It’s hard to imagine that people had the courage, or foolishness, to start up a business without a phone. For most of the 1970s, if you hadn’t an old fashioned phone already, you were out in the cold for a period of at least nine months to two years. The Industrial Development Authority was howling with rage saying that new industries were interested in coming to Ireland, but laughed when they were told “ That’s grand. But, we’re sorry. At the moment there are no phones...”
The enormous effort required to give the Republic some vestige of a modern phone service saw practically every street in every town in turmoil as trenches, deep as the Moher cliffs , scarred the landscape. In fairness the Post and Telegraph boys laid cables round the clock. The problem was so immense, and such a joke, that it took the best part of a decade to put right. The local IDA manager, Skibbereen man Denis McCarthy, was renowned for driving to the North of Ireland every Thursday with a stack of British coins (collected for him by the local banks, lock himself into a British Telecom phone booth, and make all his over-seas calls*.
But not having a phone for nine months did not deter Kevin Mullarkey and his wife Susan from opening a new kind of business for Galway in Middle Street, The Cotton Box, at the end of January 1978. Kevin had been in Galway since the beginning of the 1970s managing his father’s hotel and night cub, the Ocean Wave, at Blackrock (now Ocean Towers ). He saw the very start of the housing boom. Industry was attracting former emigrants home, graduates and skilled-people were getting jobs. There was a demand for houses. But whereas there was no shortage of furniture shops, and carpenters, and furniture makers, there was no one to help with interior design, to source fabrics and materials. There was an obvious need a bespoke home designer, who could translate the home-owners’ ideas into the home of their dreams. The Cotton Box was never without a queue of customers. Kevin tells me, flatteringly, that they may not have had a telephone, but they had the Advertiser.
Whatever the Cotton Box’s magic is, it quickly went from a being small shop in Middle Street, to a factory and show rooms at Clarinbridge, to new housing estates all round Ireland. A particular and excellent marketing ploy was to furnish show -houses on new estates, which prompted many home buyers to immediately ask Cotton Box to give their new home a similar makeover. A major turning point was winning the contract to give a look of luxury to Michael Smurfit’s K Club in Co Kildare. Kevin worked there for more than four years to the entire satisfaction of Mr Smurfit. Kevin’s talent was enjoyed by visitors to the club; more contracts followed.
But now it is all over. Last Saturday, Kevin and Sue said good-bye to Galway, and flew out to Kuwait. The new Cotton Box is now part of the Alqhanim group, one of the biggest, privately owned, companies in the Gulf region. One of its specialisations is to offer home furniture from all over the world. It invited Cotton Box to advise its customers on fabrics and colours, style and fashion, and plan the layout of new homes. It’s exactly what Cotton Box does best.
I first met Kevin Mullarkey during an unholy row at his father’s night-club, the Ocean Wave, in 1974. A boisterous and happy crowd of young men were refused admission one Sunday evening, March 24, because they were ‘inappropriately attired’. The young men were from the Ladywood Boxing Club in Birmingham, over here for a tournament. Some of them were black. The young men accepted they were ‘ dressed appropriately’, and went on their way. There was no hassle at the door.
There must have been crossed lines somewhere, because the next day a Dublin newspaper ran a story that the Galway Vintners Association regretted that the boys were refused admission to the Ocean Wave ‘because they were black’. Uproar! Everyone got excited. Bord Failte, Salthill Tourist and Development Association, the Mayor of the city and uncle Tom Cobly, and all. Kevin came into my office clearly upset, and made it plain that there was absolutely no colour bar in the Ocean Wave. He offered £100 to a charity if the Galway Vintners Association could show that the boys were banned because of their colour.
Then the fun started. The British light-heavyweight champion, a Jamaican from Birmingham, Bunny Johnson, visited the Ocean Wave. He made a generous statement that there was absolutely no colour bar there. And then, surprisingly, I received a letter from the organiser of the visiting boxing team, Tim Heneghan. He was with the young boxers when they were refused admission to the Ocean Wave that Sunday night. He verified they were told ‘very politely’ that they were ‘unsuitably dressed’; and to come back ‘properly attired’, when they would be welcomed. Tim concluded: “ In view of the conflicting reports of the incident, I desire it to be publicly known that there is definitely no colour bar operating at the Ocean Wave Hotel either on this or any other occasion on which we visited the hotel.’
Game, set, and match to a very relieved Kevin.
I never asked Kevin whether it was this incident or something else that soon had him researching the Cotton Box idea. He was born in Birmingham, and when he left public school, worked in Rachams, a famous department store, where his interest in fabrics was developed. He met Susan who worked in a drapery shop in Rugby, and together they discussed the possibility of opening a design shop one day. They both love Ireland. Kevin’s parents are Irish. They regret leaving. But, as Kevin points out, “They are not building houses in Ireland any more.” The credit crunch has hit The Cotton Box hard. New customers are reluctant to spend money on their homes until times improve. Whereas Kuwait is full of opportunities. “ Saddam Hussein invaded the state in 1990, and bombed the hell out of it. There is huge rebuilding going on. A big demand for interior design and quality fabrics. We wouldn’t leave but for the banking crisis at home. The Gulf have had their crisis too, but it’s different. The crisis there is part of a world recession. There are no banking problems there. There is a sense that people are careful about money. They want value, and that is a good atmosphere for us to work in. I am afraid I am a Margaret Thatcher fan. She famously held up her handbag outside No 10, saying: ‘ I will run this country as I run my household...on a budget!’ I think she’s right.”
What will you miss about Ireland? “Kuwait is a dry state. We’ll miss our glass of wine..”
There was a great team spirit in Galway in the 1970s. The city was blessed with excellent public representatives in the Dáil, supported by our two local authorities with a ‘can do’ attitude. Apart from the phones, the infrastructure to receive industry was fast being put into position. Galway’s membership of the EU was a magnet for many US industries, the city’s cultural life made Galway more attractive than practically all other Irish cities; and the university and the GMIT were turning out the graduates. Denis McCarthy was a key player. When he retired I remember he was hailed as ‘The man who could talk a hungry dog off a meat wagon’ when it came to convincing new industries to set up in the west.