We have convinced ourselves that Ireland can no longer compete in traditional manufacturing. Our clothes, shoes and furniture factories have shut down, sacrificial lambs to the slaughter of globalisation. The received wisdom is that while we may excel in the lab-type production needed by the pharmaceutical and computer industries, in traditional, labour-intensive sectors we haven’t a hope. Magee of Donegal now has its tweed suits sewn in Morocco. And most sliotars are made in Pakistan.
Despite everything, one plucky industry is managing to beaver away in the heart of Ireland: bed manufacturing. Go into any homeware shop and amidst the swathe of imported goods there will be a little bastion of Guaranteed Irishness in the bedding section, with companies such as Respa, Briody and Odearest all producing arguably better beds than their foreign competitors. How can this be? And, what, if anything, can we learn from it?
I turn towards the golden triangle of bedding on the Meath-Cavan border, a stretch of drumlin-rolling greenness between the Neolithic passage tombs of Loughcrew, Co Meath, and Lough Sheelin, Co Cavan. I’m expecting to see factories as bulky and sprawling as the mattresses themselves, but I find only patchwork fields knitted by tiny lanes.
I show the list of factories I plan to visit to a farmer who comes upon me, lost, down a track: Briody Beds in Ballymacad, Pocket Spring in Ballinarink and Spring Air in Ballinacree. He looks at me strangely. “They’re all the one place. Ballymacad, Ballinarink and Ballinacree are different names for the same place. There’s just one company.”
He must be wrong. You can’t have a thriving hub of just one company. Yet, when I track down David Briody of Briody Beds, he tells me they are indeed the same. It’s just that retailers like to have a range of different names on the same beds.
So there’s no thriving hub? Briody says there is, and points up the road to Oldcastle, where Respa and Kelletts have been making beds for 70 years (although they too are a single company).
How has the bedding industry survived? “Because mattresses are bulky,” says Briody, whose parents, Benny and Bríd, founded Briody Beds in 1974. “That’s it really. They’re bulky.”
This is not the revelation I am after. I point out that there are other bulky items that can no longer be made competitively in Ireland: furniture, garden ornaments and cars.
“But mattresses are very bulky,” he insists, “and there are so many different types: open coil, pocket sprung, latex, memory foam, and all with various fillers and fabrics. And all these come in different sizes: 3ft, 4ft 6in, 5ft . . . That’s before we even start on the divans: high or low? With drawers or not? How is the retailer meant to know which to stock? And even if he guesses right, where is he going to store them all? They’re bulky.”
Five day turnaround
I pose the same question to James Hayes of Natural Sleep. “It’s a bulky product,” he says. “A retailer could order a container of cheap, low-quality beds from Turkey or China, but he’d have to order 400 different ones to have the full range. Whereas with us, he just needs to make a call and we’ll make what he wants within five days.”
Hayes started making beds in 1984 with just one sewing machine. Now his company produces 700 pieces a week, many of them own-brand labels for big retailers. The factory is in Limerick, a county that had its own bedding hot spot in the past, after the O’Dea family in 1893 established what would become Odearest. That company is now in Kilcullen, Co Kildare, where KingKoil, Kaymed and SleepSpa are also based. A new Golden Triangle of mattress manufacturing, perhaps? No, these are all part of the Kaymed Group, founded in Dublin in 1898 by Zorach Woolfson.
I return to Meath to meet up with the largest bed manufacturer in Ireland, Kellletts, founded by Jack and Joan Kellett in 1947 and now run by their grandson Darren. Kelletts/Respa make 85,000 mattresses a year; that’s 1,800 a week, which surely must be enough to service the entire island.
I ask Seán Browne, Kelletts’ financial operations director, how they manage to remain competitive, not only within Ireland but also producing 400,000 spring units for companies in Ireland and the UK.
“We’re not competitive,” he replies. “Not in spring manufacturing, anyway. A 3ft spring unit for a mattress costs 20 lira in Turkey. That converted to £8.80 in 2011; it’s now £5. We can’t compete.”
James Hayes from the Natural Sleep Company says something similar: “No bed manufacturer has made money since the recession. We are surviving, but only surviving. At times I said to myself: what are we doing this for?”
Have they any advantage over foreign competitors? “Speed,” says Seán Browne of Kelletts. “It takes five or six weeks to get springs from Turkey and even longer from China, whereas we can take an order on Wednesday and have them made and delivered by Friday. So when there are spikes in the market, we top up orders for the big manufactures in Britain.”
This isn’t quite the vision of bed-making colossuses bestriding the market; it seems more like wily foxes exploiting niches. But still, Kelletts manages an impressive feat: selling 400,000 spring units a year and keeping up to 190 people working in the heart of Oldcastle.
Do customers rate Irish beds? “Certainly, during the recession people became particularly interested in buying Irish,” says Marius Reilly of Lakeshore Homestore in Castlepollard, Co Westmeath. “I could assure them that the quality of Irish beds was superior. They are more robust with better-quality fillings and fabrics.”
Other than the fact that mattresses are bulky, I’m not much clearer as to why bed manufacturing has survived the canker of foreign mass production. Perhaps it’s the sheer tenacity of a few family firms, or their just-in-time manufacturing production model. It’s certainly not due to investment in high-tech automation: while the springs are coiled and fabric quilted by machine, the rest of the mattress is hand-assembled in a manner not too dissimilar to how the O’Deas were working in 1893.
What is clear is that, for the moment at least, we can rest assured on an Irish mattress.