Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Industry in Athy

The industrial landscape of Athy and south Kildare has seen many changes over the years. Full time employment was largely dependent on Minch Nortons and farm work, with a modest amount of employment attributable to brick making and local foundries. That was to change with the opening of the I.V.I. Foundry in the 1920s and the Asbestos factory in the 1930s. Local employment was further enhanced with the opening of the Irish Wallboard Mills factory at Tomard. This gave an enormous boost to industrial employment not only in south Kildare but also in the rural areas of north Carlow and Laois. The Wallboard company was formed in February 1939 but due to the outbreak of World War II the machinery and equipment on order from Sweden prior to the start of the war did not arrive in Ireland until some time after 1945. Shortly after that the directors of Irish Wallboard Mills Ltd. approached Bowaters, the largest user of native timber in the UK and as a result the Athy Mill company became part of the worldwide Bowater organisation. In 1973 twelve employees of Bowaters Irish Wallboard who joined the factory when it started received awards for 25 years’ service. They were Matthew Nolan, Sean Keaveney, Thomas Fingleton, Thomas Murphy, John Howe, Andy Coughlan, John Hynes, Chris McKenna, Patrick Doogue, James Murphy, Michael Webster and William Delahunt. That same year two new factories were set up in Athy. Thirty jobs were created at Athy’s industrial estate when Oxford Laboratories opened a medical equipment manufacturing plant. The American company based in California opened the plant to service European and African markets for medical diagnostic dispensing equipment and medical kits for use in hospitals and medical laboratories. At the official opening of the factory by the Minister for Industry and Commerce Justin Keating, the Industrial Development Authority indicated that Oxford Laboratories had a manufacturing job target of 700 jobs in the following five years. A few months later the Peerless Rug Company opened its factory in the local industrial estate for the manufacture of scatter rugs and bath sets. Located in the 52,000 sq. ft. factory in the local I.D.A. industrial estate the factory was initially expected to give employment to 80 persons, “60% of our workforce will be men” declared the managing director of Peerless Rugs when he announced the planned opening of the factory. The plant was expected to provide employment for about 200 workers when in full production. An earlier addition to industrial employment in Athy resulted from the announcement in April 1967 by the Board of Kingswear Ltd. of Naas of the setting up of Kildare Sportswear in Athy. The company had acquired a 4½ acre site fronting the junction of the Athy Castledermot road from Kildare County Council for £2,100.00. Pending the erection of the factory the company rented the first floor of the Town Hall as a temporary manufacturing base. The credit for securing that new factory for Athy was largely due to the efforts of Athy’s Development Association headed up by its chairman Dr. Bryan Maguire and its secretary William Fenelon. The first chairman of the association which was established some years earlier to encourage industrial development in Athy was the local solicitor R.A. Osborne. The 1966 census return showed that 1,299 persons were employed locally, of whom 367 were females. Employment was mainly in manufacturing and commerce, with just 99 persons classified as unemployed. Employment remained relatively static between 1961 and 1966, but the opening of the sportswear factory helped to boost employment. The 1973 opening of the Oxford Laboratories factory and that of Peerless Rugs added considerably to the town’s industrial employment and even more to the inflow of workers from the surrounding rural areas. The town’s population in 1966 was 4,069 and that population was well serviced by various local industries. The four factories mentioned in this article are now closed. The town population has grown enormously in the interim period and is now about 11,000. Industrial employment has decreased and the job losses resulting from the factory closures are reflected in the lessening commercial activity in the town’s high street. The town’s Development Association is long gone but the foresight of those involved in its setting up including Bob Osborne, Trevor Shaw, Bill Fenelon, Dr. Maguire and Johnny Watchorn is needed now more than ever to help Athy regain its status as a first class market town supported by a strong industrial base. Athy is a major educational centre, with two post primary schools and several primary schools with a catchment area extending into Laois and large parts of south Kildare. We must give those leaving school the opportunity of employment in their hometown and for this Athy needs to improve its industrial base. I wonder if given the absence of a local Chamber of Commerce there is a need to revive Athy’s Development Association?

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