There was once a black London taxi in Ballina which caused us all to wonder whether it was a cross-channel cabbie about to set up business in the west, or a self-indulgent millionaire just enjoying a whim.
Leonard Moran was neither - at least not just yet. But when the time came to sell on the business he set up after returning home from England, the price tag ran to €25m with the businessman himself being recompensed personally with one third of the sale price.
Thirty years ago, Leonard Moran came home to Mayo after working for ten years for the Medical Research Council in Britain. By his own admission, he didn’t have much, except for a couple of hundred pounds in his back pocket. And the black London taxi.
It was not the best time to be coming back the emigrant route, with most graduates geared for packing their bags and heading the other way as soon as they qualified. But Moran’s return coincided with the decade when the major pharmaceutical companies were setting up in Ireland. He knew what was going to be needed. He knew that the new companies would require the services of an independent, internationally-accredited laboratory before they put their products on the market. And he knew, from his work in England, just how it should be done.
And so Bio Labs, a contract testing and research laboratory company, was born. The family farm was used as collateral, a bit of ‘grab, borrow or steal’ - in Moran’s words - added to the co-operation of the bank manager and things were set up. The first two bio chemists were taken on and Moran set about hunting for business.
Bio Labs started to grow; within 15 years, the staff numbers had grown to 150, most of them qualified graduates. In 1994 fresh expansion was needed, and members of the staff gladly took up the offer of investing in the company when a Business Expansion Scheme was launched.
Eight years later, all concerned were to see just how well-advised they had been to pin their faith in Leonard Moran and Bio Labs. The Boston-based Charles River Laboratories, one of the world’s leading research service providers, came looking to buy. Bio Labs said yes, and a €25m deal meant that Moran earned himself over €8m of that. But the employees who had invested in the company eight years before walked away with a return of 60 times what they had put in at the start.
The days of the black taxi were long over, but the energetic, innovative Leonard Moran had no intention of withdrawing into graceful retirement. He has recently set up a new biotechnology company, called Ovagen, which, if all goes well, will be even bigger than its predecessor.
It seems that traditionally chicken eggs have been the primary source from which medical vaccines have been developed. The problem has been that contamination of this raw material makes it difficult for production purposes. Now, however, Ovagen has developed a new technique which ensures that the eggs being used for vaccines are germ-free every time. It holds the worldwide exclusive patent for the new discovery, and only time - and required investment - stands between Leonard Moran and his next business project.
The total investment required will be €300 million, and Goodbody Stockbrokers has been engaged to raise the first €100m when that happens - not ‘if’ as perceived wisdom has it - Leonard Moran will embark on a venture which will employ nearly 500 people, again mainly highly-trained graduates, in a building of one million square feet.
It’s all a long way from the family farm; a long way from that London taxi in which he took the journey home over 30 years ago, a long way from when Bio Labs first opened its doors on a small purpose-built laboratory on the outskirts of Ballina.
No doubt, Ovagen’s staff, given the opportunity, will be happy to invest in a company whose projected profits are €600m a year.
A time to cry halt
The high octane anger of Sunday World crime journalist Paul Williams burned over the airwaves of the Joe Duffy show last week.
Williams, whose in-depth knowledge of the Dublin gangland scene is matched by an unflinching courage in his writing, was railing against that pointless, callous killing of young Anthony Campbell, whose short life was snuffed out on a gunman’s whim. He was echoing the thoughts of countless thousands across the nation at the tragic death of a young inner city boy for whom opportunities were limited, and who represented a ray of hope to all around him who are condemned to darkness.
Paul Williams does not mince his words, and his disgust and contempt for the crime lords of the capital were undisguised. But it was his chilling assessment of the way in which the crime bosses have been able to turn the law to their own advantage that offered the clearest insight into why the Gardaí are finding it so difficult to nail down the warlords.
And his sympathy was clearly with the Gardaí who, he said, were the victims of an undermining process which will soon render them as ineffective as the PSNI. The Gardaí, he claimed, are the most highly-scrutinised, closely-watched, restricted police force in Europe. Invariably, when they are called out to deal with any incident involving firearms or violence, it is their behaviour - and not that of the criminals - which becomes the focus of criticism.
Asked about what had caused matters to deteriorate as much as they have, Williams was roundly critical of the legal profession. The denizens of the Law Library, he said, talked down to the rest of the country, were out of touch with reality, and were totally removed from the lives of ordinary citizens.
By sheer coincidence, his remarks bore an uncanny connection to a comment made by poet, Theo Dorgan, to broadcaster, Richard Crowley, during a TV interview on the previous Sunday night.
Asked what it was about public life in Ireland that annoyed him most, Dorgan remarked that ‘the brazen Law Library tones’ of the current Minister for Justice was like sandpaper on his ears every time he hears him speak.
Radio’s class acts
Worth tuning into these Wednesday afternoons is a series of radio programmes featuring local primary schools, going out on CRC FM.
The brainchild of radio producer, Ronan Courell, the six part ‘class acts’ series is remarkable in that the programmes are researched and presented by the children themselves, taking their theme from issues and activities of direct relevance to young people.
Ronan Courell has found to his surprise that when the children are given their first briefing, it is a matter of leaving it to their ingenuity and imagination. Programme-making, he says, comes naturally to the youngsters, so that the series is both an educational experience as well as an opportunity to fully research their chosen topics.
‘Class Acts’ is funded under the BCI’s Sound and Vision scheme, and follows the six-part local history series, ‘Heydays and Auld Stock’, also produced by Ronan Courell under the same scheme, and which was so highly acclaimed by listeners to CRC-FM over the past two months.
Donie Fitzmaurice signs off
The public face of the Garda force in Castlebar will never be quite the same again following the retirement of Donal Fitzmaurice after 25 years service in the county town.
Austere, diligent, totally impartial, Donie Fitzmaurice showed neither fear nor favour in doing his duty. He was held in the highest respect by the community he served, and even those who might have found themselves on the wrong side of their dealings with him would not deny that he ruled with an even hand.
There were no ‘no go’ areas on the Fitzmaurice beat, no alley or laneway too dark to be overlooked when he patrolled the town in the late hours. He was rock solid; unbending but fair, currying favour with nobody; a dedicated police officer first and always.
Donie Fitzmaurice was a credit to the uniform he wore; an example to younger colleagues and fresh recruits. Castlebar will be the poorer for his well-earned retirement. May he and Breeta enjoy many days of golfing pleasure, football success, and green-fingered gardening.
Fond Westport memories
As welcome as ever, and perfectly timed, the 25th annual journal of Westport Historical Society, ‘Cathair na Mart’, is again on the bookshelves.
Honorary editor, Aidan Clarke, with his able assistants, Deirdre Quinn and Sheila Mulloy, has again produced a journal worthy of the Society and whose appeal is not necessarily confined to those with Covey credentials.
It’s a sign of just how quickly the years are slipping by that events which to some of us are still of relatively recent happening, are now finding their way into historical journals. A case in point is surely ‘Bringing Light to Mayo’, Dick Byrne’s delightful - but all-too-brief - account of the rural electrification scheme which transformed rural Ireland in the early fifties. No slouch when it comes to the written word, as Galwegians will readily agree, Byrne is a great storyteller whose tale of ‘the electric’ will raise fond memories for many in west Mayo.
There is a great account by Mary Lawlor Chervenak, from her base in New York, of ‘Aughagower’s Outpost, Butte City, America’, a fascinating account of how so many emigrants from that parish came to choose the relatively remote Montana town as their emigrant destination. As with the Achill connection with Cleveland, it started with one person who found himself in that mining town, wrote home the few letters which started the trickle which became a flood of Aughagower exiles. The author names a Hugh Gavin (1833) or Tom Gavin (1856) as the likely earliest Aughagower settlers who paved the way for the others to follow.
We will return to that later, but for a gentle, pastoral look back at Westport of the fifties, the article by Lyndall and John Luce is a delight. Westport has traditionally been blessed in the good nature of those who choose to live there - although the incomers would hold that it is they who are blessed - and the Luces are no exception. Their description of purchasing, through the redoubtable RG Browne, the cottage in Killeenacoff, once the family home of the late Michael Hoban, through the many friends they have made since then, stirs many memories. That was in 1952 and the Luces quickly got to know the traders and residents and neighbours of their adopted hometown. Mattie Clarke in Lipton’s and Goldens and Shanleys and Hawkshaws for bread, and Mulloys and the Tea Cosy and the Ideal Cinema and the Town Hall. Knappagh Church and Rev Percy Lewis and Sydney Costello of angling excellence and the Sammons and Brackloon Wood, and Alec and Donald Wallace of the Old Head Hotel, and who remembers the old semi-secret road to Bertra beach, over shingles and seaweed and running streams and the danger of being marooned on the dunes if the tide came in.
In the final paragraph, Lyndall Luce pays the warmest of all compliments to their host town.
“We give (Westport) heartfelt thanks for all the pleasure it has given us in our home from home and we greatly value all the cherished friendships we have been privileged to form in the shadow of the Eagle.”
The empire strikes back
As the debate over the use of ‘Happy Holiday’ instead of ‘Happy Christmas’ rumbles on - and at least one Mayo multiple outlet opting for the secularisation route - word from the US is that the traditionalists are fighting back.
The world’s biggest retailer has been forced into a u-turn which will see the essential Christmas message being re-adopted as central to the season.
Wal Mart, which employs hundreds of thousands and whose customer base runs to millions, have learned the hard way that censoring the holy season doesn’t pay off at the checkout tills. A concerted backlash from customers last year, which saw sales fall for the first time in decades, has forced Wal Mart to go back to the way things used to be.
The huge retailer admitted that, while it had been influenced by anti-Christian lobby groups into ditching Christmas initially, the power of last year’s backlash had forced a change of heart.