Point in Time: Ballyfermot’s lost jewel
Former Semperit workers PJ Maher, Diarmuid O’Connor and John Carabini pictured outside the remains of the old tyre-manufacturing plant on Killeen Road in Ballyfermot Photo by Paddy Barrett

Point in Time: Ballyfermot’s lost jewel

SEPTEMBER marked 25 years since some 650 workers from the Semperit plant in Ballyfermot saw a huge chapter of their working lives brought to a close, as the tyre manufacturing giant ceased production at its Dublin facility in 1996.

The Austrian company, in 1968, generated huge excitement in South Dublin with the establishment of its new production base which, at its height, would directly employ near to 1,000 people before Ireland’s accession to the EEC in 1973 brought with it, a huge challenge from international competition.

Stripped of the protectionist policies of the past, manufacturing industry around the country, and in Ballyfermot in particular, soon began to feel the effects of the challenge from overseas.

Car assembly production in the nearby Fiat factory was decimated and soon periodic threats of closure hung like the Sword of Damocles over the heads of Semperit employees throughout the 1980s.

The takeover of Semperit Ireland by Continental AG at the mid-point of that decade had sparked serious hope that the Ballyfermot facility would be rescued.

This, coupled with restructuring and investment in 1989, helped see the company begin to reverse losses from 1991 onwards, even managing to post pre-tax profits of near to £5 million in 1995.

But less than a year later, the doors of the plant were shut forever as Continental attempted to tackle the accumulated losses of more than £20 million that had been carried forward on the books of Semperit Ireland.

Former Semperit factory workers in 1971 Photo by Danno Banks

Indeed, the end, when it came for Semperit in Ballyfermot, was remarkably swift, and hundreds of workers, many of whom had toiled there for almost 25 years if not more, were left stunned by the announcement.

“Coming towards the end, they called us in,” remembered Brian Birkett, who had joined Semperit as a utility man in the mixing area in the late 1980s.

“I was actually on my seven days off and a courier arrived at my door telling me to go in for 3 o’clock for a general announcement that was being made.

“We went in and we were told that was it, and within a month or so we were all gone.

“There was shock, horror. I saw grown men there crying their eyes out.

“It was devastating. It was like being taken out of an institution and told to fend for yourself. That’s how a lot of people felt about it.

“Now I didn’t feel that way. I was only ten years in it. I had worked in the hotel industry for 20 years, I worked in a bank for two years and I worked as a postman as well, so I had a lot of work experience behind me before Semperit.

“But I was consoling these men who were crying their eyes out and I was telling them ‘there’s more to life than Semperit’,” he said.

For John Carabini, a former worker who rose from sweeping the factory floor to the position of front line manager during the near 24 years he worked there, the closure of Semperit meant far more than the loss of just a job.

“I’ll always be Semperit. I was 18 when I went in and I was 41 when I came out,” he told The Echo.

Dessie Robinson worked in Semperit from 1975 until its closure in 1996

“It was a real force in my life. It helped raise my kids and got my kids an education.

“I’ve often said, if Semperit re-opened tomorrow, I’d go back.

“It was the people. We all just seemed to gel as a family. I’m still in contact with a couple of them and others I’d still see around. When we worked there, we had a social club in Gallanstown Lane which everybody was involved in.

“We had a football team with our own football pitch, we had a swimming class in Stewarts Hospital, we had our darts teams, our pool teams. We had our own golf club and that’s still going today.

“They’d have a Christmas party for the kids, so they really made an effort.

“We had our own ‘Tyre Press’ that was issued every month and that shared everything that went on within the company. That would have things like quizzes and photographs of family days and sports days.

“There’s no doubt it was tough work in Semperit. Whether you were a front line manager or whatever, you had to put a shift in.

“I think it was a place you either loved or you hated and, in my opinion, it was a great place to work. Management were great, staff were great, personnel were great.

“We had good union reps too. We had Dessie Robinson there, we had John Flannery, Dick Adderley and Tony Treacy.

“The money was decent, especially back then, and it was a very family-orientated place.

John Carabini, Diarmuid O’Connor and PJ Maher, between them, gave 73 years of service to Semperit before it shut down operations in Ballyfermot in September 1996

“My dad worked there, my two brothers worked there, my brother-in-law worked there. You could always get a family member in,” he smiled.

The opening of Semperit helped copper-fasten Ballyfermot’s place among Ireland’s leading manufacturing hotspots in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Many who lived in the area worked in the clothing and footwear sector and, added to that, were huge employers like Fiat and C&C.

But for Vincent Jackson, an Independent Councillor in Ballyfermot for the past 30 years, the opening of Semperit was huge.

“Semperit really was the icing on the cake,” he recalled.

“It was like Guinness. If you got a job in Semperit, you were set up for life. That’s what they used to be saying.”

Diarmuid O’Connor, who entered employment in the plant as a tyre builder and left 23 years later as shift manager, is another who is in no doubt about the impact of Semperit’s arrival.

“People associated it with Ballyfermot, but when you think of the amount of people that they employed from Clondalkin, Lucan, Bluebell, Drimnagh, even Tallaght and all the surrounding areas, it had a massive effect on the region.

“The amount it would have employed would go into thousands because it was come-and-go. Not everybody stayed there.

“They were repeatedly turning over their labour force and when they went from three shifts to four, they obviously needed hundreds more. So at some stage it was well up at around 800-900 [employees].

PJ Maher pictured when working in Semperit

“The place never stopped except for eight hours on a Sunday for maintenance.

“The heat was always extreme. That was the nature of the work.

“I think there were 52 curing presses which were boiling, cooking the tyres you might say.

“There were areas that weren’t great to work in and then there were areas you could eat your dinner off the floor,” he remem-bered.

While production at the plant was to become more automated over time, the making of tyres still required a huge amount of gruelling manual input.

From the dirt and grime of the mixing department, where raw and synthetic rubber would have been combined with various chemicals, to Division A where the raw materials were readied.

From the ‘Preparation Area’ to the ‘Tyre Room’ and on to ‘Finished Goods’ from where all of the factory’s products were shipped right across Europe, the tyre builders, utility and service men of Semperit turned in painstaking shifts in hot, arduous conditions.

“Most people would have been stripped down to their waste and in the summer it would have been even worse,” remembered Dessie Robinson, who started in Semperit as a service man in 1975 before taking up other posts as a tyre builder and bead stock controller.

“You couldn’t open the doors fully because you had to keep it at a certain temperature, so it was difficult.

“But, as technology changed, it got better. A lot of it became automated. For a good few years before it closed there were no more servicemen, the rubber was cut automatically and sent down to the builder,” he explained.

Recalling his time working in the mixing area Carabini said: “You’d mix the rubber. It was hot. You’d burn yourself if you touched it.

“It was dirty, but it didn’t do any of us any harm. At least I don’t think it did.

“The carbon black was part of the mix and we’d all get this on our skin. You’d be out on a Saturday night and your white shirt would be black, it’d be coming out of your pores.

“But we had showers and, as the years progressed, we had saunas so we could have a sauna at the end of our shift,” he said.

Certainly hundreds of workers in Semperit laboured fiercely in their various departments to meet daily targets, some later questioning just how adequate were the safety protocols in place at the time.

“I was working as a utility man in the mixing area, where the boys from the ‘black stuff’ come from, the carbon black,” said Birkett.

“The work was very heavy in the mixer. I actually ended up with four slipped disks. I worked in C&C across the road after it for 22 years, but I had back problems after Semperit,” he stressed.

Yet for all the efforts of workers and management at the plant, the spectre of closure continued to loom large for Semperit throughout the 1980s as the cost of production in Ireland began to far exceed that of other nations.

The closure of Dunlop in Cork in 1983 only served to fuel speculation surrounding the viability of Semperit in Dublin, but for many, fears over the future of the Ballyfermot plant were allayed somewhat by the takeover of Semperit Ireland by Continental AG in 1985.

With that, came more capital investment by the new parent company together with support from the IDA, and the subsequent restructuring in 1989 that saw a further 150 jobs created, suggested Semperit was back on a sound footing.

Nevertheless, competition both internally in the company from Continental’s low-cost production plants in the likes of Portugal and Eastern Europe, and externally with other tyre manufacturers in the Far East, continued to pose a major threat to the factory and the near 700 jobs it accounted for.

Cllr Jackson was left under no illusion as to the severity of this threat after a visit to the plant in the years following its 1989 restructur-ing.

“I was invited up to Semperit for the opening of the extension in the early ‘90s,” he remembered.

“The Managing Director of the Continental Tyre Group was over for the opening and I asked him ‘Does this secure the future of the Semperit Tyre Factory?’

“And he said to me ‘Cllr Jackson, this factory has to remain as competitive as humanly possible to remain relevant in the Continental Group.’

“He said ‘In Portugal, we can manufacture a tyre for £1.52p, but that same tyre costs us £7.50 to produce in Ballyfermot.’

“So what he was saying was you have to be so lean here because, at the end of the day, those firms think only of the underlying figure and which plant delivers the most for their shareholders,” he said.

Many commentators on the industry at the time continued to insist that the small plants in the Continental Group were proving a drain on the company, something that was not lost on O’Connor.

“When I went over to Hannover, the headquarters of Continental, for a week or two, I was just so surprised at the size of them. These were massive tyre plants so they didn’t need these little places.

“We worked hard in Semperit. We were reaching our production targets, but the final closure was down to a financial decision at the top level,” he stressed.

Indeed the eventual decision to shut down production at the plant came as a colossal shock to the people of Ballyfermot and much of the surrounding region.

While Continental itself had reportedly invested £45 million from the time of its takeover of the Dublin facility in ‘85 to that of its closure, the IDA had contributed grants to the tune of almost £6 million during that same period, something that stuck in the craw of Cllr Jackson.

“It was unbelievable how quickly it closed, a few years after [the investment],” he said.

“I did ask that question to senior politicians and the media ‘Are we going to get refunded what the taxpayer put in?’

“It wasn’t that it was 15 or 20 years before the closure when the investment was made.

“The paint had only just dried on the wall and then all of a sudden they announced they were shutting down in Ballyfermot.

“There were attempts to find a buyer, but now everybody knew they weren’t going to find someone to buy a tyre factory when Dunlop had just closed a few years before that in Cork.

“You weren’t going to find a buyer for something that you could produce cheaper somewhere else. Unfortunately, that’s the reality of capitalism,” he sighed.

Ballyfermot native PJ Maher, who joined Semperit as an 18-year-old and worked there for the next 27 years of his life, was among those left reeling by the announcement.

“It was a massive blow to the area. It was such a big employer,” he told The Echo.

“But we were seeing a lot of factories closing down one after another and you felt it was only a matter of time before we’d be next.

“Still, the winding down of the factory was very quick.

“There were a load of new machines that had been brought in before it was closed and they were never even taken off the trailer.

“They were after buying them and they were just put up on the trucks and sent off to some other country,” he recalled.

Robinson, who was heavily involved in negotiations with management over redundancy packages, felt that talks were largely amicable and not overly protracted.

“The announcement that it was to close was definitely a shock,” he insisted.

“I know for a fact that a lot of the senior managers didn’t even know.

“I remember a couple of us got together and we looked at the idea of [the workers] purchasing the plant.

“Now this was being helped by SIPTU at the time. They had a financial trust and they partly funded, along with Ballyfermot Partnership, a feasibility study on a possible buy-out of the plant and producing tyres.

“But it found that it just wasn’t viable. If everyone in Ireland had decided to buy tyres from Semperit, it wouldn’t have been viable. It was never going to work.

“But when we started the negotiations we had three goals.

“One was to try and keep the plant open. Failing that, the second one was to get the best redundancy possible and the third was to go out with our heads held high.

“The initial redundancy package was three weeks for every year of service, but we went to the Labour Court and we managed to get five weeks.”

While the improved severance deal may have taken some of the sting out of the loss of a job for so many workers, the closure of a company like Semperit, which had weaved itself into the fabric of so many individual lives and the Ballyfermot community in general over a period of almost three decades, was a bitter pill to swallow.

“Someone described the closure to me as like being in mourning,” said Robinson.

“It was that much of a shock when they got home and realised the place they had worked in for 25/26 years was gone, the people they had worked with and had been friends with were gone.

“On the morning it was closing I saw a father, son, two uncles and a couple of brother-in-laws walking away together as a family.

“A place like Semperit was hugely important to the economy and hugely important to the local shops.

“A lot of the local shops would have felt the loss of it and you were talking about Ballyfermot, Clondalkin, Palmerstown, Lucan, but Ballyfermot in particular had a huge dependence on it,” he sighed.

O’Connor agrees, insisting, “It had to have been a major blow to the area.

“The money that would have been circulating there in Ballyfermot and the surrounding areas because of the plant would have been huge.

“Even the fellas who went in and got the rubbish out, they lost a business, and that would have applied to a hundred others when you think of it.”

For many hundreds of workers in Semperit, September 1996 marked a hugely significant juncture in their lives as they parted ways with colleagues, friends and a form of life they had known for years and, in many cases, decades, each setting out on very new paths.

Diarmuid O’Connor was quite content with the cleaning job he took up in the Central Bank, but his years of service as shift manager in Semperit soon brought him to the attention of the governor there and he was quickly made foreman of the Mint – a post he held for the next 10 years.

Having completed a first aid course while in Semperit, PJ Maher found employment in St James Hospital and later Cherry Orchard as a nurse’s aide while Brian Birkett, after the plant’s closure, spent the next 22 years working in nearby C&C.

John Carabini found employment in An Post after his 24 years in Semperit while Dessie Robinson, who had been Chair of the local committee with SIPTU when in Ballyfermot, joined the Irish Congress of Trade Unions before moving to IMPACT in 2003 and was eventually promoted to Head of Division for Local Authorities.

They were remarkably diverse paths each of those five men journeyed in the years after Semperit, but for them and hundreds like them, that period of their lives spent working for Ireland’s leading tyre manufacturer at the time had a profound effect and, in many ways, helped determine the course they took in later years.

Today a small section of the Semperit plant remains standing on Killeen Road, a reminder of the impact it had on life in Ballyfermot and neighbouring communities at a time when Ireland struggled to unfurl its wings and find its place in a more open world.

The plant and the 43 acres it stood upon was purchased by the Jefferson Smurfit Group for some £7 million in 1998 before being sold on the following year to Park West developers Harcourt Holdings for £16 million.

For Cllr Vincent Jackson, Park West has been a hugely positive development for an area that suffered terribly from the effects of recession in the 1980s and early ‘90s as exemplified by the loss of Semperit.

“The only things we’re certain of in life is that we’re going to pay taxes and we’re going to die, but Semperit was seen as another one of those certainties,” he said.

“People thought that if you could get into Semperit you could be there for life, but obviously that was not to be the case.

“When I look at Park West now, there must be five or six thousand people working on that site.

“Semperit and that chapter closed and I’m just delighted there was another chapter.

“Of course I wished those people could have kept their jobs, but at least there was opportunity for rebirth in a different guise.”