Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Industry in Athy in the 1920s and Beyond

I finished last weeks article with Sidney Minch’s statement to the Dáil in June 1933 when he lamented the lack of industry in his home town of Athy which he claimed was suffering hugely from unemployment.  The traditional brickyard industry was in its final years, while the Barrow Drainage Scheme started eight years previously was no longer providing job opportunities and paying out weekly wage packages which in the recent past had fuelled the local economy.  The men and women of Athy and South Kildare were for the most part restricted to part-time job opportunities on local farms.  A lucky few worked for Minch Nortons, while the relatively new Industrial Vehicles Industry factory was a welcome boost to local employment.  The County Home, as St. Vincent’s Hospital was then known, had not at that stage developed the potential for female employment which it has enjoyed for the past 40 years or so.

In 1936 Bill Norton who was first elected to the Dáil for the County Dublin constituency for a brief period in 1927, spoke in the Dáil on unemployment in his new constituency of Kildare to which he had been elected in February 1932.  Condemning the low level of unemployment assistance of 12/6 a week then available to a married man with five children, he claimed families in Athy “have recently been taken out of slums and transferred to new Council houses and asked to pay 3/10 per week for rent out of their weekly allowance of 12/6.   At the same time bread cost 6 pence and butter 1/4  pence a pound”.  Norton had no hesitation in realising “that the plight of that unfortunate family which was to provide food, clothing, fuel and light and all other items of domestic expenditure for seven persons out of the sum of 8/8 per week reveals a  picture of the most harrowing poverty.” 

The unemployment situation was so grave that a local branch of the Federation of Unemployed was set up in Athy and when the Minister for Finance visited the town in June 1935 it’s members met with the Minister to press for an increase in unemployment assistance which they claimed “did not protect unemployed workers and their families from hunger and from the grossest form of malnutrition”.  Norton, who prior to becoming a TD was a rural workers union secretary joined the fray with a Dáil  deputy who when interrupting Norton had claimed “Athy is surely a very prosperous town”.  Bill Norton who more than any other Dáil deputy was familiar with conditions in Athy retorted “if prosperity is to be measured in terms of people being ragged and hungry and trying to live on 12/6  a week and paying 4/= a week rent out of that, of people clambering for relief schemes and protesting against having to work on degrading rotational schemes, then Athy has reached the hallmark of prosperity”.

The seeds of the future industrial success which Athy would enjoy up to the 1970’s had been laid down with the opening up of the Industrial Vehicle Factory in 1929.  However, it was the coming of the Asbestos Cement Company to Athy in 1937 which was the turning point in the town’s economic fortunes.  The passing of the Cement Act in 1933 cleared the way for the setting up of the Irish Cement Industry.  Matthew P. Minch, Managing Director of Minch Nortons, disappointed at the failure to secure the sugar factory for Athy met with H.A.N. Osterberg, a businessman from Denmark who was interested in securing a stake in the new Irish cement industry.  Minch encouraged the Dane to set up a factory in Athy which was serviced by road, rail and Canal and where a large workforce was readily available.  The factory was built in Mullery’s field and incorporated the site of the canal side houses which were demolished under Athy’s slum clearance programme.  Opened in May 1937 by the Minister for Industry and Commerce, Sean Lemass, the asbestos cement factory flourished despite some early difficulties caused by strikes and a downturn in business resulting in let offs.  The factory soon became the biggest employer in the town and helped enormously to relieve the chronic unemployment which had beset the town for decades.  An indication of its beneficial effect on employment in Athy can be gauged from the live register numbers which in July 1935 were 512 and 203 in October 1936.

The war years were very difficult for the asbestos factory with cement shortages which caused huge problems for the construction industry and resulted in a fall off in demand for the factory’s products.  Another affect of the restriction on the supply of cement arose in the summer of 1944 when work on the building of a new cinema in Offaly Street was stopped.  As a young lad I remember walking on the unfinished walls of the building which had been raised to about five feet high before work ceased and never restarted.  The cinema site eventually became part of Beech Grove.  An interesting development in 1946 after the war ended was the use by housing contractors of asbestos produced in the Athy Factory for producing what was disparagingly referred in Dáil as “the Athy type house”.  This was described by one disgruntled T.D. as a “lean-to with an asbestos roof, a cold, miserable house which a contractor in Wexford suggested to the County Council could be built for three hundred and seventy pounds”. 

Industrial Vehicles Limited which Captain Hosie had started in the Pound field in 1929 to produce agricultural implements including the “universal” tractor trailer opened a foundry in 1935 to make cast iron components.  The development of the foundry and the disposal of the motor and agricultural departments of the business in 1956 led to a change of name to I.V.I. Foundry Limited.  The foundry business prospered and gave regular employment over many decades to hundreds of Athy men who could be easily identified each evening by their soot laden faces as they walked or cycled home from the foundry.

Just four years after Industrial Vehicles started up, another local factory was built on the site of the old brick company premises at Barrowford.  A number of Irish businessmen intended to use surplus straw, which they believed was readily available in and around Athy, to make wallboard under the brand name “Lignatex”.  The machinery for the new factory was ordered from Sweden but with the outbreak of war in 1939 the machinery could not be sent to Ireland.  It was not until 1946/’47 that the machinery arrived and was assembled on site.  However, before production could start the straw accumulated at Barrowford was set alight and caused the largest fire ever seen in this area.  The “Lignatex” board eventually started coming off the assembly line in 1949.  However within a few years the factory experienced difficulty in obtaining sufficient straw to maintain production and the manufacture of Wallboard from straw ceased.  The factory instead used the thinnings from Irish forests drawn from all over the country.  By 1956 the factory had reached a stage where production of wallboard was far outstripping its sale and production was building up.  Bowaters, an international organisation, was brought into the operation and within two years, utilising its existing and new market contacts, the wallboard factory was able to increase its production capacity.  At its peak the factory employed upwards of 250 local men and women.

The wallboard factory experienced difficulties in the 1970’s, as did a number of other timber processing plants including Munster Chip Board in Waterford and Scarriff and Clondalkin Papermills.  They all received financial assistance from state agencies but the end for the Wallboard factory came in December 1978 with the loss of over 120 jobs.

Established in the 1940’s were two other local industries, both of which are still in operation today.  The Bord na Mona factory in Kilberry opened in 1945 producing bales of peat moss and gave employment for both permanent and seasonal staff.  Batchelors, located in an old malthouse at Rathstewart, opened its pea factory in 1941 and over the years gave employment to mostly female workers.  A substantial part of the Athy process ceased in 1947, resulting in many redundancies but in the early 1960’s further investment in the Athy plant lead to the re-emergence of Bachelor’s as a thriving industry which continues to this day.

The Wallboard factory, the asbestos factory and to a lessor extent the IVI Foundry, Minch Nortons, Batchelors and Bord na Mona were the main providers of industrial employment in Athy during the 1950’s and 60’s.  Of these only Tegral, a new name for the former asbestos factory, and to a lesser extent Batchelors, Bord na Mona, and Minch Nortons continue to operate.  The Wallboard factory closed in 1977 and fifteen years later the I.V.I. Foundry closed its doors with the loss of 120 jobs.  Minch Nortons have in recent years quite dramatically reduced its workforce as a result of improved mechanisation.  Tegral Building Products and its sister company Tegral Metal Holdings both of which have plants on the old asbestos factory site continue to be successful local industrial ventures.  Several other industries all offering important and much valued job opportunities have come and gone since the 1970’s.  Athy, which once boasted a larger industrial base than many other comparable Irish provincial towns, has suffered from a continuing failure to attract industrial development on the scale of the asbestos and wallboard factories.

The population of Athy is increasing at a very fast rate, boosted by comparatively low cost private housing schemes which have increased the town’s housing stock almost twofold in recent years.  This has placed an enormous strain on the town’s existing infrastructure and a sustained programme of improvement and development of its infrastructure will have to be put in place if Athy is ever again to become a major centre of industrial employment.

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