End of era as Carlow sugar factory closes

 

A 79-year link with the sugar industry ends in Carlow today, Seán MacConnell reports.

They are already calling today Black Friday in Carlow, the day when the sugar plant, which has dominated not only the commercial life of Carlow town but the very skyline itself, closes down.

At 4pm today the remaining sugar factory workers will leave their workplace on the Athy road and sever the thread to a slice of industrial history which is virtually as old as the State.

There was a sense of bitterness around the town of almost 18,000 people yesterday at the closure and criticism of those who had failed to prevent the shutdown of a plant which made a €10 million profit last year.

Carlow, with its rich surrounding farmland and an infrastructure largely untouched during the War of Independence and the Civil War, won the race to set up the new State's first sugar-processing plant.

A special Sunday was set aside in 1925 for a massive canvass at all churches in the Barrow valley to get the necessary financial guarantees to bring the industry to the town.

On January 5th, 1926, the bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, Dr Foley, turned the first sod on the foundations of the factory which began production of the local beet crop that harvest - and 78 subsequent harvests.

"This was the only town in the south-east back in the 1930s and right into the '50s and later. We breathed, ate and lived off the factory," said Paddy Foley, a former worker, yesterday.

"I had casual work there for years before I went to England to work on the buildings during the war, but I know it kept many families alive for many years," he said.

Everyone remembered the smell of the processing beet, a rank smell from the beet pulp which pervaded the town from November to January and lingered for much of the year.

Carlow Nationalist editor Eddie Coffey said that while many regarded the smell as "the sweet smell of success", it took outsiders like himself quite some time to adjust.

"I gradually came to like the smell which was, like Guinness, an acquired taste. Unfortunately, that is gone now.

"During what they used to call the beet campaign, when the beet was being brought in from the farms, even the traffic system had to be changed to facilitate an industry which at one stage employed up to 1,000 people in the area," he said.

He said Carlow was now a retail rather than a market town and it could take some time before local businesses realise just how important the sugar industry had been to the area.

Refusing to be pessimistic about the closure, Carlow Chamber of Commerce president Mary O'Connell said that while she accepted the closure would be a heavy financial blow, the people of the town "were not exactly on their knees" and there was a lot going on.

"I can tell you now that the Chamber of Commerce will oppose any attempt by Greencore or Irish Sugar to attempt to change the status of the 300-acre site owned by the company from commercial to any other kind of status. We have an intelligent, educated young workforce here. . . and we have the capacity to service any industry which comes in here."

Local Siptu official Michael Browne said fewer than a score workers would remain to carry on packaging at the plant.

"We have lost 140 full-time and 110 seasonal jobs and it hurts. It will be very difficult to replace that in a local economy," he said.