Dynasties that made Cork a buoyant commercial city

CORK'S MERCHANT PRINCES: Beamish, Crawford, Murphy, Roche and Crosbie are still names to be conjured with

CORK'S MERCHANT PRINCES:Beamish, Crawford, Murphy, Roche and Crosbie are still names to be conjured with

ALAN DWYER’S ancestors manufactured boots and silk stockings. The “Dwyers of Cork” were part of the fabric of the city’s commercial life – a dynastic empire, or merchant princes. In the last two centuries, they were also one of the city’s biggest employers. At its peak, Dwyer & Co employed 4,000 in Cork, while Sunbeam Wolsey, the hosiery-making offshoot of the family firm, employed 2,000 workers, mostly women, who operated sewing machines in a factory on the northside.

By the time Sunbeam’s machinists took up their first threads in 1928, the haberdashery founded in 1820 by James Dwyer on what is now Washington Street had already passed its centenary. Such business longevity tends to be the exception, not the rule. But the quays and laneways of Cork had been dominated for hundreds of years by powerful families who amassed wealth through farming, milling, brewing and distilling – and consolidated it through civic office.

Alan Dwyer is still in the clothing business, although he employs 40 people, not 4,000. “We make nothing!” he says. He doesn’t own any factories, he “vendor-manages” them, and they’re not in Cork, but Asia. The silk stockings are gone, but the Dwyer name survives as a name on a label – it’s one of seven golf clothing brands for which Dwyer holds the licence through Eurostyle, the group set up by his father George in 1972 after he left the original family firm, where he had been in charge of shirts.


Dwyer & Co went out of business later that decade, and the machines of a much-reduced Sunbeam workforce stopped whirring in 1995. Eurostyle continued manufacturing kids’ clothes until around this time, when the remnants of Ireland’s textile industry were finally torn to shreds by a combination of global competitiveness and a changing labour market.

“Companies like Apple were offering much higher salaries and less strenuous working conditions,” says Dwyer. “Our employees went from 90 to 35, though we didn’t actually let anyone go. It’s just that people didn’t want to be sitting on sewing machines anymore.”

Based on an industrial estate on the Mallow Road, Eurostyle, run by Dwyer and his younger brother Peter, holds the worldwide licence for Calvin Klein Golf. He’s thinking of sub-licensing it in some territories. It’s the next stage in the evolution of a globalised export business, he observes. “First you manufacture, then you outsource, then you licence. Now it’s sub-licencing.”

It’s certainly a little different from the days when the Lee Boot Company, another firm in the Dwyer family’s successful stable, advertised “ladies’, gentlemen’s and children’s shoes for present season – made in our own factory”. Its lines “fit well, wear well and look well”, it declared in a 1921 city and county business directory. It was “doing one thing well”.

Arts and crafts

Cork’s reputation as a port goes back to the 12th century, when descendants of the original settlers known as Ostmen established the city as an important trading centre. During medieval times, the city traded with Bristol and Bordeaux, while in the 15th century, families such as the Roches, the Skiddys and the Goulds rose to prominence, forming a merchant oligarchy.

After a period of economic decline, the existing Catholic merchants were dealt a financial blow in 1608, when the city charter retained for the English crown the right to poundage, tonnage and customs in the port.

However, with economic revival came a new set of families, mostly English and Protestant settlers who prospered as the all-important butter trade began. In the 18th century, it was exports of butter, pork and salted beef to the West Indies that kept Cork rich, though by the close of the century, textiles, tanning, distilling and brewing were all creating wealth, with the famous Beamish & Crawford brewery established in 1792 by William Beamish and William Crawford on the site of an existing brewery called Allen’s.

Cork remained a major port for transatlantic trade, even throughout the poverty-stricken 19th century, when living conditions in the city centre were so poor and lacking in basic sanitation that the wealthier merchants promptly relocated to the city’s outskirts.

Newly ensconced in their villas, the riches of the merchant families made them important consumers. Victorian-era draperies and department stores had begun advertising their fine wares, among them Grants (the first Irish workplace of the Scot John Arnott, who would become one of the city’s most successful retailers), Cash’s and later Roches Stores.

There was philanthropy and cultural patronage too, of course. The Crawford Art Gallery and School of Art was established courtesy of the brewing family, while John Nicholas Murphy, of the distilling family, was founding president of Cork’s St Vincent de Paul Society.

“A lot of corporations think they have brought corporate social responsibility to the marketplace, whereas the Beamish and Crawford families were doing that centuries ago,” says Alf Smiddy, chairman of the Quintas group and a former managing director and chairman of Beamish & Crawford.

When he joined the brewery in 1988, the last of the Beamishes, Richard, was honorary president. The company had long since ceased to be in family ownership, having been purchased by Canadian group Carling-O’Keefe in the 1960s, in what Smiddy characterises as one of the first instances of the Lemass-instigated wave of foreign direct investment in Ireland. But Richard Beamish remained involved with the business until the early 1990s, when the brewery celebrated its second centenary.

“He would have been in his 80s then, but even when he retired he would have visited the business periodically,” says Smiddy. “I became managing director in 1992 and I was always aware that it was a multinational company, but also that it was born of a family business 200 years earlier.”

Family business values of “honesty, integrity and being outward-looking” remained at the brewery until its last takeover in 2008, according to Smiddy. “When I joined, you had grandfathers, fathers and sons working in the business, which is so rare today.”

The label “merchant princes” has grown hackneyed over the years, and many of the latter-day families have sold up, died off, gone sailing and/or kept the kind of low media profile that befits “old money”. But the legacies of the older names linger in tourist attractions and street signs, their economic past faded into the bricks of old buildings.

Above Debenhams on St Patrick’s Street, the name Roches Stores curves above the large arch window, a record of its retail history. As with most cities, it pays to look up.

Since the closure of the Beamish brewery in 2009, there have been calls for the site to join the list of Cork’s visitor hotspots by way of a Guinness-style heritage centre. Smiddy describes this as “holding on to history”.

Coffin paint and competition

Probably the greatest compliment paid to the solidity of the Cork merchant businesses, however, is the degree to which their operations became collectibles for multinational groups. Heineken’s Lady’s Well brewery, formerly Murphys, founded in Blackpool in 1854, is the oldest site still in operation. But not far from its stainless steel vats lies the original stomping ground of the relatively unsung Harrington brothers, whose paint factory, the Shandon Works on the Commons Road, dates back to 1885.

Fully owned since 1988 by Dulux – itself now subsumed into Dutch coatings multinational AzkoNobel – the site produces mostly emulsion paints for household use. “Old Willy Harrington was still chairman when I started, and Ronald Harrington had a chemicals shop,” recalls David Hughes, the plant’s operations director, who has worked at the 13-acre site since 1969. “But they were gone by the 1970s, really.”

Today, the most prominent person connected to the original family is the horse trainer Jessica Harrington, whose husband John is descended from the original founders.

On a trip around the plant, tins of “Chocolate Fondant” gloss paint could be seen travelling along production lines, as a series of robot arms labelled, filled and wrapped them in export pallets. The machinery is the result of a €2 million investment by Dulux in the plant’s modernisation last year.

When the Shandon Works was established by scientists and entrepreneurs William and Stanley Harrington, its varnishes and paints were produced manually using giant rollers to bind the paint, while their first products were fine chemicals used as potato blight spray, cattle medicine and coffin paint.

By the 1950s, customers of what was then Harrington and Goodlass Wall, or HGW, were principally concerned with transport, not death. It developed a revolutionary non-fading red pigment called Cadmium, which was highly coveted by the old Cork Ford Motor Factory as a spray paint for its cars. Innovation still breathes through the business, with Dulux’s top-selling exterior Weather Shield paint developed at the Cork labs.

Towards the back of the site, a shed houses a 1963 Land Rover marked “ICI Works Fire Brigade”. The company’s voluntary fire team has fought fires around Cork since the 1950s, including the 2003 blaze that completely destroyed the neighbouring Sunbeam factory building. “It was the first line of defence,” says Hughes, proudly.

Dulux’s Cork plant remains the largest paint manufacturer in Ireland and exports around 10 per cent of what it makes to the UK. Employee numbers have reduced from 300 in the late 1960s to around 80, with seasonal workers taken on during summer months.

Though it must compete rigorously with Dulux plants in other countries, the Cork paint factory has already outlived British rule, Ford, Sunbeam and the Noughties property splurge. Only the site’s Polish signs – for the benefit of immigrant lorry drivers – betray evidence of Ireland’s recent boom. “No, they’re not around so much now,” says Hughes.

Next generation

Back in the city centre, at its corporate HQ on South Mall, another family-owned business, Thomas Crosbie Holdings, is busy enduring the bust. Unlike HGW, Murphy’s, Beamish & Crawford, Punch shoe polish and other family firms enveloped by multinationals, the Crosbies are not only still connected with the media group, they control it. Such is the turbulent state of the newspaper industry, the chances are that the company’s current main business model will die before the Crosbies do.

"I belong to the fifth generation," says TCH chairman Alan Crosbie. His father's cousin Ted Crosbie, a fourth-generation member, as well as his own first cousin Billy Crosbie and second cousin Tom Crosbie are all on the board. The voting shares in the company are split between the three branches of the family, represented by Alan, Ted and Billy – Ted's son Tom will inherit his shares. This tight control is important, says Crosbie, who is an adjunct professor of family business at UCC and has written a book about succession planning called Don't Leave It to the Children.

It’s a great title, though he doesn’t actually think business owners shouldn’t leave their business to their kids. His argument is that you shouldn’t leave it up to your kids to sort out what happens to the company after you die, nor should you split it equally between them. Instead, you should pick the strongest contender for your replacement, “or they’ll all end up fighting with each other”.

Crosbie was born in 1954 and says he was expected to go into the family business. “With hindsight, there didn’t seem to be a choice,” he says. “I am certainly ensuring with my own family that they have a choice. There is no expectation or duty or need for them to go into this business.”

The eldest of his five children has just completed a business degree in Trinity College Dublin and has got himself a job in the US.

Given the business he’s in, it’s no surprise that Crosbie espouses clear communication about the important matters of life.

“It almost amazes me how much we are loath to talk about death in this country. We’ve never had that. Before he died, my father [George] and I always had the ability to talk about each other’s death.”

The Irish Examiner, the company's biggest single title, was founded as the Cork Examinerin 1841 by John Francis Maguire. In 1863, Thomas Crosbie, then editor, took over. There was a time in the 1990s when the Crosbies were expected to sell up and move on. "The Irish Presswent out of business and it was quite a time of flux for newspapers. But then when isn't it a time of flux for newspapers?"

Instead, TCH diversified, buying regional titles, making investments in radio stations, venturing online and into Dublin (via the Sunday Business Post). Last year, however, it closed Kerry paper the Kingdom, sold off some titles and reduced staff and salaries. "It's been very difficult," says Crosbie.

He's keen on preserving the idea of readers' connection to their daily publication of choice and the sense of trust and democratic function that this reflects. "In this country, you were an Irish Timesreader or an Independentreader or an Examinerreader. It was almost like what you drank – you were a Guinness drinker or a Murphy's drinker. I think it would be a shame if that was lost," he says.

The Crosbie dynasty has survived longer in the game than most of Cork’s 19th-century families. Alan Crosbie’s conclusion is pragmatic, yet downbeat. “History doesn’t give you a guarantee of longevity.”


THE BARRY family owns the 110-year-old tea business that bears its name. The company is controlled through a series of unlimited entities, which are not obliged to file financial information. Its own website states it has around 40 per cent of the Irish market. It values total retail sales of tea in Ireland at €78 million, so a back-of-the-envelope calculation based on these figures says the retail value of its sales comes to €30.2 million.

Barry’s imports, blends and distributes tea, but is not a retailer, so it is not possible to value the business or its sales. It is one of the better known brands available on Irish supermarket shelves and is a substantial business employing 72 people at its base on the Kinsale road on the southside of Cork city.

The family is more public than the company. Peter Barry, who once managed it, was minister for foreign affairs in the Garret Fitzgerald-led Fine Gael/Labour coalition government of 1982-1987. His daughter, Deirdre Clune, served two terms as a TD for the same party, representing her father’s old constituency, Cork South Central.

Peter Barry is now chairman and his son, Tony Barry, now runs the business and owns 55 per cent of the holding company, Barry’s (Cork) Ltd. Four others, including Clune, own 9 per cent each.

In July of last year, the High Court gave AIB control of the 90,000 shares owned by Donagh Barry, another son of Peter.

The bank was seeking to enforce an €8 million judgment it had obtained against him and a business partner, Michael McCarthy, the previous May.


FROM A background in retail and distribution, the Love family has more recently become synonymous with property development. State assets agency Nama has taken over the loans that Clayton Love’s property empire originally owed to participating institutions, mainly Bank of Ireland.Love’s Shipton Group owns a number of shopping centres and other developments in Cork, including Douglas Village and Blackpool, which were both built in the 1990s, and is involved in the redevelopment of the old mart in Fermoy town centre.

Clayton Love, Neill Love and their fellow director on a number of group companies’ boards, Sarah Cronin, are shareholders in Shipton, an unlimited entity. Accounts for Douglas Developments Ltd, which holds a number of properties, show that it had written down the value of its properties to €105 million from €160 million in the year to the end of March 2010. Its debts were €100 million. The companies’ operations made a €2.5 million loss, but asset write downs left it with a loss for the year of €24 million.

Blackpool Properties owed its banks €132 million on same date, having made a loss of €15 million in the year to end-March. The companies note that some debts have been transferred to Nama and state that a key uncertainty is whether or not the agency will approve their business plans.

Clayton and Neill Love are the sons of Clayton Love jnr, born in 1929. In 1999, the family was forced to deny involvement in the company Clayton Love Distribution, which was named as paying £1.4m to an account for the use of former taoiseach Charles Haughey. All family links with that company ended in 1969 and its ultimate owner is Tariq Ahmed of Bradford, Yorkshire.


IT’S NOW Debenhams, of course, but Roches Stores, a name that lasted on Irish shopfronts until 2007, was founded by William Roche (below) in 1901 as the Cork Furniture Store on Merchant Street (now part of the Merchant Quay shopping complex).

Roche was a farmer’s son who had worked in the Cash store in Cork. He later expanded the Cork Furniture Store’s range into ladies’ clothing. The store moved to Winthrop Street in 1919, while Roche also bought the London House store on St Patrick’s Street, where the current Debenhams store remains – with the Roches Stores name still emblazoned across the building.

The premises burned during the Black and Tan attack on Cork in 1920, but Roche’s business recovered, and he started his expansion across Ireland later that decade.

He died on the eve of the second World War, and his widow Kathleen and son William jnr later ran the chain. Two younger brothers, Raymond and Stanley, also joined.

Roche scions later emigrated to both the UK and the US, though ownership remained within the family.

At its peak the Roches Stores chain had 11 outlets across Ireland. Nine of these were sold to Debenhams in August 2006 in a €29 million deal, and the other two stores, including the outlet at Wilton in Cork, closed down as a result of the acquisition.

The Roche family held onto the group’s property assets, which in 2006, near the height of the commercial property boom, were valued at around €400 million. Stanley Roche, head of the Cork branch of Roches Stores, died in 2008 at the age of 80.


MEDIA GROUP Thomas Crosbie Holdings is another of the old Cork firms that remains firmly Cork. In the mid-nineties, a printing deal with the Sunday Timessparked rumours that Rupert Murdoch's News International was interested in buying its Irish Examinerand Evening Echotitles. Director Alan Crosbie laughed these off at the time and insisted the family intended to keep the company for the long term. Fifteen years later it's fair to say that he wasn't joking.

The Crosbie family, including Alan, and his cousin Billy, who are directors, owns the company both directly and through a number of trusts and other entities. Many family members work for the group. Along with the Examinerand Echo, it owns the Sunday Business Post, and a number of provincials, including the Western People, Roscommon Herald, the Nationalisttitles in Leinster, Waterford NewsStar, Wexford Echo, and the Irish Postin Britain; in radio, it has holdings in WLR and Beat 102-103, which both have franchises in the southeast, Red FM in Cork and Midwest Radio in Limerick.

In addition, it owns the websites breakingnews.ie, recruitireland.ie and motornet.

It is the second biggest media group in the country after Independent News Media. Its most recent figures, for the 12 months to the end of January 2010, show that the recession has hit the company. Its operations lost just short of €3 million on the back of an €82 million turnover. However, a number of charges, and in particular a €30 million loss on the value of its various brands, left it with a pretax shortfall of €38 million. The accounts point out that most of these charges were “non-cash”. The loss resulted in shareholders’ funds falling by €41.5 million to €24.5 million. The group predicted it would lose a further €3 million in 2010, but said its own resources would cover this and noted its balance sheet and operations were fundamentally robust.


WITH THE death of Hugh Crawford in 1989, the connection to the old Crawford family of brewers and merchants to Cork was severed. The Beamish Crawford brewery, meanwhile, passed out of family ownership long ago. However, the legacy of the Crawfords lives on in a corner of Emmet Place, where an attractive redbrick building houses one of Cork city’s main tourist attractions, the Crawford art gallery. Like many of the old merchant families, the Crawfords were philanthropic and patrons of the arts. They were Scottish in origin, with a branch of the family arriving in Ireland in the 17th century. But it wasn’t until the late 18th century that William Crawford came to Cork and founded the brewing firm with William Beamish.

It soon became the largest brewer in the country, employing nearly 500 people in the early part of the 19th century. William Crawford’s son William Crawford the Younger, and his son William Horatio Crawford, carried on the business of the family firm, with the latter working alongside Richard Pigot Beamish at the end of the 1850s.


WILLIAM BEAMISH co-founded the Beamish Crawford brewery with William Crawford in 1792, when the two men bought an existing brewery on a site in Cramer’s Lane in Cork that had been used for brewing at least a hundred years previously. The “Cork Porter Brewery” (as it described itself) flourished, eventually becoming the largest in Ireland until ceding this title to Guinness in the 1830s. The company issued public share capital in 1901 and later expanded by acquiring local breweries. In 1962, it was bought by a Canadian firm, Carling-O’Keefe, which in turn was bought by Elders IXL in 1987. Scottish Newcastle became its owners in 1995 and, with that company’s takeover in 2008, the last operators of the original brewery were Heineken International. In 2009, Heineken shut down the brewery with the loss of more than 100 jobs, shifting production to the existing Heineken Brewery – formerly another Cork family business, Murphy’s. Stout with the Beamish name is no longer distributed by Heineken outside Ireland.


THE MUSGRAVES are one of the few Cork merchant families still involved in owning and managing their businesses. The company is better known to most people through its franchise convenience-store brands, which include Centra, Londis, Mace and Supervalu in Ireland, and Budgens in Britain.

The shareholders’ register shows directors Stuart and Peter Musgrave and various members of their family hold over 23 million of the group’s 59 million or so shares. Peter Musgrave holds 8.5 million shares, 6.5 million of which he controls through a company called Ardbrack Holdings. The Mackeowns, including director Philip Mackeown, own 4.8 million shares. Chairman Seamus Scally has just over one million shares. The group reported sales in 2010 were €4.4 billion, and it made a profit before tax of €72 million.


THE MURPHY family made their fortune importing, tanning, distilling and, most famously, brewing. The Lady’s Well brewery in Blackpool was founded by James J Murphy in 1854, when he bought the buildings of the Cork Foundling Hospital for £1,200 and began to construct a new brewery, established in 1856.

By 1906, Murphy’s brewery was the second largest in the country after Guinness and had set up a system of tied houses, whereby about 200 pubs, mostly around Cork city, were precluded from selling any other firm’s product. The family connection to the business lasted until the 1960s.

In 1983, Heineken acquired the company’s assets, creating Heineken Ireland, a subsidiary of Heineken International. Brewing is still carried out on the site. Heineken donated an archive of material relating to the history of the brewery to University College Cork in 1999, and it is available to search online – it contains copies of deeds, minutes of directors’ meetings and records of licences and even income tax payments.


MOST INFAMOUSLY associated with stockbroking, the Morroghs were an old Cork family, with the name in the area dating back to the 16th century. By the time it was wound up in April 2001, W&R Morrogh was a 100-year-old stockbroking firm that had attracted thousands of wealthy clients, most of them from around the city.

It was undone by a fraud by a junior partner, Stephen Pearson, who held a 40 per cent stake in the firm, while Alec Morrogh held 60 per cent. Alec had joined W&R Morrogh in 1960 with his father Dominic and cousin Peter Pearson, whose son, former Benedictine monk Stephen, was jailed after he was proven to have lost an estimated €12 million gambling on futures and options and then fraudulently appropriating client funds in order to meet his losses.


THE PUNCH family ended its direct involvement with the household goods and cleaning products that it had owned since it was founded in 1855 when it sold to the Axa venture capital-backed Spotless Group in 2006.

At the time, the firm, which makes shoe polish, additives for controlling colour contamination in domestic washing machines and related products, had sales of around €30 million. Industry sources suggested at the time the deal was worth between €30 and €40 million, although that was never confirmed.

The company had converted to unlimited status a year earlier, so there were no figures to give an indication of its worth. Under the deal’s terms, the Punches, represented on the board up to 2006 by cousins John and Martin Punch, sold the actual business but retained ownership of its sites in Ireland, Britain and Scandinavia.

Axa last year sold its stake to another venture capitalist, BC Partners, for €400 million. One of the lenders was Bank of Ireland. The Spotless Group’s other brands include household cleaners, Vim and Vigor, Eau Écarlate in France and Gauber in Italy.

The Punch business had grown out of a tea importing operation founded by Abigail Punch, which was developed and expanded by George Punch at the turn of the 20th century. It was around this time that it began manufacturing shoe polish and leather care and cleaning products.


IN THE 19th century, Cork became home to several Victorian-era drapery stores, and later department stores, that would support a burgeoning textile industry. The name Arnott is synonymous with the Dublin department store, but it was to Cork that John Arnott first came to Ireland in 1837 from his home in Fife, Scotland. Arnott arrived at the age of 23 to work at Grants of St Patrick’s Street. His first attempt to start his own business in Cork failed, so he tried his luck in Belfast.

This store was a success and saw him return to Cork to open his own drapery. Arnott’s record as a retail entrepreneur made him an attractive business partner for William Cannock and Andrew Reid, who founded Arnotts in 1843. Arnott went into partnership with Cannock and Reid in 1848 and after Cannock departed the company in 1865, the Reids allowed Arnott to put his name to the store.

Despite the Dublin focus, Arnott was also involved in the Cork Race Park Meetings, the City of Cork Steamship Company and Arnott’s Brewery Cork. He was lord mayor of Cork three times and died in 1898. Arnott’s descendant Richard Nesbitt was chairman of Arnotts until an ill-fated €750 million expansion plan led to a major debt wobble that saw the store taken over by its bankers last year.


A McDONALD’S now lies at the junction of St Patrick’s Street and Daunt’s Square, but once this was the premises of grocers and wine merchants Woodford, Bourne and Company.

The company’s origins go back to a firm of wine merchants called Maziere and Sainthill, which traded in Cork since the 18th century. In the mid-19th century, the widow of a Cork grocer called John Woodford married a man named James Bourne, who was an employee of Woodford, and the firm became Woodford, Bourne and Company.

An employee of the firm, James Adam Nicholson, who came to Cork from England, took control of the business in the 1860s.

In 1869 the company bought the stock of Maziere and Sainthill and moved into wine retailing. Woodford Bourne remained in the Nicholson family ownership for several generations until its eventual sale in the 1980s.

The firm also owned extensive warehouse premises on Sheares Street (currently the Mardyke bar).

In 2005, David Nicholson donated 15 boxes of company archives to UCC. He also co-authored a book documenting Woodford Bourne’s history.

In 2009, Woodford Bourne bought Findlater Grants, the wine arm of drinks group C&C.


Laura Slattery

Laura Slattery

Laura Slattery is an Irish Times journalist writing about media, advertising and other business topics