Senator Noel Mulcahy speaking in Seanad Eireann (the Irish Senate) on the role of Brendan O’Regan and SFADCo on industrial development in Ireland. March 1 1978
To a great extent any of the success I have had in life is due to SFADCo and Shannon. I was the first person employed by SPS International, which is one of the companies that SFADCo brought in to the Shannon Industrial Estate. It was there that I got a grounding in industrial management. Sometimes that aspect of the contribution that has been made is forgotten. There are other people like me working in firms and in State bodies throughout the country who acquired their skills in the industrial estate in Shannon. There are many people now working in AnCO training other people, who discovered and developed their talents on the factory floors of the industrial estate in Shannon. This is one of the great contributions that came from that area. The industries operated in new and modern technology generally and therefore there was an upgrading of the kind of work that people had to do. I do not know how to say just how much praise we should pour on Brendan O’Regan, the chairman of SFADCo and his colleagues, Paul Quigley, chief executive, Tom Callanan and others.
My first memories of SFADCo are associated with mud. We crawled through mud all over the industrial estate because they were pushing ahead at such a rate that the infrastructure could not keep up. There was no housing, but lots of mud. There was not enough heating because boilers were not working. I remember having to make tea for girls in the factory estate at 8.30 a.m. because the boilers were not working and it was the only way we could keep them warm.
SFADCo succeeded in consolidating the airport’s position. It also gave rise to the birth of a town in the middle of County Clare with a population of 8,000. That is a tremendous achievement. It gave confidence to Limerick where there was an awful lot of doubt about Shannon. People kept saying “When is it going to fail? When will they all get into their aeroplanes and fly out of the country and leave us all with our spent assets?” The development of Shannon and the growth of that town provided confidence in that region and some of that confidence rubbed off on the country as a whole. It was a pump-priming contribution to industrial development. Over and above that, as Senator Martin brought out so well, it made a contribution in the culture area.
When I think of Brendan O’Regan and his team in Shannon I think of people who had a vision that something could work and who were not put off by any doubting Thomases. They said that it was possible to bring a dead castle back to life, to bring the emigrants back to work in places like Shannon, and to get young children of farmers with no background in industry and with the right type of training and helpful coaching to turn them into skilled industrial operators and managers. That is the vision which existed at that time.
When I look back on it I see the importance of planning at that time. They were professionals and they knew the need for planning. It did produce the results. It is very useful at times to go back and think about the decisions which had to be taken some ten years ago—I am talking about 1959 which is nearly 20 years ago—and to think about the doubting Thomases who perhaps held back the amount of investment needed, the doubting Thomases who said the Ennis road between Limerick and Shannon would not be filled with cars, that it would not be necessary to expand it and that money going into that was going down the drain because the Americans would fly away, and to think about the vision and the confidence of the team that kept on and said that the cars would be going front to back separated by only 20 yards on the road between Limerick and Shannon. That day came to pass and anybody who now tries to travel that road at peak time will know what it is like. I remember people laughing at that projection in 1959. It gives me confidence to think about a new direction as the Minister said, when we look back at that time, because maybe we are at another turning point now. We should encourage and welcome it and let that brilliant team get on with their work.
The other spin-off which came from it was the confidence it engendered. It allowed the Department for Education to go ahead with a National Institute of Higher Education in Limerick. I was working with the late Donogh O’Malley at the time on that venture and my belief is that that institution would never have been started if it was not for the growth of Shannon which showed that an institution of that kind was needed, that a new approach to the development of technology was needed. Shannon, beside it, provided the encouragement, the inspiration, and the vision.
Because so many foreign visitors and technicians were arriving, Americans, Germans, English, Dutch, and Japanese, there was a fear that some sort of a foreign cultural amalgam or hybrid would emerge around Shannon. What happened was that as a result of the introduction of the tours, the castle mediaeval banquets, the villages, the folk museum and the Irish cottages a sense of Irish identity developed out of the inspiration and the intrusion, to some extent, of the foreigners. There again, it was the vision of the people who work there who saw that, and had the drive and conviction to bring it about. I remember people in Limerick laughing at the idea of a mediaeval banquet in Bunratty. Having participated in the development of the idea, and having being thrown into the dungeon a few times as I sung my songs, it is great to see that it happened, and that it is still going on. Other countries are now building on the same idea. It is great to see Irishmen leading in that way. There is a national identity associated with the cultural development in that area which people in other parts of the country could follow.
I had the pleasure of having Brendan O’Regan on Comhairle na Gaeilge when I was chairman of it a few years ago. There I saw his contribution to the development of the Irish language in that he saw that it was an essential component in the evolution of national identity and that it could go hand-in-hand with industrial development. That is what led to the report called Gniomh don Gaeltacht. As we have heard in this House before, we are due to have an Údarás na Gaeltachta arising from that report. Brendan O’Regan was the inspiration behind that, and gave that report soul, rather than just producing an economist’s stark, figure-full prose document. It was a report with soul because it saw the possibility of the combination of development of industry and development of culture going hand-in-hand, grounded in the Irish language. It is important to look back and learn from the way in which people thought in those days because we need the same sort of vision today.
… What is definite is that the combination of Seán Lemass’s vision 0with Brendan O’Regan gave rise to SFADCo, to the development of Shannon and to that vision which inspired the rest of the country in its industrial development and provided the spin-off of trained people who were able to work in other industries throughout the country.
Noel Mulcahy is a former executive of SPS Shannon, Dean College of Engineering and Science at University of Limerick and member of Seanad Eireann.