During the First World War, towns and cities throughout Britain and Ireland had factories producing munitions for the battlefield. Galway was not one of these locations and indeed many Galwegians were travelling to the UK to work in these factories. There was a lot of criticism over this and so the members of the Urban Council and some local industrialists began a lobbying campaign to attract such an industry to the city. It would create employment and would be beneficial to the community.
A company was formed, funds were secured and the War Office in London was approached. John Redmond and his Irish Party lobbied on behalf of the city.
By July of 1916, it was announced that plans for the factory were almost complete. An engineer with the Midland Great Western Railway, Mr. Morton, happened to be a munitions expert and he was big help.
A number of sites were explored and eventually, it was decided that the Earl's Island site, which had housed Persse's Bonded Warehouse, was the most suitable. There were some legal difficulties regarding the site and the deeds, but by Christmas 1916, these were solved.
The machinery for the production of artillery shells arrived a few weeks later, and was installed in the plant within a month. A lady superintendent from the Dublin National Shell Factory arrived to conduct interviews for prospective employees. Government regulations stipulated that only 5% of the workforce would be male, all the rest were female.
Those women who were offered jobs were taken to Dublin or London for training, so that when the factory opened, the staff would be fully prepared and ready. It was their first experience of trade unions, they were represented by the NFWW, the National Federation of Women Workers. Shortly after the plant went into production, an investigative report into its workings found that it was very well laid out, and that the workforce would be producing the required number of shells for the front within a few weeks. 115 people were employed there, working three eight -hour round the clock shifts, it having been decided that shift work was more beneficial than overtime. Nine lathes for boring out the shells were in place to get the production going, and there was provision for extra machines if they were required. The shells had to be boiled to ensure that all traces of oil were removed, and then they were lacquered on the inside to eliminate rust, which could cause premature explosions. The finished shell was painted khaki and coloured stripes were added to indicate high explosives.
If additional staff were needed, they were taken on through the Labour Exchange and nobody was employed who was already working in another industry. The wages varied from 10s 6d to 17s per week depending on one's experience. There was always a trained nurse on site. The waterpower and the workforce were sufficient to meet demands and the quality of the finished product was of the highest standard.
The factory was a significant employer and local traders experienced a considerable increase in business very quickly. The first shell produced in the plant can be seen in the city museum, ..... the inscription on it reads "Galway National Shell Factory, The First Shell Manufactured, 17.3.1917, presented to Martin McDonogh Esq". Our photograph shows the staff taken in 1917. Most of the above information is taken from "Galway and the Great War" by William Henry.
On Monday next, November 11th at 8pm, the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society will host a lecture given by Dr. Peter Harbison, the title of which is "Berenger and Bigari's Sketching tour of Connacht, 1779". All are welcome to attend.