Killeshandra Creamery

One Hundred Years of the Dairy Industry in Killeshandra

Brian Connolly and Brian MacDonald

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Towards the end of the 19th century Irish dairy farmers were facing a crisis as the export trade on which they depended began to collapse. European dairy production had been revolutionised and Irish home-made butter was squeezed off the international market. The Irish dairy industry needed total re-organisation. In 1894 the Irish co-operative movement was born, encouraging farmers to take control over their own economic future and to work together in the processing and sale of dairy products and in the provision of agricultural stores and machinery. In the early days it encountered many obstacles. It had to compete with English and Scottish dairy companies, town merchants were hostile and it met with constant hostility from the media and from the Irish Parliamentary Party.

The Early Years 1896 - 1905

Arthur Lough

Arthur Lough was a keen supporter of the ideals of the co-operative movement. As early as 1893 he had established the Drummully Farm and Garden Society, based at Drummully House (later to become the Convent of the Holy Rosary) just outside Killeshandra. Drummully House At a meeting held on the tennis-courts of the house on 3 September 1896 it was decided that this co-operative would widen its scope to include agricultural and dairy interests and thus was born the Drummully Co-operative Agricultural and Dairy Society Ltd. This meeting was attended by 1,500 people. In 1898 ‘Killeshandra’ would replace ‘Drummully’ in the title of the co-operative.

The first meeting of the new co-operative was held on the 23 September, 1896. It was called by Arthur S. Lough and addressed by Sir Horace Plunkett, founder of the Irsih co-operative movement, and Sir Grattan Bellow. Two hundred farmers were in attendance and they subscribed 222 towards the setting up of the society, quite a substantial amount in those days. A management committee was formed and business commenced almost immediately. By December it was decided to rent the old brewery premises in Main Street for conversion to use as a creamery. In February the following year quotations were sought for machinery for the creamery and an advertisement for a first class manager was placed in the national newspapers. The manager appointed must not have been first class for he only stayed for one year and was succeeded by five others in as many years.

Killeshandra creamery opened on 10 May 1897, taking in 260 gallons of milk from fifty-six suppliers on its first day. By the end of the month that figure had risen to 700 gallons from ninety suppliers. By the end of December 1897, the milk supply was 170,000 gallons with a turnover of 4,620 showing a nett profit of 20. From tiny acorns…! Then came the prospect of increasing the milk supply through a network of auxiliary creameries. The first of these was Crossdoney, which joined in February 1898. Throughout 1898 there was a steady increase in the number of areas wanting auxiliaries in connection with Killeshandra and a central committee which included representatives from Killesahndra and from the auxiliary committees was established to govern the affairs of the society. By 1902, seven auxiliary branches had been established (Ardlogher, Corrigan, Crossdoney, Butlersbridge, Longfield, Lossett and Ballyconnell) with the milk supply reaching one million gallons. The turnover for that year was 24,000 with a nett profit of 238. Furthermore, thanks to the appointment in 1899 of Hanna O’Connor as dairymaid the good reputation of Killeshandra butter was established, so much so that within a year of her arrival the society was unable to fill all the orders on its books. This was due to her repeated successes at competitions in Ireland and England. However, these early successes were not without problems. A combination of inept managers and disruptive elements in both the committee and among the shareholders over several years had begun to drag the society down. By 1905 things were reaching crisis point and it was obvious that the society needed an inspiring manager if this downward slide was to be reversed. In 1906 James Gannon, a native of Achonry, Co. Sligo, was appointed manager, a position he held until his death in 1945. His appointment would mark the beginning of a remarkable turnaround that would see Killeshandra emerge within a few years as the largest and most successful co-operative society in Ireland.

The Gannon Years 1906 - 1945

James Gannon

James Gannon

Only one year after his appointment Mr Gannon had reversed the decline. The milk supply had increased, operating expenses were reduced, sales recovered and the negativity that had dogged the committee had disappeared. More and more of the day to day running of the co-operative as well as the taking of major decisions was delegated to Gannon. His activities at Killeshandra won him enormous respect at national level. Visits from the Lord Lieutenant, colonial representatives and Japanese ministers confirmed the status of Killeshandra as Ireland’s foremost creamery. One of his earliest decisions was to build a new creamery. The old creamery did not have a supply of spring water. By February 1910 the committee endorsed his plans and the new creamery was opened on 20 April 1911. He also decided to install electrical lighting into the new creamery. The electricity was generated at the neighbouring Fletcher’s mill and cost 5 pence a unit.

The new creamery, 1911

The new Killeshandra creamery that opened in 1911

The start of the First World War brought new problems. Gannon had managed to buy in essential stocks while costs were still low. This helped to ease the difficulties for members of the society but by 1917 there were severe problems. Britain’s ‘Food Controller’ had fixed a low price for Irish butter and, as a result, the butter-making industry took a hammering. Milk supplies to Killeshandra fell drastically and auxiliaries were forced to work short time and even to close down. In spite of these problems the society did what it could to relieve distress by selling milk to the poor of the village at 8 pence per gallon, a fraction of the retail price of the time. Even though the war ended in November 1918 the effects of the conflict would be felt by the society from many years to come. Further difficulties emerged during the next few years due to labour unrest and political unrest. The closure of the railway line (by British military authorities) to Killeshandra in May 1921 put huge pressure on the co-operative as butter had then to be hauled to Cavan.

Gannon successfully steered the co-operative through these troubled times. However, from the early 1920’s onward the society entered a phase when turnover remained static. There was very little further expansion. Gannon had a code of honour which regarded it unfair to deprive weaker societies of their supplies. Killeshandra suffered a major downturn during the years of the great depression. For example, by 1930 the value of butter was lower that in 1914. High rail costs were also a problem but by 1932 the rail companies offered the society an attractive deal for the collection and delivery of its goods anywhere in Ireland. The railway served Killeshandra well. Then came the Second World War. This time Killeshandra was not at all prepared. It quickly ran out of coal supplies and had to burn turf. Departmental butter subsidies were withdrawn for a time. Rising costs and low butter prices hit the society hard. Just as the war ended in 1945 James Gannon died. Over a month later John O’Neill, a native of Glandore, Co. Cork, was appointed as the new manager.

The O'Neill Years 1945 - 1975

John O'Neill

John O'Neill

When John O’Neill took over the reins at Killeshandra his immediate goal was to increase the milk intake. In the 1940’s more than 75% of suppliers held less than 4 cows and the average annual income for a dairy farmer in 1948 was only 55. Milking the Fresians The task was to help the smaller supplier expand herd numbers and at the same time improve on the milk yield from the herd. Side by side with that, as part of his goal of increasing the milk intake, he succeeded in taking over or amalgamating with many of the smaller local dairies in Cavan and Longford. The Society took over the running of Corranea independent auxiliary, closed Ballyconnell branch and transferred the milk supply to adjoining branches. When in August of 1947 Gortermone independent auxiliary decided to cease operations due to lack of milk, Killeshandra took it over. Within three years the milk supply to Gortermone had increased substantially and farmers from the Ballinalee area of Co. Longford began sending milk there. With the view to establishing a branch in Ballinalee a meeting was held in the district in February, 1950. After several meetings the final decision was taken in 1951 and by the end of that year the first all electric creamery in Europe was operating in Ballinalee. Like Gortermone, the Ballinalee branch was a huge success and pointed the way towards further expansion. A meeting was held in the courthouse in Longford and the decision was taken to establish a branch in the county town. Longford branch broke all records. Work on the building commenced on 4 April 1954, and within three months the first milk was taken in.

The Killeshandra success story continued throughout the 1960's and 1970's. In 1961 Grousehall left the Annageliffe group and joined Killeshandra, Swanlinbar joined in 1962, Ballinamore in 1963 and Templeport in 1964. Billis creamery left the Annagelliffe group in 1969 and joined Killeshandra. 1971 saw the amalgamation of Belturbet, with Poles creamery joining as an independent auxiliary in 1972 and Kilnaleck joining in 1973. During 1976 Crosskeys and Drumcrow creameries joined the Killeshandra payroll and Carrickallen joined completely.

MacCormac Products Factory As a result, the milk supply to Killeshandra was hugely increased. In 1951 the milk supply was 3.4 million gallons. By 1961 this figure had doubled to 6.8 million gallons. By 1971 the total supply was just over 18 million gallons. As the milk intake increased the co-operative expanded the methods of processing this milk. Springcool Longlife Cream was launched on the home market in the mid 60's and is now used in many parts of the world and by many of the world's leading airlines. This was followed by the processing of long-life milk. An Bord Bainne succeeded in getting new markets for the long-life milk in the Middle East. The increased milk supply led to another problem. The co-operative had to find some way of absorbing the increasing volume of skim milk. In 1960 L.E. Pritchett & Co agreed to build a milk powder factory in Killeshandra. Called McCormac Products Ltd., this factory would be able to absorb the skim surplus from the co-operative and by the mid-70’s it was giving employment to over 300. It manufactured a wide variety of products such as Millac (for human use) , calf milk replacers, ice cream powder, instant desserts etc. Meanwhile the co-operative continued to develop its own new product lines such as butter oil and casein.

The Management Committee have always had the interest of their suppliers at heart. In May 1947 it was agreed to build stores at the auxiliary creameries. These stores would sell goods to the farmer at prices that were 20% to 30% cheaper than he could expect from the commercial retailers. Then in 1948, when fertilisers again came on the market, the society started a scheme to encourage better grassland. They gave out North African phosphate each Autumn at cost price with payment coming out of the following year’s milk cheque. During these years the price paid for milk at Killeshandra was continuously above the national average. In the same year the society provided a hatchery which could house 18,000 chicks. When feeding stuffs were very scarce in the 1950’s the society purchased a Mobile Dutch Potato plant which was capable of washing and steaming 12 tons of potatoes in eight hours. Potato silage was very popular in those years but died out when grain became available again. The society also built a mill in 1948, as maize could be imported freely and barley was hardly grown at that time. In 1960 the old railway buildings at Killeshandra were purchased and converted into a compound feeding stuffs factory. In the 1970’s twenty-five thousand tons of Killeshandra Animal Feeds were produced there annually. An A.l. sub-station was erected in Killeshandra in 1951 with the main station run by Ballyhaise Agricultural College.

Killeshandra Society also employed its first Agricultural Instructor during the 50's. His job was to make farm plans for milk suppliers and edit the monthly ‘Farm Notes’. He also had responsibility for the annual Farm Prize Scheme which has been running since 1957. Another first for Killeshandra was an arrangement with the A.C.C. for the provision of loans for farmers. A more recent innovation was the introduction of an interest subsidised cow loan scheme, to encourage more and better dairy cows in herds. Young farmers were provided for educationally. Upon the sudden death in 1975 of the General Manager, John O'Neill, an Agricultural Education Trust was set up. The proceeds of the Trust went to providing 2,000 interest free loans to young farmers starting off in farming subsequent to attending a practical course in agricultural education.

The Flanagan Years 1975 - 1990

Frank Flanagan & Phil Sexton

Frank Flanagan and Phil Sexton

The success of the Killeshandra group since 1945 had begun under the expert guidance of the late John O'Neill and would continue under his successor, Frank Flanagan. But Flanagan would soon had to face an entirely new set of problems, one of which was the decline in the demand for butter in England. The new casein plant at Killeshandra He recognised the need to diversify and was given approval to develop new the product lines such as butter oil and casein. Another problem he had to deal with was the rising costs of running the branch creameries. Any attempt to rationalise them would meet with strong opposition from the local farmers but by 1987 the first closures began and milk was collected by bulk tanker. The remaining branches were closed in the course of the next few years. Further problems were created by E.E.C policies aimed at curtailing the amount of milk produced in member states. But the biggest challenge came in late 1986 when Bailieboro co-operative was on the verge of a collapse because of serious financial problems. By September 1987 Killeshandra drafted proposals for a link between the two societies. However, Goodman International (Food Industries plc) launched an eleventh-hour campaign to win control of the ailing co-operative an in early 1988 their bid succeeded when the Bailieboro shareholders rejected the Killeshandra offer.

The take-over of Bailieboro was seen as only the first step in an attempt to take control co-operative movement in the northern region. By December 1988 Food Industries was reported to be canvassing at Lossett, Butlersbridge and Crosskeys. Its subsequent acquisition of Westmeath and Lagan co-operatives highlighted the vulnerability of individual societies. In December 1989 it unveiled its plan to take over Killeshandra, along with Town of Monaghan and Lough Egish. Lakeland Dairies logo Flanagan had hoped that a three-way merger of the local co-operatives would emerge to fend off the Goodman move but Town of Monaghan refused to join. Instead, Killeshandra and Lough Egish agreed proposals for a merger into one society to be called Lakeland Dairies. The combined co-operative would have a milk pool of 60 million gallons and a turnover of about 120 million. Shareholders of both co-operatives met on 22 June 1990 and comprehensively rejected the Goodman offer. Lakeland Dairies was born.

Mr Dan Buckley

Mr Dan Buckley

For Frank Flanagan, the merger was a triumph and presented an ideal opportunity to retire. Dan Buckley, a native of Listowel, Co Kerry, was appointed to lead the new Lakeland Dairies into the new century.

Centenary logo The new dairy has enjoyed a steady rise in profitability since 1991. Major development work has taken place in every division. New products continue to be developed, including lactic butter, a specially developed coffee creamer. There has also been a consistent improvement in the return to suppliers. Lakeland is the largest manufacturer of full cream milk powder in Ireland and is the only producer of specialised UHT milk products.

And so, when celebrations to mark the centenary of the foundation of Killeshandra Co-operative & Dairy Society were held in 1996, all could look back with a deep sense of pride in the achievements of the society over the last 100 years.

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