Third-generation Cork building firm ready for return to work

‘If you work in construction, you have to be optimistic ... we’re used to problem solving’

Conor Cahalane with his son Donal at a Cahalane Brothers site in Dunmanway, west Cork. Photograph: Daragh McSweeney/ Provision

Conor Cahalane with his son Donal at a Cahalane Brothers site in Dunmanway, west Cork. Photograph: Daragh McSweeney/ Provision

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Cork builder Conor Cahalane knows what it is like to weather economic storms, having survived recessions in the 1970s, 1980s and the brutal collapse after 2008.

Now the 63-year-old, at the helm at Cahalane Brothers Ltd, a third-generation construction company founded in the 1930s, where his sons, Donal (35) and Cian (33),also work, is preparing to get back to work on Monday.

“It’s always a case of boom and bust in the building sector. It’s a cycle. If you work in construction, you have to be optimistic,” he says. “This is a new challenge, but we’re used to problem solving.”

From Monday, as part of the nation’s first steps out of the Covid-19-imposed lockdown, Cahalane Brothers and 70-plus permanent employees will return to 15 construction sites across west Cork and Cork city.

The thought of getting back to work cheers him, even with all the necessary restrictions, but Conor Cahalane – whose business is based in Dunmanway – has no illusions about the challenges that lie ahead.

“This will be my third recession,” he says. “In the late 1970s and 1980s, work was extremely scarce [and] in the last recession, particularly between 2010 and 2013, we were literally managing on thin air.”

However, there are some positive signs. Unlike 2008, the construction sector is not coming off a debt-fuelled boom. “It’s at a good steady level, whereas prior to the last recession it was out of proportion,” he says.

The Government’s next move will decide everyone’s future, he says. After 2008, the State’s capital budget dried up. This time, the Government must continue to invest, he adds.

“Unless the Government continues to spend on the construction sector, we’ll be in for a big fall. Investment in the construction sector is one of the best ways of stimulating the economy.”

Like everyone else, Cahalane Brothers shut down in March, although a small number of workers continued at a few essential sites, including a west Cork food plant and pandemic-linked emergency construction at Cork University Hospital.

Safety rules

The company is building a €10 million expansion of Clonakilty Community College and an extension for another school, along with 20 two-, three- and four-storey social houses in Dunmanway.

Ten employees will return to work on the houses, which are nearing completion. “We expect seven of the 20 houses to be ready for handover in the next month, and the rest should be completed by the end of the summer,” he says.

The company’s full-time workers will return first, with contractors coming back on a phased basis.

Health and safety rules will be obeyed, says Donal Cahalane, the company’s project engineer. “We’re confident we have the means and procedures already in place and we’re familiar with them.”

Extra hand washing and sanitary rules will be the norm, along with mandatory use of visors, masks and gloves in places where the 2m social-distancing rules cannot be observed.

“The precautions we have to take now will be an expense that needs to be considered. Everything needs consideration and planning, but we don’t feel the restrictions will prevent projects from continuing or commencing,” he says.

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