This weeks anecdotal trip down Castle Brand memory lane on the seventieth anniversary of the factorys founding centres on the memories of former ITGWU official Frank Lewis, the man who went on from being a young factory floor hand to play a crucial role in the unionisation of Castle Brand.Frank began his career at the Irish Aluminium Co. at the tender age of fourBy Simon O’Duffy
This week’s anecdotal trip down Castle Brand memory lane on the seventieth anniversary of the factory’s founding centres on the memories of former ITGWU official Frank Lewis, the man who went on from being a young factory floor hand to play a crucial role in the unionisation of Castle Brand.
Frank began his career at the Irish Aluminium Co. at the tender age of fourteen as an early school leaver in the summer of 1941. It was a time when the fate of the young factory hung in the balance, with dwindling stocks of aluminium becoming increasingly hard to obtain because of the war. Not wanting to break up the skilled workforce that had been assembled in Nenagh, the Midland Metal Spinning Co. in Wolverhampton commissioned a good ninety-five per cent of the Castle Brand staff to help facilitate the British war effort.
Left behind was a small contingent of about thirty young and largely inexperienced workers to keep the factory ticking over, one of whom was Frank. “We had to diversify into different types of operations because of the lack of aluminium circles at the time”, states the man whose first portfolio at the factory was that of metal spinner. “The company started buying up scrap aluminium from wherever they could get it; everything from engine crank cases to bits of cars and even bits of planes that crashed here during the war. We had a guillotine in the factory to cut up all this scrap.
“They built this furnace, it was about three-and-a-half feet deep and five width by six. We were sent out to Cloneen Bog [near Kilruane] for several weeks to cut turf for this furnace because that was the only fuel we could get – there was no coal, coke or oil. There was a guy who had a full time job driving an ass and cart in the yard and heeling the turf up by the furnace, and a stoker, whose job it was to keep the heat up. Aluminium has a very high melting point of about two thousand degrees Fahrenheit, so you wanted a tremendous fire. There was a huge pot into which we put the scrap aluminium and when it was in a molten state pour it into the moulds”.
When he wasn’t cutting turf Frank’s mandate was the fabrication and copper insulation of elements for kettles using a modified Singer sewing machine, a task for which he was paid tu’pence and a ha’penny per hour. “So you could buy yourself a packet of Woodbines for every hour you worked!” he jokes. “Altogether I think it worked out at about nine shillings for a forty-eight hour five-and-a-half day week”.
Over these years of innovation and improvisation Frank and his cohort of young workmates found continuous employment at Castle Brand, and by the end of the war the metal spinner had gained a vast amount of experience in his trade.
However 1945 was also the year that the majority of the Wolverhampton workers returned home, bringing with them very different experiences and ideals of how a factory should be run. “The lads coming back from England thought their conditions should be improved”, Frank remembers. “We didn’t know any better of course, but they felt it was wrong that there was no union in the company.
“The next thing I knew a sort of underground movement started to form a union in the factory. It was done very cautiously because there was a history behind the union at the factory. In 1938 there had been an unsuccessful attempt to start one. The directors discovered who the ‘agitators’ were, picked them out and sacked them – end of story. So it was against that kind of background that a small group of us decided to start a union. Obviously we had to be very careful”.
Frank may not have been aware of any socialist leanings at the time but he did have a father who was well grounded in union movements from the 1920s and 30s and, because Frank was young and single, he was free to initiate radical social change at Castle Brand from out of this clandestine operation.
“The first thing we did was get Tom McMahon, who was the Secretary of the ITGWU in Nenagh, to get us application forms. Behind the scenes, after work, and amidst all kinds of secrecy we got people to sign up. We handpicked what we considered to be safe fellas. We eventually got to the stage where we had about eighty per cent of the workforce on board, and were happy that this might work out”.
There followed a meeting with Bill Timmons, representative of the ITGWU Head Office, and a campaign materialised to review wages and working conditions at Castle Brand. By that stage the Union’s following had grown to over ninety per cent of the workforce. Timmons wrote a letter to the board of directors strongly advising them to recognise the Union and to meet the demands of Frank and his comrades. But the management at the aluminium factory refused to negotiate and, through consequence, suffered the wrath of a strike notice in June 1947.
“And the upshot of it all”, Frank claims, “was for one of the local directors to get up on a packing table to talk to us, and I’ll never forget his words. He said ‘Well now boys and girls. We’re all from Nenagh here. But next week, and the week after, and the week after that, I’ll still have bread on my table – will ye?’ By saying that he galvanised all the slackers in our group against him because he’d insulted them. The strike went ahead immediately. We were out for three weeks. They thought we’d capitulate but we never did, largely because of what that director had said”.
By the end of the three weeks the company was on its knees and forcibly moved to open negotiations with the Union, allowing the door to open to greener pastures ahead. “It was all a bit arm’s length at first”, Frank admits. “They went on about how good things had been and that there was no need for all this, but we stuck to our guns. As it turned out they agreed to recognise the Union, they agreed to improve conditions and they agreed to increase our wages. That was a major step forward for us. And from there things got pretty good. We all learned to trust each other and conditions definitely did improve”.
Following this benchmark in the history of Castle Brand Frank’s involvement in the Union intensified as he climbed to the position of part time Secretary of the Nenagh branch of the ITGWU in 1952. Five years later he got married and became full time Secretary of Union, eventually becoming responsible for the whole county in this role. But he never lost contact with Castle Brand, continuing to maintain Union vigilance in an otherwise placid management/employee relationship, the strike of 1969 being the notable exception.
That was until the 1980s, when telling changes took place in the management structure at Castle Brand. According to Frank these changes have more to answer for than the changing economic climate for the nightmare liquidation of 1984. “It had been a purely local board of shareholders”, he says. “Even Midland Metal had opted out of it. But then some of the shares were sold, and for the first time ever a significant slice of the ownership went out of Nenagh.
“The people who bought those shares”, Frank laments, “let’s just say that their first interest was themselves, not the factory and certainly not the workers. The whole thing changed. Different people different attitudes. Fellas of my vintage had to fight for everything. Those who came after us expected it to be served up on a plate to them. I have no doubt that it was nothing short of bad management that brought about the liquidation. It was definitely very short-sighted.”
Not for the first time the Union Secretary found himself having to pick up the pieces, and was at least successful in securing £400,000 of a pension fund that had been totally underfunded by the employer to the tune of a shortfall worth several hundred thousand pounds. Fortunately new legislation had been introduced into the Dáil in the form of the Insolvency Act, and Labour Minster Rúarí Quinn agreed to cover compensation to workers who found themselves in the position of the Castle Brand workers, and compensation was paid retrospective. Following negotiations between the Union, the liquidator and the Minster a settlement was agreed whereby the workers would be paid ten pence in the pound compensation in addition, though this was a paltry sum in the face of the real damage caused by liquidation. “There were a lot of disputes over who was to pay and who was to receive”, Frank says. “The pension was never fully refunded. It was very sad and very traumatic in many ways, having worked with so many of the fellas who were still there. A real bad time for us all, for the whole town in fact”.
But Frank’s memory is by no means completely shrouded in doom and gloom, and he has no shortage of happy recollections from his time as a worker in the factory’s earlier years. “In the 50s the factory was extended so that instead of having partitions you had this one great big open space with everyone in it”, he recalls of happier times. “When things were going well we all used to start singing. There could have been fifty or sixty of us singing. People used to stop on the railway bridge to listen to us because there’d be some very good singers among us, the likes of Patsy Maher and Billy Maher and John Burke – they all had great voices.
“We used to sing everything and anything. Usually it would be the light opera that was going on in the town – that would be the most popular. There’d be a bit of ‘Come-all ye!’ stuff as well!
“Anyway, there was this one foreman, whose name was Joe, and he was a bit officious. He was big into detail and would run his thumb along every piece and make you do it again if there was anything wrong. This was very frustrating for the piece workers, who were paid for the pieces they made, not by the hour, and he was only slowing us down. So to annoy him we all used to suddenly start singing Poor Old Joe at the top of our lungs when he’d come around! That used to really get to him; he’d really lose the head!”
Indeed authority at Castle Brand always seemed to be ingested with the proverbial pinch of salt, as Frank illustrates with another fond memory from his working days. “These two guys were making twenty gallon stock pots one time. They were about fourteen inches across, very thick, the biggest utensils we made at the time, and the whole secret of spinning them was in leverage. One guy was a huge lad of about sixteen stone in weight.
“One of the bosses came down to them one day and said ‘look, we’re after studying the wages up there and we can’t understand why ye should get £10.50 a week for the kind of work ye’re doing. Most of the other workers only make £6. The directors are going to come down here and look at just exactly what it is ye do and see if it justifies being paid that. Now I don’t care what ye do or how ye do it, just do something to make it look like ye’re hard at it here!’
“So”, Frank continues, “they decided to take the rest handle out of the spinning machine to decrease their leverage. The heavy lad says to the other: ‘I’ll go first and lie on it, you lift it. Roll up your sleeves there, get a good grip of it, and put your back into it to make your muscles swell up and stand out!’
“The next thing they knew the directors came along, and before they knew what was happening the heavy lad caught the can of water that we used for cooling the machine and splashed it over the two of them, making it look like they were dripping with sweat! When the directors saw them I heard one say to the other, ‘wow, those poor lads aren’t half paid anyway!’”
Between the Union and his involvement in the factory’s own hurling and football team, Frank remained closely connected to Castle Brand long after his departure to tend to the representation needs of workers all over Tipperary. He retired in 1987.
The founding of the Irish Aluminium Co. at Tyone can be attributed in no small way to one J.B. “Barney” O’Driscoll, a Cork man by birth who went on to play on instrumental role in the industrialisation of Nenagh and its hinterland.
Having become involved in the running of slate quarries at Portroe, Barney was an avid enthusiast of industrial development in Ireland and travelled to the Leipzig Fair (later known as the Hannover Fair) in Germany in the late 1920s and 30s in search of entrepreneurial inspiration. He was struck by the success with which German firms were pressing and spinning aluminium into cookware, and decided that a market existed in Ireland for the same.
With 1932 came a vein of good fortune when Fianna Fáil were elected into government and Seán Lemass assumed the position of Minister for Industry and Commerce. Barney and the minister would have been friends from the time they spent serving internment sentences during the War of Independence. Lemass was dedicated to the protection of Irish industries through the introduction of tariffs on foreign trade, and agreed to allow O’Driscoll’s proposed aluminium company in Nenagh have a very generous preferential trade duty of thirty-three per cent from anywhere in the world.
Armed with this guarantee Barney returned to Leipzig where he befriended a Herr Friedrich Herlen, master manufacturer of machinery in the field of aluminium craft. Herlen was committed to facilitating the construction of an aluminium factory in Nenagh and Barney was at once keen to go into business with the Germans.
However his associates on the newly formed Nenagh Industrial Development Association were reluctant to take this step, possibly owing to the sensitive nature of international politics at the time. Indeed Barney, interestingly, had also made acquaintance with Herman Göring, Hitler’s Minister for the Interior, through Herlen, and visited him in Berlin on several occasions during the 30s. Göring was actually scheduled to meet the Irish man in Newtown in August 1939, and would perhaps have made the trip were it not for the small matter of the outbreak of the Second World War.
In any case Barney’s partners in business in Nenagh favoured the English connection through Major Hazell (Dromineer) to the Midland Metal Spinning Co. in Wolverhampton, and it was thus with British, and not German, support that the Irish Aluminium Co. came into being.
And the rest, as they say, is history. Barney maintained his friendship with Göring throughout the 30s; the two men had much in common having spent time languishing in British jails at around the same time as each other, the former for his part in the 1916 Rising, the latter as a POW from the First World War. After the successful establishment of the Irish Aluminium Co., Barney went on to set up the Barlite plastic factory (1934) and Tubex factory (1938) in Portroe. He notably strove to include women in the workforce at both factories, a practice largely unheard of before then.
Major Hazell became the first Managing Director of Castle Brand. Following his death and through a somewhat bizarre twist of fate his housekeeper, Mary Barrett, ended up inheriting joint management along with Frank Flannery. The next joint MD partnership was shared between Dr. Louis Courtney and Oliver Healy, who ran the company until the harrowing liquidation of 1984. Thereafter one of the company shareholders, an American owner of Commercial Aluminium Co. took the reigns until his death in 1991, upon which the most recent partnership of Jim Meagher, Gerry O’Dowd and George Henderson bought out Castle Brand.