Stirring times over as sugar trade sours

SUGAR processing was one of the early industries started by William T Cosgrave and his Agriculture Minister Paddy Hogan in the government of the new Irish Free State in 1926.

It was later expanded, developed and nationalised by Éamon de Valera and Seán Lemass after Fianna Fáil came to power and became a remarkably successful partnership of farmers, factory workers and the State.

The Carlow plant, now facing closure, was opened in 1926, following a strong lobbying campaign by local people to establish a sugar beet industry in the heart of one of the country’s intensive tillage growing areas.

But the factory was going through a difficult time when Lemass became minister for industry and commerce. “Yes,” he said, “it appears to be a failure. But we’ll save it. We’ll build three more. Now tell me where that can be done.”

Most farmers had never grown beet and had to be canvassed to do so in the same way that a politician might seek their vote at election time. Public meetings were held in towns and villages.

It was no simple task, as Youghal man Jim Glavin, who took part in the campaign of persuasion, recalled in a newspaper interview many years later.

For in the best traditions of any canvassing, the promises made were not always kept. A group of farmers in one place even collected names off the headstones in the local cemetery and listed them as potential beet growers.

Their thinking was that the area with the greatest listed acreage for beet growing would stand a good chance of being chosen as the site for one of the new factories. But sounder principles were used to select the sites in Mallow, Tuam and Thurles, and the local communities played a big promotional role.

The economic war was on during that time and there was an embargo on Irish cattle entering British ports. Yet, this small country, fighting for economic survival, found a way of meeting the costs of the German installations for the new plants.

It was agreed that the equipment would be paid for in part by the cattle the farmers could not sell to the British.

Beet-growing itself became one of the most labour intensive crops up to the mid-1950s when mechanisation was introduced.

But the developing Sugar Company was in need of leadership and co-ordination and the man who provided it after the war years was already a legend. Lieutenant General Michael J Costello, a native of Cloughjordan, Co Tipperary, was hailed as one of the outstanding Irish soldiers of his generation.

But it was as the Sugar Company’s dynamic general manager for 21 years that he had a major impact on the food industry here.

The Sugar Company, now part of the Greencore Group, has since undergone many changes. Tuam and Thurles factories are long closed and the Carlow plant is due to shut down in March. That will leave Mallow with the country’s only remaining sugar factory.

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