The Founding of the Presentation Brothers’ Schools at Birr in 1877; recollections of 1927 from J. Deering.
[Birr Historical Society meets again on Monday 4 December 2023 after a break of three…
The extension and building of the railway line to Edenderry in the 1870s gave much needed employment to the area which was further bolstered by the arrival of two Quaker entrepreneurs from Bristol, England namely Daniel and John Alesbury. There had been a large Quaker community in Edenderry since the end of the seventeenth century and Daniel Alesbury commenced working with one such family, Williams, who owned a timber factory located in the towns market square. He subsequently married into the family and quickly commenced his own business before these premises were burned by fire in 1888. From here the factory moved to its location along the Grand Canal opposite New Row Corner at the junction which leads to the village of Rhode.
This building was also destroyed by fire in June 1904, costing £30,000 and leaving 150 people out of work. Ironically, the King’s County Chronicle reported that Alesbury had recently turned down the opportunity of fire insurance to save overheads. Despite this major setback the factory was rebuilt, this time a concrete structure replacing the more accident prone timber buildings. By this time the machinery and craftsmanship were described as being amongst the best in the world and Alesbury products were soon to be found all over the world. The factory continued to prosper and during the Great War of 1914-1918 gave employment to Belgian refugees of war. Despite blockades, strikes and threats to communications during the War of Independence, output from the factory remained steady. Many of the workers themselves were involved in the local battalions of the IRA; reporting for work every morning, despite having been on active duty during the night.
One notable volunteer was J.J. Sutton who was arrested in Alesburys after he had been missing from work and was believed to have been a key organiser in IRA activity in the locality. As with in Tullamore and other towns there were a considerable number of labour strikes at Alesbury’s in early years of the Irish Free State as workers jostled for rights under a new regime. It was little wonder then by the end of the 1920s the fortunes of the factory were in continuous decline. Its decline also mirrored that of Edenderry at large where serious social and economic problems were publically visible. In particular, public housing was the number one concern for the Edenderry Towns Commissioners, although the building of ninety-four houses on Fr Paul Murphy St, formerly Blundell Street, did alleviate this congestion. The local branch of the St Vincent de Paul were overburdened and something was required to be done as many families were without money, food and some without proper shelter.
Staff at Alesburys, early 1920s
From 1926 Alesburys was in steady decline and serious financial difficulties threatened its survival. At this time the administration of the factory was overseen by the banks and a board of directors were put in place to manage its affairs. Indeed, until its closing in September 1931, the factory was inextricably linked with two Irish Free State Senators, Joseph Connolly and James Douglas. In his memoir, later published in 1996 by J.A. Gaughan, Joseph Connolly reveals his thoughts on his time spent in Alesbury’s and the closure of the factory in the early 1930s. In 1926 he was approached by Senator James Douglas and asked to take over the management of the Alesbury timber factories which were located in Edenderry and Navan. In his own words he reported an unfavourable picture of the factories to both Douglas and the bank that now had a vested interest in its fortunes. In particular, the Edenderry factory was in disarray and financially unviable. According to Connolly the factory ‘had grown up from small beginnings in the most haphazard fashion and to me, was a collection of ill planned and badly constructed annexes while for the most part the plant was makeshift and out of date’. The Navan factory was somewhat better circumstanced although it too needed many alterations. The Navan factory was built in 1918 on the site of an old seminary.
Douglas had been appointed to the position of chairman of the Alesbury concerns in Edenderry and Navan in 1925 by the government and oversaw an industrial trade loan of £28,500 to keep things afloat. According to Connolly it was highly commendable of the government to try and keep 250 men employed at Edenderry. Although initially opposed to the plan, Connolly’s report recommended the reconstruction of the plant and modernising the machinery. However, much of the trade loan was ‘put to bad use’ before Connolly took over as manager and had been used to clear a bank overdraft and pay off debtors. By 1926 the National Land Bank sought money which had been accumulated in a bank overdraft but the trade loan had been spent. Connolly claimed that providing employment was the only reason for continuing the factory at Edenderry and by 1932 this position had become untenable. He notes that the wage bill fluctuated from four to five thousand pounds per week; a figure it seems was grossly exaggerated. The overdraft and the interest on the loan meant that little was expended on improvements at the Edenderry plant. The decision to close the factory caused consternation in the town and Connolly came in for more than his fair share of the blame and abuse that followed.
The Dispute: ‘artificial respiration to an already deceased corpse’
Senator Joseph Connolly
In January 1931 a report was prepared for the government on the needs to implement a tariff on motor bodies being imported into the Irish Free State, in an effort to try and protect Irish manufacture. At Edenderry, Connolly argued that he had maintained a skeleton organisation in the coach building department at Edenderry and was hoping that the tariff would be put in place so that the factory would find its feet again. Without the tariff ‘it would be an end to coach building in Edenderry’ according to Connolly. In an interview with the Meath Chronicle in July 1931, Connolly claimed that he had abstained from politics in Edenderry and that he was a citizen of Dublin and that was where his local Fianna Fail Cumman was located. He rejected claims by William Davin, Labour TD for Laois/ Offaly that he was exciting political opinion at the factory and around the Edenderry electoral area. As proof, Connolly cited a letter from William Norton, leader of the Labour Party who distanced himself from the claims made by his party colleague Davin. Unfazed by the criticism, Connolly also stated that he did not mind being referred to as ‘a thousand a year man’ as he had always been such, including when Eamon De Valera and Michael Collins had persuaded him to leave his business interests in Belfast and take up the position of Irish Consulate General in the United States in 1922.
In September Connolly was happy to report that ‘the work had been resumed where it had been left off when the men were interfered with’, a reference to overtures which had been made in relation to the purchase of the factory. The Irish Independent reported that it was the intention of the people of Edenderry to buy the factory from the directors and to keep manufacturing products in the town. A committee had been formed, headed by Messrs Fay, O’Brien and Williams with a view to enticing other shopkeepers to come together and purchase the factory. After two months however it was obvious that the necessary funds could not be found and Connolly was informed that the people of the town would not be able to buy the factory. During the campaign for the local elections in county Kildare, Connolly spoke at Johnstownbridge and said that he had no dispute with the workers or with the trade unions in Edenderry. He stated that the company was paying 6% interest on the £28, 500 loan which had been given to stimulate the factory but that an overdraft of £10,000 had also accumulated. In his opinion he had been ‘brought to Edenderry to give artificial respiration to an already deceased corpse’. Yet there were still grounds for optimism looking forward. The opening of bus networks in Ireland had briefly helped the fortunes of Alesburys, as many of the vehicles for the IOC and GNR companies were built in Edenderry. However, when the railway companies took over the bus routes they began to build the buses and coaches themselves. According to Connolly since his arrival in Edenderry ‘we have established a first class reputation for really reliable well made good quality furniture’. Competition from new industries in England and the United States had also caused the decline of the factory.
Newspaper report of sale of Aylesbury machinery
However, events took a sinister turn when in early September 1931 it was announced that the factory was to close permanently. ‘Exciting Scenes in Edenderry’ was how the Irish Times described the closing of the factory. The directors of the company had been called in to oversee the closure and most of the workers had been relieved of their services. The last workers in the factory had been the French polishers and upholsters. Another last gasp attempt by a local group failed to muster the desired funds to purchase the factory outright. While the remaining tasks were carried out at the factory on 7 September, union officials, employees and others gathered outside. One of the men who had been employed to dismantle the machinery was assaulted by the crowd as he left on his dinner break at midday. Soon the Civic Guard were called in to protect the remaining workers and directors, most of whom had been brought from Belfast by Connolly to finish the jobs. These men were given police protection on their breaks when the left the factory. When Connolly arrived on the 3pm bus from Dublin he was met in the town square by an angry mob, who proceeded to ‘boo and jeer at him’ as he made his way towards the factory. Amongst the cheers were calls of praise for President Cosgrove, Cumman na Gaedhael and the Irish Free State, all of whom of course were Connolly’s political adversaries.
When the Belfast workers left the factory just after six o’clock that evening a riot ensued as they made their way to their lodgings for the night. A hand to hand battle was fought around New Row Corner; one local man, Thomas McCarthy was stabbed with a chisel and required attention in the local hospital. The Irish Times noted that a number of melees took place throughout the evening and it was soon realised that it was not safe for the Belfast men and they spent the night in the Garda barracks. For the stabbing of McCarthy, two Belfast brothers were detained on the charge to appear before the next court. That evening a large meeting was held in the Town Hall, and afterwards a procession marched to the Garda barracks where the Belfast workers were handed an ultimatum to leave the town within twelve hours. Two of the Belfast workers were allowed to go to the factory and retrieve their tools and the men all made their way out of the town on the first train at daylight. A local man, noted to be involved in the local Fianna Fail Cumman was also forced to leave the locality, an ultimatum he obeyed having witnessed the previous days disturbances.
In the weeks that followed several meetings were held and employees were of the opinion that the factory would soon be reopened and their jobs secured. At a meeting on 13 September in Edenderry town hall, which was well attended, local TD William Davin and JF Gill, his Labour party colleague, spoke to those assembled. Andrew Byrne, a town commissioner and who had contested unsuccessfully the 1923 General Election, told those present that ‘the future looked bright but the co-operation of the people was needed’ and thanked them for their endeavours so far. He further added that house property would fall by two thirds if the factory was allowed to close. The factory in his opinion was ‘the life blood, the very existence of Edenderry’. Gill told the meeting that he had refused an invitation from Connolly to meet with a Mr Collins of the Irish Furniture Union, but that he had met with Senator Douglas, the chairman of the Alesbury board. Gill also voiced his anger at some newspapers who claimed that the local men had started the disturbances earlier in the month and laid the blame squarely with the Belfast workers. William Davin congratulated the workers for their ‘constitutional’ manner in which they had conducted themselves. Davin used the opportunity to take a political swipe at Connolly, who he stated was a member of the Fianna Fail party, a group which had constantly looked for the reduction in the numbers of Gardai, but that Connolly was always willing to use them to get work done at Alesburys.
Staff at work in Alesburys
The ensuing winter was a bleak period at Edenderry and all classes affected by the closure of the factory, in particular shopkeepers and publicans who keenly felt the loss of Alesburys. Trouble resurfaced in early January 1932 when a group of men arrived to remove some of the machinery were met by workers, who despite that presence of the Civic Guard, who had sent for reinforcements from Tullamore, managed to make their way into the premises after entering over the wall from the Grand Canal. Michael O’Connell told the Dublin ‘emergency men’ that any attempt to remove the machinery would be resisted by the workers. Senator Douglas who was present on this occasion informed O’Connell that they would ‘not listen to any threats’. However, the men were forced to leave Edenderry without the machinery, the locals claiming another victory. In February 1932 during the General Election campaign, President Cosgrove visited the town taking advantage of the hostile feeling in the locality to Joseph Connolly and the Fianna Fail party.
Another public meeting was organised in April 1932 at which JF Gill, secretary of the Edenderry branch of the I.T.G.W.U. noted that 70% of the unemployed Alesbury workers would soon have to depend on charity so desperate their situation had become. The issue of raising the money to buy the factory was again mooted but the workers were told that the price set by the Alesbury directors was too high. Later that month a deputation of Edenderry men led by Gill waited for Sean Lemass, Minster for Industry and Commerce, as he left Leinster House on Kildare Street and informed him that they wanted him to do all in his power to have the factory reopened. They highlighted the numerous problems that existed in the town as a result; almost two hundred men out of work, unemployment insurance benefits were exhausted, £36 had been expended in poor relief and the Society of St Vincent de Paul funds exhausted. The minister told the delegation that under the ‘Trade Loans Act 1924’ he could not give any promises to people but that where possible he would endeavour to do his best for Edenderry. Andrew Byrne told Lemass that Edenderry had the facilities and the labour force for any kind of factory to be located there, Lemass responded saying that Edenderry’s reputation as a centre of coach building was well known. The deputation on this occasion included William Davin T.D., Padraig Boland T.D., Eugene O’Brien T.D., PJ Corry T.D., M. Mangan, A. Williams, E. Fay and Dr O’Higgins T.D. This meeting was followed by a visit to the Department of Industry and Commerce in May 1932 led by Gill and Byrne where they were told that amongst the companies interested in establishing at Edenderry were a brush making factory and a saw mills. In December 1932 E.P. O’Brien T.D. asked in the Dail if the new housing board which had been established would consider having some of their requirements made in the Edenderry factory. Lemass stated that the issue of reopening the Edenderry plant was still engaging the thoughts of his department. The issue was again raised in the Dail in April 1933 when Dr O’Higgins asked that the factory be reopened as the machinery was still sitting in the empty premises at Edenderry. Fianna Fail’s economic policies were deplored at a public meeting in Edenderry in June 1933, at which a Mr P. Baxter spoke of the hardships endured by the farmers of Edenderry. Every public opportunity it seems was used to belittle the de Valera government. Indeed, as late as 1942, opposition members of the Dail taunted Sean Lemass over his handling of the Alesbury factory at Edenderry some ten years previous.
If hopes were high of a factory reopening at Edenderry, the news of the disaster at Alesburys in Navan in March 1933 must have been welcomed in some quarters. The Meath Chronicle describes the fire at the Navan factory:
The fire apparently broke out in the drying kiln, which was situated in a seven story stone built building. Under the same room was located the polishing rooms and offices. The discovery was made shortly after eight o clock and the Civic Guards and workers rushed to the scene despite all their work the complete building was gutted to a smouldering shell of twisted girders and toppling masonry.
However, Alesbury’s would not return to Edenderry, but a new factory and economic rescue was around the corner for the town. In December 1934 then Minister for Industry and Commerce, Sean Lemass wrote to the Edenderry Towns Commissioners telling them that he was ‘constantly directing the attention of interested parties to the vacant premises in Edenderry’. The Chairman of the Commissioners, George Connell told the meeting that an English firm, Hutchinson’s had applied to the department of Industry and Commerce to have a tannery established at Edenderry. Connell stated that in former times as many as three tanneries had been in operation in Edenderry. In 1800 the second marquis of Downshire had objected to these being established in Edenderry as they were ‘an offensive thing’, but the commissioners were oblivious to such concerns. Andrew Byrne brought the good news that he had been informed that the Imperial Chemical Company intended on opening premises in Edenderry. Another possibility was that a Dublin clothing company had investigated the premises at Edenderry to ascertain its suitability. The meeting concluded that Hutchinson’s should be encouraged to establish their premises at Edenderry once. However, disappointment soon followed when in January 1935 the commissioners reported that Hutchinson’s were only interested in establishing a firm at one of the seaports in the Irish Free State.
By June 1935, Sean Lemass had delivered on his promise and a new factory was announced for Edenderry. The Irish Independent reported that on 18 June 1935 the London shoe making firm, Wachman, opened in Edenderry would employ twenty boys, and by the end of the week it was hoped to have one hundred more in the factory. The machinery in the new plant it was claimed was capable of making over 10,000 pairs of shoes per week. A group of twenty-five skilled operatives had been brought in to instruct the new recruits how to work the machinery. The Edenderry Shoe Company continued to employ people in Edenderry until its demise in the early 1990s, and like its predecessor continued to keep Edenderry on the map. Throughout the twentieth century the fortunes of Alesburys and the Edenderry Shoe Company were in many ways the fortunes of Edenderry. A united front by the people of Edenderry in the early 1930s kept jobs and people in the locality. Although at times their actions may have been outside the remit of the law, they were a united and determined group gathered from all sections of the community. Ironically, although Joseph Connolly was accused of political bias at Edenderry, the move to keep employment in the town and bring a new factory to the area involved representatives from all the local political parties. In many ways the Alesbury debacle of the early 1930s may have helped to soften Civil War tensions in the town.
A full version of this article appears in Offaly Heritage, Vol 6 (2010), pp 285-294