Thursday, July 19, 2007

Sean Lemass and the opening of the Asbestos factory

Last week’s announcement of the resiting of the Tegral factory to a green field site on the Monasterevin Road comes 70 years after the official opening of what was called the Asbestos factory by Sean Lemass, the-then minister for industry and commerce. The choice of Athy as a site for the Asbestos factory owed much to the efforts of MP Minch, managing director of Minch Nortons and his brother Sydney Minch, who had been elected a TD for County Kildare in the 1932 general election.

As a candidate for the Cumann na Gaedheal party, he was re-elected in 1933 and again in 1937 for the revised Carlow/ Kildare constituency, before eventually losing his seat in 1938. MP Minch had previously attempted to have a sugar factory located in Athy and to that end led a deputation of local dignitaries to Holland to put the case for the South Kildare town. The year was 1925 and, when the announcement for the new sugar factory was made, Carlow won out to the huge disappointment of Athy folk.

When the Asbestos factory was first mooted, Athy was one of several locations canvassed as suitable sites. It is claimed that Carlow, which secured the sugar factory just a decade earlier, offered the promoters of the new project a free site and an undertaking from the local authority not to charge rates for the first three years. No wonder, therefore, that the acting chairman of Athy Urban District Council, William Mahon, in proposing a toast to the Minch family on the day of the factory’s opening, praised the part played by Matt Minch and his brother Sydney in bringing a major industry to the town.

The official opening of the Asbestos factory took place on Monday 31 May 1937, just a few months after the Eoin O’Duffy led Blueshirts left for Spain to support Franco and the nationalist rebels. Prior to the opening, the factory had been in production for about three weeks, with 75 men employed on three eight-hour shifts producing asbestos corrugated sheeting and asbestos cement sheeting and slating. Intended to cover 50,000 square feet, the factory was built on a 12-acre field known locally as Mullery’s field and it also embraced the site of the small terraced houses known as Tay Lane, which had been demolished in advance of the factory construction work. The construction of the factory was not fully completed when the official opening took place.

Sean Lemass, who was appointed to the first Fianna Fáil government in 1932 at 33 years of age, had fought in the GPO in 1916. After the 1921 Treaty, he took the Republican side and fought in the Four Courts during the Civil War. Following this, he was captured and interned in the Curragh and Mountjoy Jail until December 1923. Elected to the Dáil in 1925, he was appointed minister for industry and commerce in De Valera’s first government and retained that position in every subsequent government led by De Valera until he succeeded Dev as Taoiseach in 1959.

The one-time freedom fighter was met on his arrival in Athy with a guard of honour of the local gardaí under Superintendent Bergin, drawn up at the entrance to the town hall. There, he was presented with an address of welcome on behalf of the people of Athy and the local council by William Mahon, vice-chairman of Athy Urban District Council. The long-time chairman of the urban council, Patrick Dooley of Duke Street, had died the previous 7 May. Dooley had occupied the position of chairman of the council since 1929 and the Council at its AGM in June 1937 would elect William Mahon as its chairman. Patrick Dooley, whose son Paddy would later be elected a TD for the Kildare constituency, as well as becoming chairman of Athy Urban District Council on several occasions between 1953 and 1978, was an important link with the local Old IRA and would have been well known to Sean Lemass.

Following the address of welcome, Lemass was driven to the Asbestos factory where, on arrival, he passed through the workmen drawn up on either side of the factory entrance. He was greeted by the chairman of Asbestos Cement Limited, MP Minch of Rockfield House, who had been instrumental in securing the Asbestos factory for Athy. It is claimed that a chance meeting between Minch and H Osterberg of Denmark following the passing of the Cement Actin 1933 ultimately led to the opening of the Asbestos factory in Athy.

The Cement Act followed the earlier introduction of import duty on cement and encouraged the setting up of an Irishbased cement industry. Like the earlier development of the sugar beet industry in Ireland, which led the Irish government to arrange with a Belgium syndicate to open a beet factory in Carlow in 1926, the cement industry would require Danish expertise. Asbestos Cement Limited was formed in April 1936 with MP Minch as chairman and as directors H Osterberg, managing director of Irish Cement Ltd, MF Parkhill of Charles Tennant & Co, a Dublin-based company which was the major importer of cement to Ireland, NM Jensen of Tunnel Cement Ltd, and Carlow man FG Thompson, whose firm built the new factory in Mullery’s field.

Minister Lemass, after meeting the company directors, was shown around the factory by the factory manager WE Cornish, who was described as a shrewd energetic Welshman. Prior to coming to Athy, he had been employed by Tunnel Asbestos Cement in the manufacture of asbestos cement goods. At the conclusion of the tour, Lemass started the factory machinery and was presented by Mr Osterberg with a solid silver paper weight bearing the monogram of the firm. The factory was blessed by Canon McDonnell, the local parish priest.

Sean Lemass addressed the crowd of about 500 people from the factory steps after he formally opened the factory. “On your behalf, citizens of Athy,” concluded the minister, “I wish to congratulate those who planned, financed and made possible this enterprise and express the hope that you will never have reason to regret the part they took in establishing it.”

At a luncheon which was given afterwards in the factory, presided over by MP Minch, speeches were made by M Jensen, who proposed a toast of Irish industries, HT O’Rourke (whom I have not been able to identify), Sydney Minch TD, who proposed a toast “to the Press”, and RJ Donaghy of the Leinster Leader. William Mahon in proposing a toast of thanks to MP Minch highlighted the part played by the Minch family in promoting the industrial and social life of Athy and South Kildare over many years. MF Parkhill also spoke and praised the work of the contractor FG Thompson of Carlow, whom, he said, “found many obstacles in his way on the site, but surmounted them and built a factory of which we are all proud.” Seam Lemass in his speech after lunch spoke of “the wider plans entertained by the company’s directors and shareholders”.

This was believed not only to be a reference to the company’s plans when at full capacity to employ over 150 people but also to the government’s expectations that the success of the Asbestos factory “was going to spread itself in many other quarters”.

The factory, work on which had commenced in April 1936, was completed at a cost of £60,000, with a further £30,000 spent on the purchase and installation of machinery. The machinery would achieve maximum capacity in 1946 and in 1976 the name Asbestos Cement Limited was changed to Tegral Building Products Ltd. Ten years later, a pulping plant was installed for the manufacturer of non-asbestos products.

With the building of the Asbestos factory in 1936, the town of Athy which for so many centuries was part of the Fitzgerald family estate became an important element in the drive for Irish industrialisation. That the factory remains strong to this day and plans to move to a more expansive site on the outskirts of Athy is a tribute to all those who have worked there over the last 70 years. The Fitzgeralds may no longer hold sway in Athy, where the largest employer is Tegral, so perhaps it is fitting that the Fitzgerald Dower House at 6 South Leinster Street, Dublin is today the head office of the Tegral group of companies.

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