The well-known geographer, T. W. Freeman, provided us with a useful summary of the work in the Tullamore bacon factory in his geographical survey of Tullamore published in 1948:
The Midlands Co-Operative Society began its career as a creamery in 1928, and was at first intended to absorb the milk supplies of the neighbourhood for butter – making, but as these were never sufficiently great the trade in eggs and poultry became more important. Like the two private firms mentioned above [Williams’s and Egan’s], the Co-Operative Society buys and sells over a wide area, which includes the two counties of Leix and Offaly, the whole of Co. Galway, and parts of Tipperary, Roscommon, and Meath . Altogether the Society handles some 30,000 cases of thirty dozen eggs, of which three-quarters are exported to Britain, and approximately 24,000 turkeys, 5,000 geese, and 18,000 hens per annum, mainly for export or the Dublin market. Butter is bought from other creameries, made into one – pound rolls, and sold. In 1945, a bacon factory was added; the pigs are bought in Co, Offaly, and the produce sold in much the same area as that covered by the eggs and poultry trade. The scarcity of pigs at present means that the factory is working below capacity. The Society also has a sawmill using local timber for making cases and firewood and runs retail shops in Tullamore town and at Clonaslee: in all, it employs 180 workers, with 80 extra in the Christmas turkey season, and 20 extra in the main egg season, from February to May: most of this labour is drawn from the towns.
As Freeman notes there was a shop adjoining the creamery stocked with attractive stock for members for the public with managers Rody O’Brien and later Joe Bracken (who went on to open his own shop in the Shambles in 1971). There was also a shop in Clonaslee and extensive premises in Loughrea employing thirty people to handle eggs and poultry on a large scale. From here butter and cheese were distributed all over the West. After a few years following on a substantial decrease in the supply of milk, the continued manufacture of butter at the creamery proved unviable. At this point it was decided to close the dairy and purchase butter in bulk from the larger creameries in the south of Ireland. This was a big blow to the remaining milk producers who had no outlet for their product. But that was well into the future because in 1966 it was reported that the creamery was to get new machinery to handle up to 6,000 gallons of milk per day.
In the early 1940s the board of the co-op decided to build a bacon factory that could handle upwards of seven hundred pigs per week, in Tullamore. The factory was built by contractor James Dunne of Tullamore and wired by Michael McCarthy, a local electrician. The factory was established and opened for business in June 1945.
In the first few years a very small number of pigs were processed and bacon could only be supplied on a quota basis which was strictly controlled by the Irish Pigs and Bacon Commission. However, in the aftermath of World War Two restrictions were removed and the factory engaged in increased pig numbers and the export of bacon mainly to Liverpool.
The material for this memoir was gathered in 2002. The factory had closed in 1989. In its time it had employed up to 100 people in regular employment.
I began my working life in the Bacon Factory in 1954 and remained there until its closure in the late 1980s. There were about one hundred workers employed during those years, both men and women, my working week was five and a half days and if overtime needed to be done, you were obliged to do it. The workforce consisted of skilled, semi-skilled and non-skilled workers. At the start of my working time there, my wage was £7 a week with a bonus at Christmas time. Approaching was the busiest time of the year; you had to work lots of overtime.
My main memory of the workplace was very cold and wet. Our protective clothing consisted of white coats for the women, brown for the man, aprons, white caps and wellington boots. Women worked in the sausage room. Black and white pudding was made there too. The recipe for Tullamore sausages was known only by one worker. When the factory closed, this recipe passed on to Tullamore Meats which is still operating in Spollanstown. Cooked hams was part of the sausage department. They were processed in a separate room. Tullamore hams were very popular throughout the midlands as were Tullamore sausages and puddings. There were five or six delivery vans.
There was a separate canteen for men and women. There was a retail shop attached to the factory where goods produced in the factory were sold. Employees could buy at a special rate. Workers got two weeks holiday in the year. These were staggered as work continued all the time.
There was a dairy disposal section. Butter was not processed during my time. It was bought in wooden boxes, then divided into pounds and half-pounds and sold on. In earlier years, it was processed on the premises. At one time, turkeys were also killed there.
In the main part of the factory, the work was very heavy. There were no conveyer belts. Manual labour was order of the day. There was always a Department (of Agriculture) Inspector on the premises to oversee that all procedures were correctly carried out. Killing of animals took place four days each week. A vet was always present at these times. Jack Bootman who later became the President of the GAA was one such vet who worked on the premises. Other vets I remember, there were three grades, A, B and C, and each paid a different rate. If you wanted to be paid straight away, you could take “live rate” money. When the pigs were killed, they were washed in a big tank, then hung on a rail and passed through a furnace to burn off the hair. They were then weighed and graded. Farmers were then paid “dead weight” rates. Carcasses were then put into a fridge. The boning room where head and feet were removed was next. Then they were put into a large tank of brine to make sure they were under the brine. When taken from brine, they were put into another fridge. This was heavy work.
Lard was made from fat off the animals. It was rendered down, pumped into a tank, cooled and made up in pounds and half pounds. The offal was taken away to make bone meal.
Most townspeople kept pigs that time so they would bring their one or two animals to the factory when ready to slaughter. Every morning a lorry load of pigs went to Dublin for delivery to butchers.
During my time in the Bacon Factory, the head man there was Mr. Quill followed by McGonagle. Mr. Longworth was the factory manager.
Ownership of the factory changed in the 1980s. The new owners who were Asian or African. I’m not sure which, closed the factory down quite suddenly which came as a shock to the workers.
This piece was first published in Jip-cat, pig’s head, petticoats and combinations: our lives, our times in Tullamore and surrounding districts; editor Feargal Kenny. Tullamore: Tullamore Active Retirement Association, 2002 (available from Offaly History Centre).