2004 is the year that marks the seventieth birthday of Nenaghs most prominent claim to industrial fame, the Castle Brand aluminium factory. This weeks reminiscences come from former riveter, welder and scrap metal worker Michael Quigley. Michael remembers a time when the factory workers would spill through the gates of Irish Aluminium Co. in their droves at the b
By Simon O’Duffy
2004 is the year that marks the seventieth birthday of Nenagh’s most prominent claim to industrial fame, the Castle Brand aluminium factory. This week’s reminiscences come from former riveter, welder and scrap metal worker Michael Quigley.
Michael remembers a time when the factory workers would spill through the gates of Irish Aluminium Co. in their droves at the beckoning call of that shrill siren that could be heard all over the town and park their bicycles in a tangled line of several hundred in the shed that ran along the right hand side of the courtyard. It was a cold crisp morning in January 1937 when Michael walked through those gates for the first time to begin a forty-seven year career at the factory.
Like so many of his compatriots, young Michael was an early school leaver disillusioned with the economical impracticalities of academia, and desperately seeking any sort of a wage in Nenagh. “Things were very bad at the time”, he recollects. “There certainly wasn’t any other employment in the town, and if you were lucky enough to get a job in the aluminium factory then you took it. The only alternative was to leave Nenagh, and I didn’t really want to do that”.
The young lad from Knockanpierce started out working in the riveting department fitting handles onto pots and pans. But his deft skill in the field of craftsmanship saw him rise quickly through the ranks and by the outbreak of the Second World War Michael was in charge of the running of the element department. “At that time there was a law that the government brought out”, he explains. “To go to England you had to be over twenty-two years of age. So, while most of the older workers ended up going over to the factory in Wolverhampton, I was only eighteen at the time and couldn’t go.
“A skeleton crew of workers stayed behind to keep the doors open until the war was over. Because of my experience I was put in charge of the crew of lads that had to make elements for electric kettles. I also did a few electrician courses in the Tech during the war. Frank Lewis came in in 1941 and I gave him a job in the element department. He was only fourteen at the time; we were all very young there, and putting elements into kettles is what we spent most of our time doing”.
But, as Frank related in the last article, the youthful Castle Brand workforce of the ‘Emergency’ years had to also spend a great deal of time cutting turf out on Cloneen bog in order to supply fuel for the factory furnace. “We cut over four hundred tons of turf, even though we knew nothing about bogs or turf cutting”, tells Michael. “They employed a guy who did know something and the rest of us learned from him as we went along.
“It wasn’t easy. You had to cycle out to the bog every morning to be there at eight o’clock, and it was eight miles out the road on a bad bicycle. It was during the war so there were no good bicycles and no replacement tyres or tubes to repair damage. You had to keep the bike going for as long as you could – if you didn’t then you didn’t have a job! There was no sort of public transport at all, only about a half a dozen cars on the road that were owned by certain people”.
And getting out to Cloneen and back whilst keeping your bike intact was only half the battle for the wartime factory workers. “We had to foot all that turf, stack it all, carry it all out as near to the road as possible so that the lorry could get in, and then fork it all into the back of the lorry with beet forks, right up to the top. Then we’d have to unload it all again back in the factory field, again using beet forks because in those days the lorries didn’t have tipper trailers. It was very hard work, slavery! And for that we got eight pence an hour in old money. There were married men trying to raise young families on thirty shillings a week!”
Fortunately Michael wasn’t yet a married man at the time, and he just about managed to scrape some sort of a social life out of the whole caper, as indeed did his co-workers. “Radios were scarce and there was no such thing as television”, he remembers, “but there was the cinema, and that was very popular all right. If you fancied a drink then you would go down to the pub for a few pints if you wanted. I suppose what we earned was just enough to get by on”.
With the end of the war and the return of the now highly skilled Wolverhampton workforce Castle Brand returned to its normal routine and then branched out into other areas of production expertise, allowing Michael the opportunity to further advance his career. “The factory was designed just for pots and pans, tea pots and kettles, and so forth”, he says. “But it developed into metalwork and I got a shop floor going producing sheet metal.
“We made biscuit containers for Jacobs, Cadbury’s and Associated Chocolates, and other kinds of boxes for Irish Sugar, all the meat factories in the country, and aluminium galley equipment for Aer Lingus, British Airways and Martinair in Holland. The typical containers that we made for Jacobs would have measured about twenty-eight by thirteen by seven inches. You never got an order of less than ten thousand boxes from Jacobs, so we were making literally thousands and thousands of them every year”.
Busy times these were for Castle Brand, and they were about to become all the busier, as the factory entered that economic golden era for the whole Western World, the 1960s. “Things started to get very good in the 60s all right”, Michael agrees. “We even had a nightshift going at times in order to keep up the production. We got a contract from the government to make all the road signs for the country. The county councils all had to come to Nenagh for their road signs, for the motorways and everything; we made thousands of signs.
“In 1963 the government brought in the speed limit rule and we got the contract to supply the country’s speed limit signs too. There were seventy-five thousand of them required in all, and we had three months to produce them! We had to work day and night on top of our ordinary work schedule, but did manage to get the job finished on time”.
By that stage Michael had climbed even higher into the echelons of authority in the factory and wound up in charge of both the sheet metal and road sign department, with a crew of more than one hundred employees working under him at one stage. Although he was unable to offer any humorous tales about life on the factory floor, Michael does recall the experience with an overall fondness. “There was always a jovial crowd working there”, he concedes. “We’d always have an oul sing-song going to help us through the day!”
But all good things must come to an end and after the economic dark era of the 70s Castle Brand’s days were numbered. The disastrous liquidation of 1984, still a painful memory for so many Nenagh folk twenty years later, resulted in Michael taking early retirement, having served the company for forty-seven loyal years. “It was a very sad time”, he reflects. “And I hear rumours now that it will close again for good some time soon. That will be just as sad if it happens. And to think that the capital required to set up that factory was just £20,000! You would need countless millions now. How the times have changed”.
With three years to go to his retirement Michael was offered a management job with Aer Lingus in light of the first class welding and repair work he had carried out on aeroplanes as a temporary worker with SRS (Shannon Repair Services). He declined, citing a desire to remain in his hometown of Nenagh as the reason. With hindsight it proved to have been wise choice, as Aer Lingus belonged to the same pension group as Castle Brand...
Michael joined the hordes of workers as they streamed out the factory gates with the permission of the six o’clock siren for the last time on May 25th 1984, almost exactly twenty years to the day. He now lives with his wife in Brooklands.
Departure of trainees to Wolverhampton, July 1934: Back row (l-r): Ned Cooney, Tommy Kevin, Martin Morrissey, ?. Woodhouse, unknown, Joe Ryan. Front row: unknown, Seamie Cahalan, Rogie Nolan, John McGuire.