It was just before Covid 19 – that seems such a long time ago now – that the idea was mooted that maybe it was time for another version of The Gathering. The last Gathering had been in 2013, when the Government urged families and communities and groups of every kind to organise a get together and invite people home from abroad. And what a success it turned out to be in towns and villages and hamlets across the land.
And nowhere more so than in Belmullet. There, the reunion was organised of the former workers at the Travenol plant in the town, which, over its seven-year span, had changed the face of Erris in so many different ways. And although its lifespan was all too short, its impact on the area in economic, social and cultural terms was deep and enduring.
When the 300 women who had worked in Travenol reunited that August, it was to recapture warm, happy memories of friendship and affection, tinged just a little with the bittersweet recollection of how it all came to an end.
The reunion function itself was recorded as an RTÉ radio documentary, where Mary McAndrew and Pat O’Neill recalled the camaraderie and team spirit in a plant that was as much a social outlet for women across the Erris region as it was a valuable source of income for people who, for the first time, came to be in receipt of a regular, guaranteed weekly wage.
Ian McAndrew, one of those behind the reunion, reminded his audience of the groundbreaking effect, back in 1974, of locating in Belmullet a high-tech, medical-device manufacturing plant that, at its height, would employ 300 women. This would be the first generation of women who did not have to emigrate on leaving school; the first generation of women to work outside the home; and, crucially, the first generation of Erris women to take control of money and to use it to make their own consumer choices.
And the money was good. In many cases, household income increased by over £200 a week, at a time when money was money. Better still, the earnings were reinvested back into the community, in home extensions and improvements, in luxury white goods, in style and fashion and leisure and entertainment. Money poured into the local economy, and it circulated, and more jobs were created, and retail shops and services thrived and, finally, the good times had arrived.
But it was not to last. The first warning signs came in September of 1980, six years after the plant had opened, when it was announced that staff were to go on a three-day working week. It was hoped to be temporary, management said, but the doubts were setting in.
The following March came the news that the workforce was to be cut by 100. And then, within months, came the final blow. The plant was to close completely.
The American management was at pains to point out that the closure was no reflection on its loyal Belmullet staff. Travenol had excellent product quality, and excellent worker relationships in Belmullet, the official announcement said.
The decision to close down had been made ‘due to a situation of over capacity in Europe for the particular line of products being made in Belmullet’.
The dream was over, but it had been good while it lasted, and things would never be the same again. The economic impact had been huge, but equally so was the sense of confidence and independence that it brought to a new generation of young women. And it was an experience that, even 40 years later, no Travenol employee would ever forget.