Monday 18 June 2018

My father and the factory he set up - under instruction from Sean Lemass

The former Taoiseach liked the cut of my father's jib and this helped to set up the family business, writes Mary O'Rourke

Gentex exterior.
Gentex exterior.

Mary O'Rourke

Sean Lemass died in May 1971, now 47 years ago, and increasingly is regarded as forward-looking, ambitious for Ireland and possessing a formidable intelligence.

There has been great interest in him in recent days because of the release of hitherto unknown tapes which he talked through with Dermot Ryan, a well-known Irish businessman of the 1960s, extracts of which have been published recently.

Sean Lemass and PJ Lenihan in 1953.
Sean Lemass and PJ Lenihan in 1953.

They show a man with all the attributes I have listed above, and which throughout his political life he used to great benefit, not just for his Fianna Fail party, but also for Ireland, positioning Ireland internationally and using that platform to advance the country.

Now there is a direct link between Sean Lemass and my father, PJ Lenihan of Athlone. The story is brief, but to do it justice I have to go back a little bit in time.

When my father was newly married to his wife Anne, he joined the Civil Service and was posted to the Revenue Department. His first posting was to Dundalk, where my two brothers Brian and Paddy were born. On promotion he was sent to Tralee, where my sister Anne was born, and then on further promotion he was sent to Dublin to serve in Dublin Castle.

While he was there he had many dealings with Sean Lemass as Minister for Industry and Commerce, when the government of the day was looking at all of the various forms of taxation. PJ Lenihan and Sean Lemass got on well. As Sean Lemass said afterwards: "I liked the cut of his jib."

Anyway, one day he called up my father on the telephone and asked would he take leave of absence from the Civil Service and go to Athlone, where the government was considering setting up a factory to give good employment and to make cotton goods. The family lore has it that my father came home to my mother and said: "Pack your traps Annie, we're going to Athlone."

And so the two of them came to Athlone, with three young children and me in my mother's tummy. They set up General Textiles as it was known in the beginning - it would become popularly known as Gentex - based in the campus of an old Protestant boarding school for boys called the Ranelagh Boarding School. There was a house in the middle of it so we lived over the shop, so to speak. Very quickly there were three sheds set up, for bleaching, dying and finishing, which are the bedrock of all cotton dealings.

So General Textiles took sail, and we were brought up in the middle of it all. My father was firstly installed as the secretary to General Textiles Limited, later becoming the managing director.

The people on the first board were a Henri Legache and one Howard Robinson - the father-in-law of Mary Robinson, the first woman president of Ireland.

The factory quickly gained success. At its height, it had up to 1,000 workers, giving huge job opportunities, not just to Athlone but to many in south Roscommon and south Westmeath.

There were inherent skills in Athlone, honed in the Athlone Woollen Mills which unfortunately had burned down in the 1920s, and there were many who had the skills necessary for textiles.

In the beginning, a great number of Flemish weavers were brought to Athlone to set up the business. Twenty houses for workers were built just outside the factory in a terrace of houses called Talbot Avenue.

At the bottom of the garden, opposite the house we lived in, there was a big orchard, and at the bottom of that orchard the main Flemish foreman lived - a Monsieur Trevier and his wife. At least I think he was the foreman because he lived in a more important-looking house than the others. Anyway, they had no family, but finally after several years they had a daughter called Yvonne.

Time went on and it was decided that a spinning department would be set up and the only place for it was the orchard which was on the campus of the old Ranelagh school. So the beautiful orchard trees were felled and the spinning department was installed.

I remember that was in 1947 and Sean Lemass came to open it accompanied by his lovely wife Kathleen, to whom, as a nine-year-old, I presented a bouquet of flowers. Life continued, and my father and Sean Lemass had many meetings up and down as General Textiles continued in its prosperity. There were so many stories in all of this time that it would take half a newspaper to record them.

Enough it is to know that the factory was professional and well run. My father had an innate social conscience and there was a resident nurse and a doctor who came four days a week, and many social clubs such as the boxing club, the soccer club, the swimming club, and many others.

No matter how late my father had been out socialising the night before, he would be up, washed, shaved and dressed, with a handkerchief in his pocket, down into the factory yard to meet the first wave of workers coming in. There was full employment with three sessions of eight hours per day, and my father was always busy around the factory looking at everything, changing this and changing that, but generally on great terms with all those who worked in Gentex at the time.

As the youngest of the family, I had an idyllic childhood roaming the bleaching, dying, finishing and spinning sheds, talking to everyone and being given the odd treat of a bar of chocolate. Generally speaking, it was a great environment in which to grow up.

Time went on and in the 1950s, synthetics became the norm. The coming of nylon and all of the associated synthetics meant there was a gradual winding down of General Textiles Ltd. If it had only stayed the course, later on cotton became the fabric of the day, so to speak, and it would have thrived again. However, bit by bit, it lessened its employment and then in the late 1960s it came gradually to an end.

Be that as it may, people still have the sheets and the towels they made; I have often used it as a conversation opener or in answer to a question when someone asks: "How do you come from Athlone?" I would explain about Gentex and the Constellation sheets they made, and invariably a couple of hands would go up from the audience and one or two women would say: "Oh we have Constellation sheets, and they are so hard-wearing," and so on.

So that is the story of General Textiles and of the quick wit of Sean Lemass - who on meeting a civil servant who attracted him because of his equally sharp wit and conversation, decided to take him out of the Civil Service and send him to Athlone.

In that way, all of the comment and talk and writings about Sean Lemass have much fired my imagination.

There is an added-on interest in the story. Years and years later when I was Minister for Education, I was in the parliament building in Brussels attending a meeting of the Council of Ministers for Education. When we had finished our meeting, an usher came over and told me one of the translators wanted to have a word with me. Now I thought it was perhaps something I had said, but anyway she came over to me and as the tale unfolded, she was Yvonne Trevier - the baby from the bottom of the orchard of all those many, many years ago. So don't ever say that the paths of our lives don't criss-cross.

I also noted a recent newspaper report that Leo Varadkar has a portrait of Sean Lemass hanging on his office wall. The Taoiseach went up a couple of notches in my estimation when I read that.

He would do a lot worse than try to emulate the sharpness of action, the formidable intelligence and the reputation as an international statesman which Sean Lemass forged for himself and for Ireland.

Sunday Independent

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