Waterford Crystal furnace turned off


ASHE ROAD, where Waterford Crystal’s Kilbarry plant is situated, was eerily quiet yesterday. The few passersby – mostly students and locals – barely glanced in the direction of a plant that once counted in more than 3,000 people on a daily basis.

Just a few months ago at this time – 4pm – the scene would have been very colourful, with workers changing shifts.

Instead, furnace operatives yesterday began unplugging the furnace, previously described as “the heart of the manufacturing process”. It will today be devoid of molten glass for the first time in more than 20 years.

It is understood that a decision to drain the furnace was taken to save massive energy costs, and efforts will be made in the coming weeks to discover whether the furnace can be modified to process reduced quantities of molten glass.

The “controlled closing down” process began at the plant yesterday morning. The furnace, with 50 tonnes of molten glass, is expected to be empty by this evening, according to a source close to the process. The source said: The last “feeds [of] batch and cullet” were fed this morning and the material feeder was withdrawn. “She’s been drained today, so there should be nothing in her by tomorrow. There’s a good chance she’ll be used again, but this spells the end of mass production that has been seen in the past at Waterford Crystal.”

The process came days after a meeting at which an estimated 90 per cent of Waterford Crystal workers voted in favour of a package that ended the sit-in at the plant and will leave a “fingerprint” on the manufacturing of crystal at Kilbarry, according to one worker.

The plan adopted on Sunday signalled the retention of 176 jobs – from the 480 jobs remaining at the plant prior to January 30th – at Kilbarry. About 80 of these would be “skilled artisans” and up to 35 other full-time and 50 part-times workers would be retained. The deal ended the sit-in that had started seven weeks earlier on January 30th, after the appointed receiver, David Carson of Deloitte, ceased manufacturing when cash dried up. The company had been in receivership since January 5th.

The Sunday meeting, tense and lengthy as it was, reflected the process leading up to it. Weeks earlier, Mr Carson had agreed to sell most of the assets of the company’s parent, Waterford Wedgwood, to US investment firm KPS Capital Partners. Last night, a spokeswoman for the receiver confirmed that the sale of the company had gone through.

The subject line in the statement confirming the news assured that “high-profile crystal and ceramics brands will not disappear from the high street”. This was cold comfort to workers interviewed at the gates yesterday.

A private interest group, led by Waterford-based architect and businessman, Nicky Fewer, had in recent weeks been in negotiations with the interested parties regarding the re-establishment of some manufacturing in the city, along with a viable visitors’ centre. A viability study regarding production is imminent, expected within weeks.

Sadly, Mr Fewer, a renowned and much respected businessman and local figurehead, died in his native city after a lengthy illness yesterday. Many tributes were paid to him in Waterford as people also mourned the once proud history of crystal production in the city.