Saturday 18 January 2020

Renault years in Wexford

Cllr Davy Hynes with a Renault 4L.
Cllr Davy Hynes with a Renault 4L.
The closure of the assembly plant was marked by a function in the Talbot Hotel, where a Renault 4L was the first prize in the raffle.

Nothing remains of the site where the assembly plant stood cheek by jowl with the old Clover Meats factory.

At the height of its production, this now vacant site employed almost 200 people and churned out 35 cars a day.

The remnant of bygone industry has long since been levelled to leave a blank space between the Rosslare road and the sea. But back in the seventies, the bike Davy rode from Barrack Street - where he then resided - to Trinity Street was one of scores parked outside.

The heart of the enterprise was a massive corrugated iron shell inherited from the Star engineering company.

It was back in 1965 that entrepreneur Con Smith opened the factory, which produced 400 vehicles that year.

The business was based on the fact that cars imported ready to drive were subject to punitive taxes.

So the major manufacturers were represented across the Republic by factories where their products were put together by local labour.

As a result, Ford was synonymous with Cork for many years, while Fiat had a factory beside the Grand Canal in Dublin - and then Renault had Wexford.

The future councillor was recruited in 1970, fresh from completing his apprenticeship as a panel beater in Statham's, Meyler's and Ferrybank Motors.

He was interviewed for the post by works manager Joe Forde, while the Liam Buckley was general manager of Smith Renault.

Buckley, who died in his forties, was 'a very brainy guy', recalls Davy and he needed to be.

He was caught between the often competing forces of local industrial relations and the Common Market desire to reduce vehicle import taxes.

The cars arrived from France in timber crates, each one like a jig-saw comprising and engine, a chassis and hundreds of parts.

It was Wally Carley's job to open up the boxes, which were gleefully converted into sheds and pigeon lofts adorning the back gardens of Maudlintown and beyond.

Car assembly was organised along four lines. First, the frame of the body was attached to the chassis. Second was the paint line, undercoat and colour.

Third was the mechanical line, adding the engine. Last came the trim line, installing seats and roof material.

Davy worked on the paint line and rose to the rank of shop steward with AEEU (now UNITE) which shared representation rights with two other unions.

The ITGWU (now SIPTU) and NEETU, led by Tony Roche and the late Jimmy Murphy respectively, were also active in the factory which was subject to frequent disruption.

'There were a lot of disputes and rows,' recalls Cllr Hynes who was involved in one strike that last two weeks.

Most of the disruptions were unofficial, usually reflecting discontent with the often controversial bonus scheme and the boring daily routine.

'The nature of the work was very repetitive and it did not take a lot to get lads upset, pissed off.'

When Davy refers to lads, he really means lads, with only a few females on site confined to office duties.

The overwhelmingly male culture extended to initiation rites which involved newcomers being covered in grease, if not worse.

The men tolerated a working environment which would simply not be acceptable in the 21st century.

A modern extension was fairly waterproof but old Star structure routinely let in the rain, despite the efforts of Pat Carr to patch it up.

The seaside site was subject to occasional flooding, though the estuary was handy for disposal of surplus solvents and other pollutants.

The accident record was not great. One electrician was lucky to survive a horrendous fall from the height of a hoist. Another worker attempting to burn off some surplus paint had his overalls set on fire as a gust of wind fanned the flames.

Davy Hynes blames the COPD which affects his lungs on the atmosphere in the paint booths - but admits that smoking may also have contributed.

The business, which had been owned by Waterford Glass, finally went to the wall in 1986, soon to rise from the ashes as Wexford Electronix.

While some of his colleagues retired, Davy stayed on with a company that had 600 (mostly women) on the payroll at one time. It vanished in 2002.

The factory was later demolished and only flickered once more across public consciousness when developer Derry McPhillips took control.

His elaborate plans for a complex with shopping mall, cinema, hotel and apartments evaporated amidst planning problems and economic collapse.

'I doubt if will be anything in there is my lifetime - unless the Celtic Tiger comes along again. It's a prime site,' muses Davy. He still remembers with some fondness his days on the factory floor, though there has never been a re-union.

The closure of the assembly plant was marked by a function in the Talbot Hotel, where a Renault 4L was first prize in the raffle. But nothing since.

Wexford People

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