Friday, December 27, 2013

Recalling the 'factory'

We Byrne kids knew it as the 'factory'.

It was in the building at the back of the yard in the family pub, over which was the 'loft' where coffins were stored, and the Boxing Club had space for training and a ring to spar in. At the far end of the loft was the book-keeper Miss Dowling's office. A lonely kind of a location, but she seemed reasonably happy there. Later the position was taken by Miss Young, who had worked similarly over in the hardware office for Grandad, for decades it seemed. She was eventually moved to a more observational spot in the street corner room of the family home, Moyola, where originally had been the forge around which the house was built.

But to us the 'factory' was the most curious and interesting place when it was in action. That was sporadic, but when the machinery was running it became a different environment to being merely a store and a sorting space for crates and bottles.

I can't remember when the Leinster Beverage enterprise was set up by my Dad, Jim Byrne Jr, though there's a fragment of home movie in existence showing all of us kids drinking some of the lemonade product, from bottles with straws (I'm still at the age there of playing with toy guns). Dad was always willing to take a punt on an idea that had a potential to make the family rich. Though none did, he had a lot of fun trying. In this case, he'd established a mineral water business, making the various drinks from syrups, bottling them, and shipping them to customer pubs all through Kildare, Carlow and west Wicklow. The logistics involved running a couple of Bedford lorries, which I also remember being used in the summers to ship the family requirements for a month or more to Poulshone and Ardamine near Courtown. I loved going in the lorry, rather than with the rest of us in the family car.

I don't know where Dad sourced the equipment for the factory, but I can still see it in my memory as an assembly line in galvanised steel which took up much of the building's floor space. At the right end was a big trough with rotating containers for bottles. When working, it was full of steaming hot water into which the bottles would be immersed, coming back up the other side sterilised and draining. It was an operation of clank, rattle and hiss, and probably very dangerous for Billy Dowling and Joe O'Halloran, otherwise the barmen, who managed the whole effort. Certainly, health and safety today wouldn't allow little people like ourselves to be anywhere as close to the action as we got in those times.

From the sterilising bath the bottles were manually put on a travelling metal band to the filling section, where they were topped off with whatever was the drink in production. The next section racked them into a space from which they would be crown capped and, afterwards, labelled. It was altogether fascinating, and when — as it was most of the time that I remember — the factory was not in operation, the place had a dead sense to it.

I was too young to notice when that part of the family business was wound down, unviable against the major national mineral water manufacturers like Cantrell & Cochrane. But the lorries were eventually disposed of, and some unsold stock was for a long time stored upstairs in the loft. I gathered much later that it hadn't been a financial success, but if there was anything characteristic about my Dad, he never stopped trying something new. He also knew when to stop. Mostly when book-keeper Miss Young told him to, in her uncompromising blunt fashion.

The factory space has other memories. It was a time when most pubs in Ireland bottled their own Guinness, from barrels delivered by the company. Each pub had its own supply of Guinness labels, with the 'bottled in house by—' name of the establishment on them. I have strong memories of Billy Dowling filling the bottles from a multiple syphon setup which could handle half a dozen units at a time. The trick was to keep it going left to right, so that by the time the last empty bottle was put under its spout, the first one was just brimming off.

To watch Billy do it was dazzle in motion, with so little waste going into the tray underneath that it was of little consequence. He would ambidextrously lift the empty bottles from cases on his left and on the right plonk the filled ones into their tray of two dozen, never taking his eyes from the siphons. After a filling session they'd be stoppered. Originally with corks, but later with a crown cap machine which was the highest tech of its time. The Guinness had to be stored in bottle for a couple of weeks before it could be served, so there was also a well-developed system of producing enough to meet demand ahead without having too much in stock. The labels were coded to help each pub rotate the bottles to their best sell-by date.

All that had changed by the time I was, years later, running the pub myself. As far as Guinness was concerned — and by then they owned not just their own black product, but most other Irish beers as well — everything was centralised production so that they could control absolutely the quality of what was served across the counter. It certainly made the running of a pub that bit easier, although it involved a much more critical system of sorting bottles and crating empties for return, because of the very important credit against the account. Today none of the various brands of beers and mineral waters served over our pub counters involve the return of empty bottles. They're just dumped into bins for overall broken glass recycle.

It's all probably all much more efficient. Maybe even much more green, if the inputs and costs are factored into the equations. But it doesn't have any potential to generate the kind of memories I have of the 'factory'.

I'm glad I do have them.

The King of Greenhills

The old man sat by the fire burning on the ground. He watched the smoke rise across the stones of the roof, and make its way out through the...