‘Join Our Club’: The Bizarre True Story Of Ireland’s Biggest Cult
AT a glance, Phelim Whelan doesn’t seem to be much more other than a regular local man; late forties, married, two kids, a nice three-bedroom semi-detached home on the outskirts of Waterford city, a 9-to-5 desk job that he commutes to by bus, a dog called Winston. But watch him during his daily routine, and you’ll see signs that point towards Whelan’s dark past, a past that holds a story so incredible, it could only be true.
Unlike most people, Whelan does not eat chocolate of any sort. From morning to night, each and every biscuit, bar or bun he eats is plain and bare, something that makes him stand out in Ireland, a society that prides itself in ensuring that tea-breaks and quick visits are as chocolate-coated as possible.
“There’s chocolate buns there, if you’d prefer,” said the lady at the till of the cafe where we met Whelan to hear his story, where he bought himself a Madeira bun with a pot of tea for one before we got started.
“Or there’s bars there either, if you want. Be lovely with your tea, but look, if it’s a plain bun you want then suit yourself”.
Whelan smiles and assures the lady that he’s fine, he’s not one for chocolate, and then joins us at our table.
“Sometimes I tell people I’m a diabetic, just so they’ll leave me be and stop trying to get me to eat a chocolate-coated bar,” smiled the Waterford man, cutting open his bun and buttering the inside.
“But sure look, how are they to know, eh?”
Phelim wasn’t always so chocolate shy. That’s where his story begins, in 1985, when he was just 14 years old. Like most teenagers, he craved sugary foods, quiet masturbation, and independence from his family and his suffocating school life. Although clever, Whelan had no interest in school other than break-time, where he would tuck into the same lunch every single day.
“A big ham sandwich on batch loaf, wrapped in the paper the bread came in, a wee carton of milk, and of course, a chocolate-covered biscuit bar as a treat,” said Whelan, as he stirred his tea in the cup for the ninth minute, which we found super annoying but allowed to pass in order to keep the man talking.
“I liked chocolate on my biscuit. And not just a little scraping of chocolate… not a hint of cocoa powder in the actual biscuit itself… not a thin coating of chocolate on one side of the biscuit… I liked a lot of chocolate on my biscuit. I’d look around at break time and see everyone else eating plain biscuits; Kimberlys, Mikados, and Coconut Creams… someone you know would love those, but for me, it had to be a lot of chocolate on the biscuit. I got teased for it in the playground, even the teachers would make a show of me during class if I got up to read or do a sum on the board, and there was chocolate all over my face from eating a biscuit with a lot of chocolate on it. I felt that there had to be people like me out there, somewhere.
“Remember, this is before the internet, before mobile phones and the like. These days, there’s probably an app for anyone who wants to meet like-minded people who share a passion for biscuits with a lot of chocolate on them. But back then, you were just alone. Until one day… one day, I heard a message on the TV during an ad break, a message that would change my life forever”.
What Phelim is referring to is of course the famous commercial for Club Milk biscuit bars, which ran from the mid-seventies into the early eighties, using its catchy, effortlessly memorable jingle to burrow its way into listeners’ subconsciousness. If you like a lot of chocolate on your biscuit, the commercial proposed, then join our club. Hummable, memorable, fun. It was everything an advertising jingle needed to be, and Irish customers were sold.
Unfortunately for many, they were sold a lie.
It’s easy for us now in the age of the internet to ridicule such naivety, but in the early eighties, you believed what the TV told you. There was no social media to pull apart suspicious threads of a message, there were no smartphones connected to the sum total of human knowledge, easily searched to make sure that what you were being led to believe was in fact true.
It’s because of this that so few Irish people were aware that the Club Milk commercial they were seeing on their TV screens and hearing on their radios dozens of times each day were not in fact for the familiar yellow-packaged Club Milk bars that had been rolling off production lines in Jacobs factories in Dublin since before the war. Instead, this new jingle was from another, much more sinister source.
Not much is known about the man they call Jacob, the leader of the followers of Jacob, a worldwide religious movement that first rose to prominence in America in the mid-sixties, with churches springing on the outskirts of municipalities from coast to coast. The movement shared many similarities with other cults that appeared throughout the same period; the People’s Temple, founded by Jim Jones, the Manson Family, and Fox News, among others.
All promised the same thing; answers. Answers to so many of life’s problems, answers that kept people, vulnerable people, awake at night. These lost souls, many still only teenagers, found themselves gravitating towards these breakaway communities which claimed to be able to understand what they were going through, and offer tantalisingly achievable solutions in exchange for fealty without question.
“Jacob very rarely appeared in public, but testimonials from cult members describe him as a handsome, charismatic leader, one who people were extremely comfortable around” says Marietta McVitie, one of the world’s leading experts in cult behaviour.
“But unlike the majority of cult leaders, Jacob wasn’t happy to just remain in America. He didn’t want to hole up in some compound like Jim Jones, shut away from the world, he wanted to expand. He wanted churches all around the world.
First step on his list was Europe, and diaries and audio logs that survive from the time show that the plan was made to infiltrate an English-speaking country first, to establish a base, before opening a trio of sites in Lisbon, Milan and Nice, to compliment the main US headquarters back in Maryland. That’s when one of Jacob’s most trusted advisors came up with an idea that was either insane, genius, or that rare, perfect combination of both”.
The plan was simple; the followers of Jacob would piggyback on the goodwill of Ireland’s favourite biscuit manufacturers, and produce a TV commercial that offered membership in an exclusive club for people who ‘liked a lot of chocolate on their biscuit’. Amazingly, the commercial was created and aired before anyone at the real Jacobs marketing team got so much as a crumb of the idea.
“Remember, these were slower-moving times,” explained Richard T. Garibaldi, advertising historian.
“These days, there’s no way that I would be able, for example, to produce and run an ad for my own brand of Mars bars, called Mars bars, without the actual Mars corporation suing the fuck out of me, and the whole thing being exposed on social media within hours of airing. But in the early 80s, things didn’t work like that. The first time the execs at Jacobs heard the ad was when the public heard it, when it was on TV. By then, it was the most whistled tune in the country, and Club Milks were flying off the shelves. Rather than kick up a legal shitstorm, it appears the people at Jacobs just kept their mouths shut, and took it as a ‘freebie’. Meanwhile, the cult known as the followers of Jacob were recruiting chocolate lovers by the hundred, all across the land”.
One such follower was Phelim Whelan, who recalls his first meeting with cult members with a quiet sadness.
“I heard the jingle. It felt like for the first time in my life, someone was talking directly to me. I liked a lot of chocolate on my biscuit, and now, finally, it seemed their was a club for me,” said Phelim, who met with cult leaders in the Ritz in 1984.
“The ad… everyone loved the ad, and bought Club Milks… but those of us who bought into the ‘join our club’ message, we were the ones who send off a stamped, self-addressed envelope to the address that appeared at the bottom of the commercial. All these years later, and most people didn’t even know such a thing existed. But for people who wanted to join the club, well, we found that address and got our names in quick. I received a letter almost straight away, and was invited to an initial meeting in a big fancy hotel, the whole thing was just mind-blowing for a young lad like me. Once you got to the hotel, they had you. You were in the circle now”.
The party ring environment of the initial meetings gave way to initial tests and psychological profiling that applicants were told were the gateway to ‘untold amounts of chocolate sandwich bars’, but were actually just a tool for controlling anyone who felt like they wanted to leave.
“My entrance interview, wow, they really baked me good,” explained Phelim, dabbing away tears.
“Why was I here, what did I think made me different from other people, what did I think of my family… of course, they were taping it all. I’ll hold my hands up and own my words, but they really manipulated me. They led me on, got me to really run down a lot of things that I held near and dear to me… and then all they had to do was remind me every so often that if I left, they’d be forced to let everyone know the hurtful things I’d said about Jaffa Cakes and my own father, things like that. I was a teenager at the time, lost, confused. It seemed the only way to stay out of trouble was to stay quiet and do what I was told. And with that, I was a follower of Jacob”.
With no permission to contact his family of friends, Phelim simply disappeared. Many believed he had emigrated to Britain, some said they thought they had seen him serving sandwiches on a ferry to Vienna. But instead, Whelan was in the clutches of the followers of Jacob as their scheme to grow in Europe gathered steam. The Irish branch of the cult grew to around 2,000 chocolate-loving individuals who were now forced to work in the propaganda cogs of the movement’s machine, readying another advance into mainland Europe with yet more catchy chocolate-based jingles. But as cult expert Marietta McVitie explains, all of these plans changed in 1992 when Jacob himself was found dead in his Maryland home.
“The cult members in Ireland were very much towing the cult line up until Jacob’s death,” explained McVitie, lifting up the top tier of the story to reveal a fresh layer below.
“When word came from America that the leader was dead, the disciples who had been sent to Ireland and were acting as the ruling class over the Irish members were inconsolable. Many of them fled back to America, a few of them committed ritual suicide involving sharpened chocolate fingers… and after all this, the Irish members were left leaderless, and alone. It’s at this point that they could have returned to their normal lives… but they chose not to. Free from what many of the Irish cult members have described as ‘a load of religious wank’, a decision was made to stay together, and form the biscuits-with-a-lot-of-chocolate-on-them loving club that they had been promised from the start”.
“We were brought together with the promise of joining a club, and now we had a chance to do just that” said Phelim, who in the following ten years rose through the ranks of the newly-formed Club Club, until he was one of the country’s foremost and feared spokespeople on biscuits and biscuiteering.
“The beardie weirdies who had duped us into joining their cult were gone, or dead, so we just took over HQ and made a cult of our own. We were unstoppable. Any biscuit decision that was made in this country during the nineties, we made it. You want to know why you can’t get 5-4-3-2-1 bars anymore? That was us. We also implemented the ‘if you’re going to have a cuppa, have a Club’ rule that made it mandatory to have a Club Milk bar with every cup of tea drank in this country for 10 years. I’m not going to lie, there was some shady shit going on in the background, some things that I’m not proud of to this day. Anyone from within our ranks that spoke out against what we were doing, well, let’s just say they got dunked”.
Although the organisation still exists in Ireland today, with even state broadcaster RTÉ terrified to engage in any sort of on-air biscuit debate without their involvement in fear of backlash from the powerful chocolate biscuit lobby, Whelan left the Club club in 2008, and has gone on settle down and live a normal life. After being involved in the organisation for over two decades from its inception as a spin-off of an American religious movement to its current status as one of the most powerful biscuit cults operating in Ireland today, Whelan has finally opened up exclusively to WWN about what exactly was the turning point that made him sever his ties with the group that he had devoted his life to.
“The leaders wanted every member to state that the Club Milk was nicer than a purple Snack,” said Phelim, finishing his tea.
“I was like here, no fucking way lads. You’ve lost it. Good luck to yis”.