Seafield Fabrics Ltd - May 2020

Youghal, Co. Cork

1946 – 1947

B O’Flynn & Son

Photographs – aerial views (1948) by Aerofilms Ltd copyright Historic Environment Scotland, 1952 images by Mikey Roche and 2006 images copyright Michael Hussey, 2019 images by Shane O’Toole

Any town in the country will show you that mid-century Ireland was built upon the decorated shed. Tegral’s Big Six corrugated sheets roofed many of these often unprepossessing structures, the everyday buildings of working life and weekend entertainment in scrabbling times: the petrol stations and garage workshops with their simple stepped gables, the slightly more glamorous ballrooms and stylish cinemas, and – equally modern but even more vital – the factories that gave hope as the new state sought to establish a manufacturing base in a floundering economy. 

Collectively, these businesses represent an heroic achievement of modest means, even if insufficient to stem the haemorrhage of so much young blood lost during those decades to emigration. Today, three-quarters of a century later, not much of this heritage survives intact and valued. Nothing lasts forever, nor even very long. Every generation faces defeat in the end. The clock stands still, close to midnight. But if we close our eyes for a moment, we can imagine when it was still noon.

In 1946 one of Cork’s great industrialists, William Dwyer, decided to invest in the town where he owned Ashton Court, an impressive six-bay Victorian house with panoramic views of the Blackwater. It later formed part of the Loreto boarding school at Knockaverry, Youghal, for half a century. Dwyer had established Sunbeam Wolsey in Cork in 1928 to manufacture underwear and stockings. Woolcombers followed in 1941. The Cork Spinning Company too. After the war his expansion plans went into overdrive. Woolcombers relocated to Midleton in 1946 and he established two new businesses – Midleton Worsted Mills across the road, overlooking the estate of the Earl of Midleton, and Seafield Fabrics on the approach to Youghal, for the manufacture of satin and taffeta linings and lingerie made from rayon, his first venture into synthetic, rather than woollen, materials. Several reports say the town, desperate at the time, gifted him the site for free.

 

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The Irish-American writer, Alexander Cockburn, who grew up in Youghal, traced the arc of this tale, including some of its detail, in 2012, shortly before his death: There had been no substantial manufacturing employment in Youghal till Seafield Fabrics went up, just a poor retail economy – an economy that, after the British garrison had left, following the Treaty of 1921, had limped along on the tourists coming down in the summer from Cork and beyond to spend a day or a two-week vacation on the town’s fine beaches. A few years later, its subsidiary, Blackwater Cottons [designed by Chillingworth & Levie to manufacture dresses and garments], went up alongside it. By the mid-1960s Youghal was the only town in Ireland with full employment. Ireland’s entry into the Common Market in 1973 rendered the local factories vulnerable to competition. Describing the low productivity and slack practices of Seafield Fabrics to Cockburn, Paddy Linehan [owner of the town’s Moby Dick bar] reached for an image of Babylonian luxury: “They had coloured toilet paper. It was like the Shah of Iran.”

But back to the beginning. On November 17, 1947, the Tánaiste, Sean Lemass, Minister for Industry and Commerce, travelled to Cork to open the three factories: Woolcombers and Midleton Worsted Mills in Midleton and Seafield Fabrics – also home at that time to Dun Emer Carpets – in Youghal. An election was coming. The Irish Press reported that “special altars were erected for the occasion by the employees. On his arrival, the Tánaiste was accorded an enthusiastic reception and presented with a gold scissors in a gold sheath by Mr E P O’Flynn, architect. There was loud applause when he cut the tape.” The Evening Echo reported: “The party then motored to Youghal and there Mr Lemass was presented with a [silver] key of the Seafield Fabrics factory. At each of the factories the Minister threw over a switch which set the machinery in motion.”  Later, luncheon was at Ashton Court, where the toast was “Irish Industry” and the Tánaiste gave a wide-ranging address on the urgent need for manufacturing development, without which “Independent economic existence, perhaps even political independence, will be impossible to sustain.”

He added: “The two fine factories we inspected would bring joy to the heart of anybody who is responsible for industry and commerce, not principally because of the appearance of the factories nor the happy workers in them, but through the knowledge of the courage that planned them and the courage that overcame all difficulties encountered. We owe to Mr Dwyer and his associates a very considerable debt for that fine achievement and the encouragement he has given.” In his response Mr Dwyer said he was “particularly happy to have the blessing of the Church, for, with Communism rampant in Europe, we have to look to the Christian Church.”

Dwyer had gifted the Church of the Annunciation in Blackpool, Cork, in 1945. It was built by direct labour by the staff of Sunbeam Wolsey and designed by the renowned local sculptor Seamus Murphy, with input from Cork architect Edmond (‘Eddie’) O’Flynn. O’Flynn had studied at Liverpool school of architecture – then perhaps the leading school in the world, attended a decade later by both Noel Moffett and Liam McCormick – for three years during the 1920s before entering into partnership with his father. He designed Murphy’s studio at Watercourse Road in Cork the next year. So it is not surprising that Murphy contributed a sublime bas relief limestone plaque, depicting a woman working a loom, with spools of thread on either side, to Seafield Fabrics. Nor that the factory was built by direct labour, employing 70 men. Murphy was also called upon in1952 to carve a similar plaque for the neighbouring Blackwater Cotton factory (which closed in 1971 and is now an indoor funfair).

The Midleton factory is now Midleton Enterprise Park. Its elaborately modelled brick portal tower in English garden wall bond, with zig-zag Art Deco corners, herringbone infill brick panel and a double-height window glazed with bullseye panes, survives, as does much of the original fabric. Even so, it was always the poor relation, stylistically speaking, to the white-fronted Seafield Fabrics, which the Cork Examiner rightly called “a fine sight” in 1947, in its sole architectural comment on the buildings. The National Inventory of Architectural Heritage says Seafield Fabrics is “an excellent example of the Art Deco style, which is a rare find throughout the country, particularly outside the main cities” and rates it a building of regional importance. In a distant echo of the long-demolished former Imco dry-cleaning works overlooking Dublin Bay, perhaps its most memorable quality comes from its south-coast maritime setting, fluidly projected by a Liverpool graduate, and expressing as much Brighton glamour as anything ever could in post-Emergency Ireland.

The factory closed in 2005, beaten by competition from low-cost economies. Of all the decorated sheds in all the towns of Ireland few can match this sleeping beauty. When I think of how it is now neglected, lonely, unloved, subject to arson and under threat, I find myself in disbelief, feeling oddly at one with a head-shaking pigeon that makes a brief appearance towards the end of ‘I Can’t Breathe’, a song performed in the abandoned factory by Irish/American hip hop band The Urban Druids. See for yourself here: