Wednesday 16 October 2019

Magnificent Donaghy's Mill crumbles after 200 years

Many of the former mill workers left for a new life in Waltham, USA

The blaze at Donaghy’s Mill on Friday evening
The blaze at Donaghy’s Mill on Friday evening

Hubert Murphy

Garda investigations are ongoing into a suspicious fire that destroyed Donaghy's Mill on Trinity Street on Friday evening.

The blaze, that smoulded into Saturday, took hold quickly and by 6.30pm the roof began to fall in on the building that was a landmark structure by the Boyne since the early 1800s.

A number of units from Drogheda Fire Station attended the scene alomg with their counterparts from Dundalk.

Large crowds watched the building burn from the Bridge of Peace and the Ramparts area as thick, black smoke cast a shadow over the northside of the town.

Politicians expressed their shock at the scene, Cllr Pio Smith stating that the fire was a setback for the town's heritage.

'The site was in the process of being sold to a company who were interested in developing a hotel complex and making use of the river frontage. I believe a bank was holding up the sale. The council had an opportunity to buy the entire site in 2014 at a knockdown price, unfortunately they weren't interested. We could have developed it in the same way as Kilkenny did with the old Smithwicks btewery site. A missed opportunity,' he stated.

Mayor Frank Godfrey also expressed his disgust at events, saying the property should not have been allowed to remain derelict and this was something the council must always be on top of.

Its history is something FF electiom candidate Anthony Moore feels personal about. 'Many people in Drogheda will have a close personal connection to it. My uncle used to work in the shoe factory there after he left school and he always had happy memories of his time there.'

The landmark building, once the home of the West Gate Flax Mill, has been part and parcel of Drogheda since the mid 1800s.

The business of the mill was adversely affected in the early part of the 1900s when imported cotton materials took over from linen. The mill closed and with it, the jobs of almost half the workforce, among them a grandfather of the late historian Moira Corcoran, Terence Duffy, a skilled loom mechanic.

But help was at hand for many of the out-of-work when a mill owner came over from Waltham in Massachusetts, hired the skilled weavers and took them back to his Mill in Waltham. Many never came home.

Edward Donaghy came to Drogheda in 1932 to set up in business and he had a choice of empty warehouses to choose from. He decided on the vacant mill off Trinity Street which was then owned by the West Gate Trust.

It was around that time also that other industrialists set up in town, notably Woodingtons and Wilson & McBrinn.

The Donaghy family had been in the shoe manufacturing business in the north of Ireland since 1856, but in the late Twenties and early Thirties, the North of Ireland was a sectarian troubled place and they had to move out of their factory in Lisburn.

Donaghy's was a hive of industry back then, 220 people working day and night shifts and every floor of the building utilised and accessed from a huge lift shaft in its centre.

Edward died in 1943 and his daughter, Monica Collins became Chairman of the Board. In the following years with her brother, Edward, they saw the company expand its business base, North America and Canada joining Great Britain and continental Europe as their main targets of export.

Their fur-lined apri ski boots were featured on the mail order catalogues of almost every prestigious store in the U.S. and Canada.

They had many fine managers, including John McGuffin.

Edward Donaghy handled much of the export business - 1945 saw him travelling out by flying boat from Foynes on a Donaghy's export drive. He was later to leave Donaghys to join Coras Trachtala, working in New York.

In a re-organisation of the business in the early 50s, Edward McArdle, Joe Healy and Robert A. Kidney from Dublin, joined the Board. Subsequently, when Mr. McArdle died his daughter, Agnes McArdle Murphy, came on Board.

It remained a private company, finally selling out in 1972, to a consortium of local business and professional people in town.

Drogheda man Vincent Dempsey, joined the design team in the factory after leaving school and remained there until the company closed down.

Jim Sweeney was head of the Press Department where the bends of leather were cut by the presses. Jack Taylor was in charge of the Making Up Room. Bob Sharkey, from Ascal a hAon, Yellowbatter was in charge of the Finishing Department.

Jimmy Keary headed up the staff in the Shoe Room. Andy Wilson was in charge in the Clicking (cutting) Room.

Donaghys initially made only heavy working boots but, in the 40s and 50s, expanded into the finer end of the business. Boys' and girls' shoes were then manufactured and later business expanded in a major way into womens' bootees and the fully shearling lined apri ski boots destined mainly for export.

Although the mill had been empty in recent years, it housed up to 100 workers from the late 70s onwards, working in various small firms, including Dermot Kierans' Safety Centre.

Drogheda Independent