News of the recent death of Henry John Cleeve (Harry) at the great age of 103, evokes a retrospective look at the contribution made by the Cleeves (of Limerick) to the late 19th, early 20th century, industrial history of Clonmel and South Tipperary.
Though Harry Cleeve, the last of his family in Clonmel, left the town to live in Gowran, County Kilkenny, in 1978, the family’s connection with the town was never entirely severed, since he returned from time to time to visit his wife’s and his ancestors’ graves in Inislounaght.
The Cleeves inherited their remarkable business acumen from their French Huguenot ancestry, and after a spell in Quebec in 1840, Harry Cleeve’s grandfather returned to Ireland and established a business in the importation of coffee, in Limerick. This business diversified, in time, into the manufacture of sweetened condensed milk for a growing export market, and later still into sweets and toffee-making. The condensed milk business ultimately involved the organisation of the dairy industry in The Golden Vale, and this was facilitated by the collection of milk via “milk-trains,” on the expanding railway system in Ireland.
By 1888, the Cleeves, in addition to Limerick, had a large factory in Mallow, and the following year opened yet another factory in Clonmel. The first factory in the town was located in Queen Street, and two years later was moved on to Suir Island and into the premises vacated by Malcolmson’s Cotton Mills.
The time was opportune, The Repeal of the Corn Laws, major changes in the world’s economy, the Great Famine, had already depleted the old Quaker industries. The town was endeavouring to re-establish itself as an attractive locale for business and commerce. Burke’s bacon factory was already well established in Irishtown, and later in O’Connell Street and Old Quay.
Murphy’s Brewery was in full production on New Quay. Crean’s tannery was exporting leather from Cascade. The Myers were making footwear on Suir Island. O’Gorman’s carriage works would shortly set up in business in Prior Park. Cleeve’s Condensed Milk Company of Ireland would become the jewel in the crown of industrial revival in Clonmel.
Joseph Cleeve became the first manager of the company in Clonmel. He purchased Salisbury in Marlfield as a residence in 1907 and moved to Oaklands in 1921, where the family resided until the 1960s.
The Cleeves with their combined industries in Munster, became the largest employers in Ireland, with a minimum of 2,000 employees on their payroll, and they were buying milk from 3,000 farmers. In Clonmel, an average of 200 men and women were employed, and this number seasonally increased to 300. Like the old Cotton Mills, the industry gave an opportunity to women to work in areas, outside of the domestic, which, at that time, was the only source of employment for a very large number of women.
The wages paid appeared to be somewhat above average for the time. The Clonmel factory manufactured butter, condensed milk and casings - almost all for export. The company appeared to reach its most prosperous period in the town during World War I, when the demand for dairy products in Britain, especially condensed milk for the armies, reached its zenith.
With the ending of the war, came the inevitable economic depression, with a dramatic fall in exports. This coincided with our own struggles for independence. The firm said it was losing money and proposed a reduction in wages. The workers said the company had made “a million” during the war. The stand-off led to a strike, which, in the climate of the time, was a special sort of strike which has become known as The Clonmel Soviet.
The Russian Revolution had cast long shadows over the Europe of the early decades of the 20th century. In many countries so-called soviets were established by workers taking over industries from “capitalist owners,” with the objective of operating them for the benefit of the workers, with all the profits accruing to themselves. That was the theory.
The Clonmel soviet was established in the last week of April 1922, when the workers demanded from the management the “keys,” and then hoisted a red flag on the factory building. The popular belief was (there is no written evidence) that this was done at “the point of a gun.”
It was not the most propitious time for ideological experi-mentation. The coinciding Civil War, with consequent damaged bridges, disrupted railways, roads and postal services, left Clonmel isolated. For the first time since the Famine, soup kitchens were set up in the town. In the initial few weeks there had been some limited public sympathy for the strikers or sovieters, but this quickly evaporated, especially when elements of anarchy took over and butter was walked into pavements and milk was overturned and poured down Sarsfield Street from a site opposite the Main Guard. Clonmel had enough!
The soviet was short-lived and after some negotiations, facilitated by the Mayor, Frank Drohan, and the Franciscan Fr. Robert, the strike was called off, the soviet dissipated. But the Condensed Milk Company of Ireland never quite recovered and the Cleeves sold the business to the Clonmel and Newcastle Co-Operative Creamery, and retired.
They did retain a refrigeration and cold storage facility at The Manor Mills, which was powered by the millrace, now converted to a street, at Old Bridge. This was managed by Harry Cleeve, until it was acquired by Clonmel Foods in the 1950s.
In a recent obituary, “The Irish Times” refers to his long and colourful life. At the outbreak of World War II, and while living in Glenconnor, he volunteered for service in the British Army and was commissioned into the Royal Irish Fusiliers. At the end of the war, he was sent to Tromse, in the Arctic Circle, to oversee the repatriation of Russian prisoners-of-war and the demobilisation of the German army in Norway.
The death of Harry Cleeve finally breaks the link with a remarkably successful industrial empire which, in its time, contributed much to the town of Clonmel and to its environs.