Living legacy - how the Carlow sugar factory inspired entrepreneurs

The closure of Carlow sugar factory was a massive blow to the town, but the factory has inspired a generation of entrepreneurs in the region

Paddy Byrne, Paddy Farrell, Michael Kehoe are 'graduates' of the Carlow sugar factory. Photo Roger Jones
Paddy Byrne, Paddy Farrell, Michael Kehoe are 'graduates' of the Carlow sugar factory. Photo Roger Jones
Three generations of the Byrne family are at the helm of the Burnside group of companies which employs over 1,000 here and in the US: Caroline Kelly, sales manager; Paddy Byrne, chairman and Pat Byrne, managing director. Photo: Roger Jones
Jim O'Brien

Jim O'Brien

People in Carlow talk about the sugar factory and its era almost as a paradise lost.

And while many mourn the demise of the sugar industry, it has left an enormous legacy that continues to provide life and livelihood to the town and region.

At its peak, 'the factory' and its sister company, Erin Foods employed 1,800 people in Carlow. Its commitment to the upskilling and education of workers has left a lasting skill base and a wealth of entrepreneurs.

The factory closed in 2005 after 79 years in operation, but in its wake a plethora of small industries have grown up - founded by people who spent their formative years in the factory.

Three generations of the Byrne family are at the helm of the Burnside group of companies which employs over 1,000 here and in the US: Caroline Kelly, sales manager; Paddy Byrne, chairman and Pat Byrne, managing director. Photo: Roger Jones
Three generations of the Byrne family are at the helm of the Burnside group of companies which employs over 1,000 here and in the US: Caroline Kelly, sales manager; Paddy Byrne, chairman and Pat Byrne, managing director. Photo: Roger Jones

Paddy Byrne met me in the boardroom of his Tullow-based company Burnside Autocyl. The company he co-founded with his three brothers in 1974 makes hydraulic cylinders and rams that are exported all over the world. Burnside Autocyl is one of three companies in the group that employs up to 1,000 people in four factories, three of them in Co Carlow and one in Pennsylvania, USA.

Paddy was born in 1937 on a small farm at Kyle Hill, eight miles from Carlow town. As a young lad he remembers going to the mill with his father and being fascinated with the belts and pulleys. This began a life-long passion for all things mechanical.

His father sent him to the tech in Carlow. "Any young lad who completed the two years in the tech and got his cert got an interview for an apprenticeship in the factory," he explained. Everything looked promising for Paddy until a bout of rheumatic fever meant he missed the last six months of school and missed out on the cert.

"As such, I was unhireable," Paddy explains.

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It was the early 1950s and Keenans of Bagenalstown came to the rescue, giving him a chance to serve his time as a toolmaker.

"I owe Keenans everything," he says. In 1962 he moved to work in the factory. His sharp eye and inventive intuition made him indispensable to the smooth running of the machinery on the factory floor and the machinery used by farmers and contractors in the field.

At that time the Sugar Company was diversifying and Erin Foods was taking shape.

However, the machinery was American and unsuited to the heavy and wet Irish ground. Paddy rose to the challenge of recalibrating it and he ended up as technical manager in Armer Salmon, the engineering division within the Irish Sugar Company.

At this time Tullow Engineering, a company making farm machinery, asked him to have a look at its operation.

He revolutionised its processes and eventually in 1974 left the Sugar factory and established Burnside Engineering in Ballymoon, along with his three brothers, Jimmy, Tom and Anthony, all of whom worked at Keenans of Bagenalstown.

Employing 850 people fulltime and another 150 seasonal workers, the business has grown to include three separate companies Burnside Hydrocyl in Ballymoon, Burnside Eurocyl in Bagenalstown and Burnside Autocyl in Tullow, which has a subsidiary factory in Charlesburg, Pennsylvania.

Peter Wall worked in the Sugar Factory from 1962 to 1976 before returning to run the family blacksmith business at Chapelstown on the Tullow road on the outskirts of Carlow in 1976.

"The Walls have had a forge here since 1916. Before that, this was the forge for the Brownshill Estate and before that they say pikes were made here for the '98 rebellion."

He takes me to the oldest part of the complex, a cut-stone building with a brick archway in the shape of a horseshoe.

"The sugar factory was a great place to learn your trade. They made and repaired everything in-house, from the factory machines to the harvesters.

"You learned from the lad working beside you, there was plenty to learn and you came out with a range of skills.

"You had to be prepared to drop tools and do whatever was needed."

Peter's company, Walls Engineering, employs 50 people and is now managed by his two sons: "We do general engineering and general maintenance for bakeries and businesses like that. We do larger projects and did the steelwork for the Tottenham Hotspur grounds. Most of our work is Dublin based where 90pc of the work is structural steel."

Other companies whose founders began their working lives in the factory include Jerry O'Toole who founded J&J Services in Tullow specialising in Agricultural, Motor and Engineering supplies. Agricultural machinery manufacturers Gordon Engineering Ltd, owned by Alan and Barry Gordon at Nurney, grew from a company founded by their father who worked in the Sugar Factory. Also on the farming front, Gerry Murphy in Clonegal worked in the Armer Salmon machinery division of the Sugar Factory now reconditions beet harvesters.

Mick Kehoe has his own engineering business in the heart of Carlow town.

He served his time at the factory from 1982 to 1986, travelled the world and came back to found Piping Ltd, supplying and maintaining pipework for the food industry in particular - with clients that include Tetra Pack and Glanbia. He employs 20 people and takes on apprentices.

"I operate according to the ethos and values of the sugar factory. A man called Enda Smith was in charge of the apprentices and he was like a father to generations of us," he said.

"In the factory you could undertake any course you liked and it was free as long as you passed your exams. It has left a great inheritance."

The name Enda Smith comes up again when I meet Brian Lyons, Mick Kehoe Snr and Paddy O'Farrell, all former employees.


Brian Lyons explains that Enda Smith was the man who helped hundreds of young workers to reach their potential.

"When I started in the factory he noticed I was good with figures so I was sent to do accountancy in Rathmines and ended up as financial controller in Thurles." Enda Smith died recently and he left meticulous notebooks detailing all the apprentices and all their achievements, says Paddy O'Farrell who worked in the factory in his youth and went on to become a teacher with the local VEC.

"In Enda's time apprentices got a half-day on Wednesdays to attend courses provided they did two night classes. The apprenticeship scheme in the factory was an important factor in the Institute of Technology being based in Carlow," he said.

Mick Kehoe (Snr) lists the achievements of the apprentices in international competitions. "They were always in the top 10 internationally and one year Carlow apprentices won first, second, fourth and sixth in the international technical drawing competition."

It is little wonder the Carlow sugar factory is about more than memories - it has left a living legacy.

'Sugar beet industry can be revived if farmers are willing'

The Carlow sugar factory was the life-blood of the south eastern town and county from its establishment in 1926 to its closure in 2005.

In the past year there have been rumours and open discussion about reviving the sugar beet industry in the region.

An Oireachtas report on the future of the tillage sector produced by the Committee on Agriculture published late last year called for a review of the opportunities in sugar beet.

Earlier this year Beet Ireland, a lobby group seeking to re-establish the Irish sugar beet industry, acquired a 200ac site for a factory at Plumperstown on the Carlow-Kildare border.

Michael Hoey of Beet Ireland believes there is a real market for Irish sugar.

"As a food producer we are importing huge amounts of ingredients, there is a definite willingness in the Irish food industry to buy Irish sugar," he said.

While the tillage sector is going through a tough time at the moment he nevertheless believes there are real possibilities.

Now that Beet Ireland has bought the site for a new factory at Plumperstown on the Carlow-Kildare border, and raised awareness of the potential for the industry, Mr Hoey believes that it is up to the farmers to take the opportunity.

"We have the best site in the country, the quotas are gone, all it will take is a willingness on the part of farmers to make it happen," he said.

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