There were very few industrial plants in Galway in the 1950s. Galway Textile Printers, known locally as the cotton factory, had just opened; there was the hat factory, and there were some small units around town, but that was it. Then the Lemass era arrived, and there was a change in government policy as the government began to actively encourage industries from abroad to locate here.
It was for this reason that a German industry named Steinbock was attracted here. Steinbock sent over an engineer named Gunther Lacqua to recruit young Galwegians who would be trained in Germany. Fortunately the metalwork teacher in the Technical School, Dan Donoghue, heard about this. He himself had been trained by German engineers who were involved in the construction of the sugar factory, and he was an admirer of the discipline of German workers. A conscientious teacher, he went to great lengths to help his pupils to find work and so he used his German connections to invite Mr Lacqua to see his boys (whom he had primed ) at work in their classroom.
As a result, 19 boys aged between 14 and 17 years were selected to go to Germany to learn things the Steinbock way. They had to get their parents’ written consent. Most people who went abroad to work at that time went to the UK, the US, Canada, or Australia. Continental Europe was an unknown quantity, so there was a lot of soul searching and advice was sought from every quarter. It was an important occasion on September 26, 50 years ago, when they assembled at the station. The bishop turned up to present them with rosaries, scapulars, medals, and other items that would protect them on their travels. People were obviously worried about their faith as Canon Glynn accompanied them on their journey and stayed a few days to ensure they had settled in. In fact they were based in Moosburg in the heart of Catholic Bavaria.
Their journey took 52 hours from Galway to Westland Row to Dun Laoghaire, Holyhead, Euston Station, London Victoria, Dover, Ostend, Munich, and Moosburg. They started work in a factory of 2,000 staff. Each was assigned as a working apprentice to a trade he had chosen, and by the end of six months they had experienced every area of that factory and were trained in various skills of industrial engineering. They amused themselves by cycling around town on ‘the wrong side of the road’, by raiding orchards, going to the cinema, and playing ‘bumpers’ with forklift trucks. John Carr was selected for the works’ under-18 soccer team, and had to get a ‘football passport’. Each boy was ‘adopted’ by a local family for the weekend and long lasting friendships developed. Sign language was the order of the day, and the language barrier was not really a problem. They learned quickly and impressed the management.
When they returned to Galway, their factory was not yet built so they helped in digging foundations and labouring until the job was finished. In the meantime another nine apprentices went to Bavaria, so when the Irish operation started under German management they had a skilled workforce. The factory was formally opened by Seán Lemass and our photograph shows the plant on the opening day.
For the record, the 19 boys who travelled were Pádraic McDonagh from Costelloe; John Molloy, Moycullen; Jimmy Rooney, Newcastle; Tommy O’Connor, Barna; Kevin Darcy, Moycullen; Michael Casserley, Bohermore; John Joe McDonagh, Shantalla; Paddy Joe Joyce, Oughterard; Martin Folan, Shantalla; Martin Flanagan, Maree; John Carr, Henry Street; Billy McCormack, Station Row; Martin Casey, Annaghdown; Michael John Melia, Moycullen; Des Rooney, Newcastle; Seán Conneely, Inis Meáin; Liam Ryan, Woodquay; Gerry O’Connor, Oranmore; and Gerry Ryan, Athenry.
To celebrate the 50 years since their epic journey, this group are organising a get together with all ex-Steinbock workers in the Menlo Park Hotel tomorrow evening, September 24. For details you can contact Michael Brennan at (091 ) 755 859 or John Carr at (086 ) 840 8905.
Birdwatch Ireland will host a talk tomorrow in the Anno Santo Hotel at 8pm. It will be given by Dermot Breen on ‘Birds in Conamara’ and is based on the new Atlas of Breeding Birds of Britain and Ireland. Admission is free but contributions will be much appreciated.