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Arklow: cracks in a proud tradition

For 63 years Arlow Pottery was one of the stalwarts of native Irish industry, turning out beautiful china and pottery to an appreciative audience. Yesterday, Tanaiste Mary Harney visited the town for crisis talks on plans to close the plant, which has run up losses of over £7m. Ita O'Kelly-Browne reports.

The closure of Arklow Pottery, the largest plant of its kind in Ireland, is not just a blow to the 140 workers who will lose their jobs it is also a blow to lovers of exquisite pottery and china throughout Ireland and North America, where the company exported up to 70pc of its produce.

The company, which provided wedding presents to generations of Irish couples since opening in Arklow in 1934, has given the reasons for shutting up shop as a combination of oversupply in the international market and cheaper imports from Asia.

Financial Controller Eamon Fox said that although they had hoped to cut their cost base, fierce competition from Asia meant they had won the battle but lost the war.

Trouble is nothing new to Arklow Pottery which was taken over by the Japanese company Noritake of which it became a subsidiary in 1977.

The Japanese giant which also has tableware plants in the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Japan restructured, laid off staff and invested £750,000 in new plant machinery but all to little avail.

Although staffing levels peaked at 480 in the early 1980s, during the last 15 years there have been layoffs. The separate Noritake porcelaine plant closed in 1985 with the loss of 135 jobs. It was this plant which manufactured the beautiful tea sets with signature rose pattern which many women of my generation have been lucky enough to have passed on to us from our mothers.

The difference between Arklow china teacups and fine bone English china teacups is that the Arklow ones always had a bigger and more liftable handle, ideal for men with big hands that is!

And of course they were considerably cheaper than their English rivals like Royal Doulton.

Although Arklow's traditional dinner services are arguably beautiful to the eye, above all they are traditional and, to some younger folk at any rate, they are old fashioned and by design very Irish which appeals to the American market but not necessarily the home market.

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A quick look around the average Irish home today and you will see lots of brightly coloured mugs and informal dinner wear, mostly from the Far East and compliments of trend setting companies like Habitat.

Formal dinner services and tea sets are now the exception rather than the rule and in many homes are now almost as rare as having a formal dining room in itself.

Waterford Crystal has kept ahead of the posse by innovation combined with some well calculated risk-taking. A product like Waterford cut glass caters to a market which is effectively finite in size and basically only has limited appeal.

Although there was a time when quality cut glass simply meant Waterford, during the last decade the company realised that with a rush of young pretenders onto the cut glass market and increasing and cheaper competition from the Far East, they had to do something radical in order to not only survive but thrive.

Their saviour came in the unlikely form of Ireland's adopted son clothes designer John Rocha. Three years ago the company approached Rocha with a view to designing a new range of cut glass. Given that Rocha had huge cachet in that niche twenty and thirty something home owning market unlikely purchasers of traditional Waterford cut glass - it was a masterstroke if they could pull it off.

With a very new and contemporary design and a hugely reduced price tag per unit from an average of between £40 and £50 per glass to just £25 per glass their gamble was a runaway success and today no design conscious or house proud thirtysomething would be caught dead without Rocha Waterford glasses for their Cabernet Sauvignon.

Seamus McRedmond of The China Showrooms in Abbey Street the oldest china and glass company in the country, which opened in the 1920s blames the market and not the company for the closure of the firm.

``Modern lifestyles today mean the china market worldwide and particularly in America, the main Noritake market, is a constricting rather than an expanding market. Although Noritake in recent years launched new and more modern designs including Celt Craft and Homecraft, it unfortunately was not enough to sustain the company in this increasingly competitive market.''

``There was a time when no Irish home was complete with a china cabinet bulging with formal china but today informality is the order of the day and kitchen enhancement rather than formal dining and china ware for same is very much the trend.''

``I think that the closure of Arklow is a very sad day for Ireland. They were a great company with great products and they deserved to do very well. Last Saturday for instance the vast bulk of calls to our shop concerned worried customers wondering how they will replace broken items from sets in the future. The level of calls indicates the volume of interest in the product yet the irony is that market forces ultimately closed it,'' said a solemn Seamus McRedmond, who promised that The China Showrooms itself is one company that has no plans whatsoever to shut up shop.

And although the Far East can and probably always will flood the market with cheap imports, the market reality is that they cannot compete with the allure of a premium Irish product which offers contemporary design at the right price.

Celtic Tiger or not, it is a sad day for Ireland when a company like Arklow Pottery is forced out of business and has to pull down the shutters for the last time.

Just imagine the outcry in England if a company like Royal Doulton were forced to cease trading. It would be deafening.

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