Force behind expansion of Magee clothing

HOWARD TEMPLE: HOWARD TEMPLE, who pioneered a worldwide demand for Donegal tweeds with his late brother-in-law Bob Harris, has…

HOWARD TEMPLE:HOWARD TEMPLE, who pioneered a worldwide demand for Donegal tweeds with his late brother-in-law Bob Harris, has died in his 97th year. Chairman of the Magee Group of Donegal until 1983, he developed a demand for Donegal tweeds internationally and also for the elegant styling and quality of the Magee clothing brand.

Magee tweeds are used by the world’s leading fashion brands, and the company’s customer list reads like a who’s who of designer labels at the top end of the market.

The Magee title dates from a previous owner who founded a drapery shop in Donegal town in 1866. The owner’s brother owned a hotel and was so impressed with the sales skills of a teenage Robert Temple, who sold him a pair of woodcock, that he recommended him as an apprentice.

The apprentice became the owner of the shop in 1900 and decided to keep the name Magee. The business had already expanded to purchase homespun hand-woven tweed around the fairs in southwest Donegal.

Robert Temple was joined by his eldest son Howard in 1931, just three years after the family moved from living quarters above the shop to a new home at the edge of Donegal town. Howard felt a natural drive to become actively involved in the family business and studied at home in the evenings for a university degree.

His manifest business acumen quickly drove Magee business beyond Donegal and Ireland to the UK and eventually the US and many other countries.

By the end of the second World War, Magee was selling Donegal tweed and cloth made in Convoy Woollen Mills all over Britain and Ireland – and they decided to open a clothing factory in Belfast in 1945.

With a warehouse having already been in place after Ireland was partitioned, Belfast was a ready site in which to avoid customs problems, distributing tweed taken by train from Donegal and sold throughout the UK. The Irish market was serviced in the 1950s through clothing factories in the Republic working on contract for Magee. The Donegal clothing factory opened in the early 1960s.

When Howard Temple’s brother-in-law Bob Harris teamed up with him in the late 1940s, the company linked with Irish designers Sybil Connolly and Irene Gilbert, who began using Donegal tweed in a fashion sense.

Until then, Donegal tweed had been basically a utilitarian, practical fabric. When Connolly and Gilbert came on board it was introduced to the fashion market in the US and also to Aer Lingus, whose uniforms are still made with Magee cloth.

Until recently, Magee dressed the Irish rugby team. Magee suits, with their red lining, are proudly worn by Munster, and by the Scottish rugby squad.

From the 1950s up to the 1980s, when Ireland was still a competitive economy with considerable indigenous manufacturing, Howard Temple did his utmost with his management team to develop the weaving and clothing company in Donegal and Northern Ireland.

He was intensely proud of providing as much employment as possible, and up to the mid-1990s Magee had 600 workers, 400 in Donegal and 200 in the North. He was thrilled to receive an Honorary Doctorate from Trinity College Dublin for his services to industry.

At one stage Magee had 100 hand-loomers at work in the Donegal factory and also in their own homes, as far away as Ardara and Glenties.

In the late 1970s power-looming was introduced in the factory to keep up with market demands. Howard Temple agonised over the switch, but he was also a realist and recognised the need for change. Among its current 130 employees, Magee still has 10 hand-weavers for some very specific customers.

He was an active member of business and local communities, and also excelled in sports. He was proud of his role as a winger in his teens on the Methodist College Belfast team that won the Ulster Cup in 1929 and 1930. He failed to take up golf, citing an accidental wallop to his brother Wilbur’s forehead as an excuse for a limited swing, but he presented land for the founding of Donegal Town Golf Club.

He loved the countryside and recalled how, working in a hayfield as a five-year-old, a biplane flew over and circled the hayrick with the pilot leaning out of the open cockpit with an unlit cigarette in hand, shouting at the man on the stack to throw up a box of matches.

He was Joint Master of the Strabane and Donegal Hounds and loved game shooting. He never forgot to drop a calendar or Christmas card to the farmers whose land he used.

A most memorable tribute was paid to his skills as a fisherman when Donegal and District Anglers stood on the bridge to honour him at his funeral in Donegal with their rods vertical.

He remembered catching a 36lb salmon on the Erne before the hydro-electric station came to Ballyshannon. On the same morning he also landed a 25lb salmon – today the stuff of anglers’ dreams. One of his favourite rivers was the Eany, and at the end of September every season he enjoyed a ceremony where the fishermen would pour a little whiskey into the water for the fish and have a bit of a party on the bridge.

He loved being taken by the anglers to the Eany for the end-of-season ceremony, when he was in his 90s.

He is survived by his wife Maureen, son Lynn, and daughters Claire Moore and Caroline Brabazon.

Howard Temple: born October 9th, 1913; died March 22nd, 2010