From the relative comfort created by the economic whirlwind dubbed by some linguistic genius as the Celtic Tiger it is reassuring to look back at the time not so long ago when the people of Athy lived in the shadow of unemployment. In the early years of the new Irish State local industry in South Kildare consisted of Minch Norton’s barley intake plants in William Street and Stanhope Street, Hannons Mills, which were soon thereafter to close, and the oldest local industry, brick making. The latter was however going through a tough period. Several of the smaller brick yards around the area, of which there had been upwards of twelve or so, had closed leaving only the Athy Tile and Brick Company at Barrowford and Hosies brick yard in Coursetown. John Conlan a Farmers Party TD for Kildare said in the Dail in January 1924 “in the Athy District of my constituency several brick yards were in operation up to a comparatively short time ago and indeed I believe one of them is still in operation. These works turn out the very best class of brick. In fact some of the old squares in Dublin were built of Athy brick and that will go to show their durability”. Mr Conlan was pressing to have provision made in a Bill going through the Dail for contractors to be compelled to use Irish material and so give local industry a chance of reviving.
I cannot say whether any such provision was ever included in the Act when it was passed, but even if it was, it proved unsuccessful insofar as the Athy brick industry was concerned. The following year Hugh Colohan by trade a brick and stone layer and a TD for Kildare again raised the plight of the Athy brick industry claiming “the quality and durability of that brick is beyond question having been recommended by architects for a great many years”. The conditions prevailing in County Kildare and in the Athy area were the subject of further comment by Colohan when in June 1925 he stated in the Dail “we have fully three thousand unemployed in the County of Kildare making with their dependants ten thousand in a state of semi starvation”. Claiming he was not painting “an overdrawn picture” Colohan handed in a letter from the local Irish Transport Union Secretary confirming the figure of 954 unemployed persons in Athy and about the same number in Newbridge..
Unemployment and the lack of industry were topics Colohan would return to again and again but in the meantime the Government decided to go ahead with the Barrow drainage scheme which had been under consideration since the early part of 1923. The Cosgrave let government employed Professor Meyer Peter of Zurich to prepare a scheme for the Barrow drainage and he had estimated the cost of the project at just over one million pounds. The Government felt the project was only justified on the basis of “the great deal of employment it would offer during this period of depression”. Work began in July 1925 and fortunately for the economy of the town of Athy, the Barrow drainage works Head Quarters was based in the town for the duration of the project. It provided an enormous boast for employment in South Kildare and created increased business for the local shops. A note worthy social side affect was the setting up of the first soccer club in Athy by the drainage workers with the encouragement and support of a number of locals.
The labour intensive work of the drainage scheme can be gauged from the information given to Labour T.D. William Davin in December 1926 when he was advised that the total number of wheelbarrows supplied for the Barrow drainage scheme was one hundred and sixty of which sixty were made by workers in the Athy works yard. Inevitably complaints of Athy men not obtaining employment on the scheme arose. The denial which subsequently issued advised that labourers were employed as required and were taken as near as possible from the districts in which works were in progress. It was an issue which Deputy Colohan raised again twelve months later to which the Minister for Finance Ernest Blythe replied “labours employed on the Barrow drainage works generally are all local men i.e. men who live within a short bicycle ride of their work. The gangers are designedly not local men as it is settled policy of the Commissioner of Public Works not to employ men as gangers in the districts in which they normally reside”.
The importance of the Barrow drainage scheme to Athy and South Kildare was acknowledged by Captain Sidney Minch TD when speaking in the Dail in April 1934. “Athy has been the very lucky town in which the Board of Works established their head quarters for the Barrow drainage. It has been really an industry for Athy which has no other industries practically speaking”. By then the Barrow drainage scheme was coming to a close but the workshop set up in Athy at the start of the project would remain in the town until 1942 when it was moved to Dun Laoghaire.
Even as the drainage scheme was finishing the local brick industry was also coming to an end. The last brickyard was the Athy Tile and Brick Company in Barrowford which despite the best efforts of its director Peter P. Doyle could no longer compete with the on site manufacture of concrete blocks. The last local authority houses to be built in Athy using Athy brick were the twenty-five houses at Geraldine Road.
The demise of the brick industry in South Kildare was a serious blow for the area and compounded the disappointment felt at the loss of the new sugar factory to Carlow in 1924. The Irish Government had opened up negotiations that year with a Belgium company named Lippens to set up a beet sugar factory in Ireland. Committees were set up in Athy and Carlow to further their claims to the new factory and a deputation was sent to Belgium in 1924 to meet with representatives of the Lippens company. The Belgium’s were concerned to get guaranteed subsidies from the Irish government and also commitments from Irish farmers to grow the beet. The Carlow delegates claimed to have obtained guarantees extending over eight thousand acres while the Athy delegates after much effort over several weeks were in a position to guarantee five thousand six hundred and ninety-eight acres to be devoted to beet growing in their area. In the end the factory which was apparently confidentially expected to come to Athy ended up in Carlow.
Local man Captain Hosie started up in the late 1920’s a small industry called Industrial Vehicles Ireland Limited which would in time become a substantial employer of local men. Duthie Large’s was around this time also a substantial employer and indeed in 1928 it was claimed that as manufactures of motor accessories of all kinds it employed two hundred men. I am not sure if this figure quoted in a Dail debate of May 1928 is correct but it is accepted that Duthie Large’s, the IVI and Minch Norton’s were the only major industries in the town of Athy at that time. An interesting insight into the Sugar Industry which had commenced in Carlow a few years earlier was given when Deputy Tom Harris a Fianna Fail TD for Kildare, who had fought in the GPO in 1916, asked for special measures to be put in place in 1931 to provide employment in the Athy district resulting from “the crisis in the beet growing industry”. He claimed that in the absence of local industry a large number of working people in Athy used to find work at tillage. “Beet growing for the past few years relieved the situation but this year conditions are worse than they ever were. Unemployment in the area is increasing rapidly and the Board of Health are unable to cope with the demand for relief”.
It was a topic which Captain Sidney Minch TD who lived in Athy would return to two years later. The slum clearance programme of the de Valera government was then beginning to have effect with new houses replacing the unhealthy and unsanitary hovels which made up the laneways and alleyways of most Irish provincial towns. Athy was one such town where Minch claimed “employment will depend on the rejuvenation and resurgence of country towns which at the present moment to use a mild word are in a state of decay - - - there is no county I think worse off and in need of industry than County Kildare. You have - - - Athy and several large villages in which unemployment and depressing conditions are eating into every house and home. One would think that with local labour and local sites readily available the question of establishing industries would be a priority”.
To be continued next week ………