In 1929, Limerick was still at the forefront of industry in Ireland with the four bacon factories of Matterson, O’Mara, Denny and Shaws working to full capacity. The flour mills of Bannetyne and Russell were both at the time under the control of Goodbody’s, who were the largest flour manufacturers in the country. Thousands of men flooded to the area to work on the futuristic Ardnacrusha power station. The city was embracing the future while still clinging to the manufacturing industries of the past.
One of these older industries still in operation in Limerick in 1929 was the tanning business, though it was in decline. The Irish tan yards were famous for the standards of the sole and harness leather they produced. At the turn of the 20th century there were over 20 tanneries in Ireland, operating in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Clonmel and Kilkenny, as well as many smaller towns. By 1929 there were only four of any size, one being that of Messrs E O’Callaghan and Son, Ltd., Limerick with depots in Cork and Tralee.
O’Callaghan’s tannery was founded by Eugene O’Callaghan (1800-1881) who was the Mayor of Limerick in 1864 and High Sherriff in 1866-7. Eugene O’Callaghan was originally from Cork. He set up O’Callaghan Shoes in Limerick in the 1830s and in 1856 he moved across the Abbey River to Cornwallis Street (now Gerald Griffin St) where the tannery remained until its closure. O’Callaghan Shoes used the leather produced in the family tannery.
Michael O’Callaghan (1879-1921), grandson of the founder of the firm, was an expert tanner, and managing director of the company up to the year 1921. He was Mayor of Limerick in 1920-21 and was involved in one of the most infamous atrocities in the history of Limerick city. On 7th March, 1921, the sitting Mayor of Limerick, George Clancy and Michael O’Callaghan and Volunteer Joseph O’Donoghue were brutally murdered during the War of Independence. Following the death of her husband, Katherine O’Callaghan née Murphy (1885-1961) was elected to Dáil Éireann in May 1921. She represented Limerick City and Limerick East in the second Dáil which was considered an illegal gathering. As a result, she was arrested in April 1923. She was taken to Kilmainham Gaol where she went on hunger strike and remained for nineteen days. Following her release she left politics and returned to Limerick.
The factory was complete with all the modern machinery and capable of turning out up to 2,000 hides a week with 300 employed, though this dropped considerably until only minimum hands were employed on a part-time basis. The tannery was consumed by fire in 1950 causing a loss of 170 jobs in the short term. The factory was rebuilt and continued for another 17 years when the building was bought by Michael Keane, a director of Limerick Shoes Ltd.
In 1929, Limerick was also home to two large tobacco factories who imported products from the United States, Egypt and Turkey as well as locally-produced tobacco. Spillane’s Tobacco Factory on Sarsfield Street was started by John Spillane in 1829 and was known as ‘The House of Garryowen’. A hundred years later they were employing a hundred people. The famous Garryowen plug formed 80 per cent of the factory’s output while they had other products including Popular and Treaty bar plugs, Hazel Nut plug, Special Flake, Handy Cut Flake, snuffs, Cashel, High Toast, White Top and Craven A cigarettes. To meet a special demand from the North of Ireland the factory produced a type of plug known as Long Square. Spillane’s closed in 1958 with the loss of 150 jobs after the building was purchased the previous year by Murray Ltd, of Dublin. Their building is where the old Dunnes Stores building stands today.
William Spillane who was the Mayor of Limerick in 1885 built the Spillane Tower which today is better known as the ‘Snuff Box’ on the banks of the Shannon river at Corkanree.
The other large factory was Clunes Tobacco Factory on Denmark Street. It opened in the late 1872 and had about 60 employees in 1929. The firm specialised in Big Bar Plug, every two ounces of which is stamped ‘Thomond’. They also excelled in the Far-Famed Limerick Twist. They were also known for Kincora Plug, Sarsfield Plug, Home Rule, Hibernian, Target, Ireland’s Pride and Two Flake.
A popular item associated with tobacco factories are the cigarette cards. Cigarette cards were originally produced as a small piece of card which was designed to protect the individual cigarettes from being squashed as the original packaging was paper and not the card boxes that we know today.
Instead of leaving these pieces of card blank the cigarette manufacturers soon began printing promotional messages on them. Eventually they produced ranges of designs, photographs of sport stars, movie stars, and landscapes. Collectors would attempt to put full sets together by purchasing a single brand or trading with others. This promotional idea soon spread to include bubble gum to attract younger customers.
The cigarette cards produced by Gallaher Limited Cigarettes featuring Limerick scenes. This company was opened in 1857 by Tom Gallaher in Derry. In 1896, his tobacco factory in Belfast was the largest in the world.
In the late 19th and early 20th century clay pipes – to go along with the tobacco – were produced in the William Merritt’s factory, Broad Street. Twice a year fifty tons of clay would be imported from Liverpool for the production of twenty-one different kinds of pipe. Their standard pipe sold for 1d. Due to their fragile nature they were replaced often. Their pipes were used locally and exported to South Africa, Australia, Canada and the United States. The Merritt family employed primarily family members. Clay pipes were often embedded into the walls of new houses in a tradition of good luck.
Joseph Fisher Bennis (1839-1928) and his brother had a shop at 26 Patrick Street, which they later moved to George’s Street.
The brothers had a keen interest in phrenology and were given permission by the governor of the city gaol to examine some of the heads of the prisoners. One evening in 1860, after closing their shop, the two brothers walked the 15 miles to Quin Abbey and filled a sack each with skulls and walked back to Limerick with the sacks on their backs. Bennis put these skulls on display for the next 50 years. It just so happened that Bennis was also the first person to bring bananas to Limerick.
One of the last coppersmiths in Limerick was called Heffernan and conducted his business opposite the city courthouse. Once when the court was in, sitting Judge Ball sent word that he could not hear witnesses over the sound of the copper hammering. Heffernan sent back the message: “tell the judge that he gets paid for talking and I get paid for hammering”. He did eventually shut down works for two days, after which he sent the judge a bill for lost earnings.
Irishtown in the nineteenth century was a maze of lanes and alleys with such names as Scabby Lane, Mass Lane, Goat’s Lane, White Wine Lane, Repeal Alley and Black Bull Lane. The occupants had their occupations recorded on a local school register as rag-gathers, wheelwrights, thatchers, chandlers, coffin makers, basket makers, grave diggers, whip makers, snuff grinders, fiddlers, cage makers, lime burners, wool card makers and bellow makers. All of these were long and tedious jobs which allowed the employees little time for activities other than work.
The Barrett family were whip makers, while the Sweeneys were brush makers who operated out of the Milk Market. The Limerick Soviet of December 1977 tells us about a gentleman by the name of Johnny Caulfield of Garryowen who was employed in one of the most interesting crafts of all. He repaired broken crockery by stitching the pieces together. The stitching was carried out with soft steel wire through holes bored with great patience and precision.