concentration as most of it was tied in ‘mid air’ before it gradually filled in, creating 2,200 crossings; one mistake and it would have been all in vain. It took three months to complete!
He also spent five years as a ski instructor in Austria, Switzerland and Bavaria, in resorts such as Wengen, Kitzbühel, and St. Moritz.
Realising that surveying and drawing maps wasn’t creative enough for him, he decided to give up the security of the civil service and develop a craft of some kind – thatching maybe? A friend encouraged him to help on the restoration of an old watermill. The idea was to get into vernacular carpentry – the art of traditional and medieval building construction. Having worked on the project, he realised that the finer work appealed to him more, and thus applied to Rycotewood College, Oxfordshire to study Fine Craftsmanship and Design. Although mainly focused on furniture design and woodcarving, many other materials and techniques were used. Murray then spent the next twelve years or so making bespoke furniture; latterly concentrating on just woodcarving, including four poster beds, grade I listed buildings, castle interiors and one Japanese chocolate factory!
Whilst considering the idea of finding something to make as a ‘bread and butter’ item, he had his eureka moment at 2 o’clock one morning. With all his expertise in Celtic knotwork, perhaps he should make a game. He was found drawing, cutting and colouring cardboard for the next two days. Whilst play testing this new game, friends mentioned they knew someone else who invented games. This turned out to be the marketing guy behind the Rubik’s Cube. Tom Kremer took great interest in it and signed him up immediately. Six months was spent trying to license the idea to one of the big games publishers, but to no avail. Because it was so under-developed at the time, it was handed back. Murray was then instructed to go to the Essen games fair in Germany and was introduced to the great Alex Randolph, the ‘grandfather of all games inventors’. Alex liked the idea so much he introduced Murray to many of the key figures in the industry and became a kind of mentor to the inventor. Eventually, an investor was found to back the game; it was released in Essen a few years later as ‘The Game of Kells’ to rave reviews. Tragically, two weeks later, the investor died suddenly at the age of forty. Losing a friend as well, the company tried to continue, but eventually it wound up a year later.
Murray pursued the woodcarving from then on, but a few years later started getting the game out in the local pub and the response from friends was to continue with it. Much more work was subsequently done on it to fine tune the game, now called ‘Tara’. The first release of the stone Collector’s Edition was launched in 2004 by Jeremy Irons, a friend whom Murray had worked for in his castle. The following year a family edition was released with plastic components. Rachel Arbuckle, one of Ireland’s finest Celtic artists, was commissioned to paint the border for the playing board. She did such an amazing job that Murray asked her to do two paintings for jigsaw puzzles. These were such a huge success that the range kept on growing and so Jim Fitzpatrick, best known for the Che Guevara image and his mythological Irish art was also brought into the fold.
Based outside the beautiful West Cork town of Clonakilty, the games and puzzles were initially marketed just in Ireland, particularly within the gift industry, but they have spread worldwide now. Tara won ‘Best Abstract Strategy Game’ in Games Magazine, USA in 2006 and other awards for it and the puzzles. Olive Murphy was taken on in 2007 to look after sales and the office. A major contract with Barnes & Noble, the largest chain of bookshops in the USA, was a welcome reward. With the help of the West Cork Enterprise Board, Eamon Curtin was brought in to develop the business strategy further. And with help from Enterprise Ireland, things are going even further with a visit with An Taoiseach, Brian Cowan to New York and Washington DC to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. A new game called ‘Pluck the Peacock’ was launched in 2008, and much more is in the pipeline for 2009 and beyond.
© M. W. Heasman 1993-2010. All Rights reserved. Patented, Designs Registered & Trade Marks.