There was great excitement in Castlebar, County Mayo in the 1930's, with the announcement that a new factory for the Millinery trade was to be established.
It was to be one of the largest in the country at this time and was registered in Ireland as a public company with a nominal capital of £100,00 which was no easy matter to find in those days of economic pressure. The directors had such confidence in the goods they were offering the public, that generous support was soon forthcoming.
Two years before the factory actually opened in 1939, a number of businessmen and members of the general public in the county conceived the idea of bringing to Castlebar an industry that would enable the town to keep up with the pace of national developments and accordingly, help to solve the questions of unemployment and migration. The proposition to erect a Hat Factory was brought to the notice of amongst others a Belgium group, with similar industry on the continent. With a number of worthy ends in view, they set about getting the Government interested in the project and the aid of the Belgians and other foreign technical experts were enlisted.
Much local financial support was secured and during May of 1939 the tradition of digging the first sod of turf was given to a Belgian known as Senator Claossens one of the chief promoters.
The new factory was to be built on what was locally known as " Alice Quinns Field" on the Newport Road. At that time people regarded the factory as being located in the countryside, even though it was only ten minutes walk from what is still Castlebar's Main Street.
The building of the factory on this nine-acre site (90,000 square feet) commenced four months before the outbreak of the second world war and owing to the difficulty of getting supplies, the task of finishing the building became one of the hardest in the story of Irish enterprise. However due to the energy and foresight of the directors (including Senator J.E. McEllin a well-known industrialist from Balla, County Mayo and also a director and chief promoter of the factory) the greatest of these obstacles was surmounted and the Hat Factory, a striving concern of great magnitude and benefit to the town of Castlebar was established. The architect who designed the building was a Belgian called Auguste Koettgen who worked alongside an engineer called Martin Pirnay also a Belgian. Two local Contractors J.P.McCormack and James Chambers carried out the main construction work. Because of the outbreak of World War II they too had an uphill battle because of the scarcity of materials.
Eventually they succeeded in their great task and placed at the disposal of the management the magnificent structure, known as the Hat Factory. The new building was a unique structure in many ways during the 1940's and from many a mile away called attention to the progress and development of a town, which was affectionately referred to in our histories and patriotic songs as "Castlebar of the Races".
It was built almost entirely of concrete and was especially constructed to allow an abundance of natural light and to be well ventilated. There was no feeling of confinement, nothing but high and wide spaces all windows and light. These features are still apparent in the building as it stands today.
The main entrance to the building lead to the then up-to-date offices and rooms of the secretary and directors. Overhead there was a spacious room for the storing of wool which could hold tons of this product. Underneath the store room was the main entrance to the working department and factory floor that contained all of the machinery the last of which arrived from Belgium just one week before they were invaded by the Germans. The frontage, with its modern squares and lines, and its green latticed windows was said to have made the factory one of the most up to date in the country. Conditions in the factory were ideal and there was plenty of accommodation made for the 150 initial workers. The factory was completed and ready for business in September 1941.
At about the same time as the first brick was being laid in the new factory in Castlebar, a large body of young men and women were sent to Verviers, in Belgium, in order to receive technical training in management of the various machines, which were used in the progress of hood-making and hat-shaping. While in Belgium, these young workers were well treated by the natives and received payment. They were located in convents and other buildings and received greatest care and attention. However, the Nuns of Don Bosco, who looked after some of the female contingent, could not understand how the girls could wish for bacon and eggs at breakfast. That was until one of them found an Old Irish halfpenny. That, they laughed made them understand "Such breakfast….having pigs stamped on one's money!".
When war was declared the trainees left Belgium hurriedly, and Kathleen Loftus, one of the trainees, was said to say; "More U-boats were sighted on the Ostend-Dover crossing than belonged to the entire German Navy". And so it was to be, on the last Friday in August 1940,for the first time the factory boiler was put into commission. And as smoke issued from the huge chimney stack, it was clear that the factory would soon start activities. On that particular day also, after steam had been got up for the first time the factory boiler was put into commission. And as smoke issued from the huge chimney stack, it was clear that the factory would soon start activities. On that particular day also, after steam had been got up for the first time, the siren, which was to call the employees to work each morning was sounded for over an hour in celebration of one of the biggest events in the life of the factory.
The factory was initially run under the careful eye of its General Manager, Mr.Franz Schmolka, a short man with sparkling eyes, who was then in his late forties and a native of Prague. He had been born and bred; so to speak in the hat industry .He took over his first factory from his father after he came back from Piave front 1919. He supervised the well trained hands that ran the various machines with great efficiency, and that produced enormous felt caps, worthy of Cossacks, that were gradually worked into well-shaped hoods.
Very few people in Castlebar at that time, thought that this Hat Factory would overcome the many obstacles that they were faced with, and fight its way to such a success as it had done.
Still an even smaller section thought that never would there be on sale in the shops of Castlebar an excellent new hat, made by native folk out of the very finest of materials, in the latest style and shade, and at a very reasonable price.
The success of the factory surprised many people and lasted for many years, creating different styles, from the world renowned Stetson brand in the sixties to men's tweed caps and hats, and knitted hats for women in the seventies.
However, the story of success was not to last as trends changed and not many women were wearing hats anymore. The hood-making section of the factory changed hands during the seventies when the original directors sold out and a new board of management was formed. They continued with production until 1981 and then sold out to the Rehab Institute, who moved their business to the Breaffy Road, in Castlebar and is still currently running a small operation there.
The general feeling of all of the employees of Castlebar's Hat Factory, was that it had been a great place to work. There had been a marvelous camaraderie among the workers and many life-long friendships were made. The support and co-operation between management and staff was excellent. I know personally, that management had a very high opinion of their workers, both in their behavior on the job and socially. Their expressed opinion was "you would be proud of them anywhere". The closure of the factory was a very sad day for those of us who had been with "The Hat Factory" for forty years.
Article by Maura Ryan
Articles on the Castlebar Hat Factory