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Foxford mills re-designed

One-year-old Billy Ruane and 18-month-old Ella Sheahan-Moloney
SPECIAL DAY One-year-old Billy Ruane and 18-month-old Ella Sheahan-Moloney enjoy themselves at the reception.  Pic: Brian Farrell

Foxford mills re-designed  for the future

Áine Ryan

THE ICONIC status of the Foxford Woollen Mills, and its integral place in the history of County Mayo, was a central theme at a reception held last Thursday afternoon (November 15) to re-launch the historic mills. Hundreds of people gathered at the state-of-the art centre, refurbished recently as part of an ongoing investment programme. This programme, under the stewardship of Mr Joe Queenan, has seen the upgrading of the mill itself and the expansion of the product range. 
According to Mr Queenan, the fact that natural fabrics have become fashionable once again provided the ideal opportunity to modernise both the brand and design. This was effected with the help of leading Irish designer, Ms Helen McAlinden, who has infused the range of rugs, blankets, upholstered fabrics and furnishings, bed linen, fabric bags, hand-woven scarves and throws with a bright contemporary look.
“Helen McAlinden has introduced new patterns, brighter colours and softer finishes and her bold, open-square patterns have become an enormous success, with a five-fold increase in some product lines since the new designs were introduced,” said Mr Queenan.
He also observed that while ‘the designs combine a contemporary international lifestyle’, they remain distinctively Irish.
The Foxford Woollen Mills was founded in 1892 by Sister of Charity, Agnes Morrogh-Bernard, and a northern Irish Protestant mill owner, Mr John Charles Smith, in an effort to provide employment for the many locals still suffering from the rigours of repeated famine and colonial repression.
In the words of Mr Peter Hynes, MC for the reception: “[This very special place] is a place which has seen famine and plenty, joy and tragedy, a place that has influenced the lives and fortunes of five generations of Foxford people.
“The products of this place have become a symbol of Irishness – of quality and longevity. It has over the years been a place of industry, a place of worship, a place of the arts, a place of education. It never looked better [though] than it does today,” said Mr Hynes. 
At its height, the mills employed over 200 local craftspeople and became world-famous for its rugs, blankets and tweed. However, in the 1970s and 1980s the business suffered a significant slump – a victim of the general decline in the milling industry as the manufacture of synthetics burgeoned – and ultimately closed in 1987. However, in an ironic twist, the following year, it was given a second lease of life when the Mayo accountant, Mr Joe Queenan, employed by the liquidator to examine its finances, saw its potential and purchased it. After funding was secured through a Business Expansion Scheme (BES) the looms were upgraded or replaced by faster, computerised machines.
At last week’s gathering, urging the public to visit the new mills, the Cathaoirleach of Mayo County Council, Cllr Seamus Weir said they were a ‘new Foxford Woollen Mills’ for a ‘New Ireland’.
“The launch of the new Foxford Woollen Mills is a major step forward for the Foxford brand. Down the years, we have all been familiar with the traditional Foxford blankets and rugs. These were items of high quality that reared many generations in this country,” said Cllr Weir.
The ecumenical foundations of the mills were replicated at the launch with the ceremonious ribbon-cutting being performed by Sr Noeleen Maguire – who spent 31 years working in Foxford – and, former Ulster Unionist MP, Baron Ken Maginnis of Drumglass. A native of Dublin, Sr Noeleen –  better known in Foxford as Sr Ronan – observed that ‘it was lovely to see the [ecumenical] spirit of both founders’ being repeated. She said ‘it was a very happy occasion’ and it was wonderful ‘to be bringing the mills so beautifully into the 21st century’.
Referring to the difficult times during which the mills were established, Baron Maginnis noted that ‘they were born out of necessity’.
“It’s amazing that Sr Agnes was advised back then by [Land League founder] Michael Davitt to go to the north and to get advice from John Charles Smith,” said Baron Maginnis, referring to Moygahsel’s connections with milling.   
The Foxford Woollen Mills attracts over 70,000 visitors annually. As well as the shop, it comprises of a multi-media presentation, a tour of the weaving, dyeing and finishing operations, a restaurant, a jewellery workshop and art gallery.
So far, this year, the company has achieved sales of €4.5m with 20 per cent coming from exports. In the past year, as part of its ongoing investment programme, €3 million was spent on upgrading the mills and expanding the product range. The company aims to double annual sales over the next five years and increase employee numbers from the present 35 to 45.