The head of Ireland's largest fruit and vegetable producers has been jailed for six years for a €1.6m scam involving the importation of garlic.

Paul Begley, 46, avoided paying customs duty on over 1,000 tonnes of garlic from China by having them labelled as apples.

Dublin Circuit Criminal Court heard the import duty on garlic is "inexplicably" high and can be up to 232%.

In contrast, onions have an import duty of 9%.

The maximum sentence for the offence is five years in prison or a fine of three times the value of the goods.

Judge Martin Nolan imposed the maximum term on one count and one year on another count to to run consecutively, meaning a total of six years.

"It gives me no joy at all to jail a decent man," Judge Nolan said.

He said Begley is a "success story" and an "asset to the country" in supporting the economy and providing employment.

He noted Begley's generosity and that he donates money to homeless charities and the St Vincent de Paul.

However, the judge added he had engaged in a "grave" and "huge" tax evasion scheme.

He said the import tax on garlic "may or may not" be excessive, but this is for the Oireachtas to decide and not individuals.

He said he had to impose a significant jail term because such offences are hard to uncover, therefore the only effective deterrence is lengthy prison terms for those who are caught.

Begley of Woodlock, Redgap, Rathcoole, pleaded guilty to four sample counts of evading customs duty between September 2003 and October 2007.

The total amount of garlic involved 1,013 tonnes, worth €1.1m.

Revenue Officer Denis Twohig told prosecuting counsel, Remy Farrell SC, that the scam was uncovered on 9 October, 2007 when customs officers at Dublin Port investigated a container that was supposed to contain 18 tonnes of apples and two tonnes of garlic.

When they looked inside they found 21 tonnes of garlic and no apples.

Officer Twohig said the import duty on apples is 9% while the duty on garlic is €120/kg and 9.6% of the total value. The outstanding tax on this consignment alone was €25,000.

Following the find, Revenue Officers began an investigation into previous imports by the company.

During a search of the headquarters, officers seized a series of emails between Begley and his garlic supplier in China that were exchanged over the course of four years.

The emails told the supplier to falsify the importation documents to describe the shipments as apples rather than garlic.

The court heard Begley made full admissions and volunteered additional information during the investigation. He has been paying off debt over the last two years at €33,000 a month. A debt of €700,000 remains outstanding.

Defence counsel, David Keane SC, said Begley is married and has three teenage children.

The company has grown to the largest producer and exporter of fruit and vegetables in Ireland and the fourth largest distributor.

Counsel pleaded with Judge Nolan not to impose a custodial sentence and said his client is willing to pay any fine the court may impose.

He handed in character references detailing Begley's charity work as well as an expert analysis of the "unique nature and level of duty on garlic".

He said the rate was "inexplicable" and 24 times that of onions.

The State disputed the term "inexplicable", saying a detailed report had been provided explaining the customs rate.

In a statement, the Begley Brothers said they were “shocked at the imposition of a custodial sentence of six years on former Director Paul Begley.

A spokesman for the company today said that since the matter emerged some five years ago, Mr Begley and the company had co-operated fully with the Revenue investigation, had agreed repayment terms with the Revenue for the amount of duty underpaid (and related penalties) and had offered to pay a fine of over €250,000.

The spokesman said that the Judge himself had acknowledged that Paul Begley was a "decent man" and a number of exemplary character references were provided to the Court.

He said: "However we believe that the imposition of a custodial sentence in this instance is grossly excessive and is a tragedy for Paul and his family."