There were two manufacturing plants located at the 400 acre Killala site; Asahi Synthetic Fibres (Ireland) Limited and Asahi Spinning (Ireland) Limited. Both were subsidiaries of the corporate body Asahi Chemical Industry Company Limited of Tokyo, Japan.
According to a 1983 company handbook, 'Asahi, (pronounced Ah – sa – he) Chemical Industry Company Ltd is one of the largest manufacturers of synthetic fibres in Japan'. The major incentive which attracted Asahi to build a manufacturing plant in Europe was the market which Europe represented. Location of the plant in a European Community (now European Union) member state would guarantee Asahi duty-free access to this major market. The handbook stated that ‘following a thorough investigation by several teams of experts from Japan, Ireland emerged as the best country for the project. The advantages offered by Ireland over other countries were its location relative to EC markets, the availability of labour, the availability of water… and the incentives and services offered by the IDA (Industrial Development Authority)’. Production commenced in 1977 and the total cost of development to that date was £52 million.
The Asahi plant
The synthetic plant operated continuously on a 24 hour day, 7 days per week basis. The process of manufacturing of the synthetic fibre involved preparation of the polymer and preparation of the substance from which the fibre extruded (known as the Dope), spinning and then conditioning the fibre. The final product was spun into yarn. In 1997, the final year of operation, 315 people were employed on the site with a production capacity of 18000 tonnes per year of synthetic fibre.
Ruth McManus recollects “I recall talking to some of the men who worked on the site in 1977 - it was cold, windswept and wet because of its exposed location. The project was huge in scale and cost. The length of the main building can be seen on the images - it stretched for quarter of a mile to one end to the other, due to the nature of the production and spinning processes for the acrylic fibre. The foremen were issued with bicycles! There is a traditional cottage in the foreground of one of the images, its so small you can hardly see it but it helps to give a sense of the scale of the plant (and also points to the different layers in the landscape, old and new).”
In July 1977 the Financial Times described the new Asahi synthetic fibre plant at Killala as ‘the jewel in the crown of the IDA’. It was big: the biggest single Japanese investment in Ireland; bigger than anything the company had built before; one of the largest industrial plants ever built in Ireland. For Northeast Mayo, said the Financial Times, ‘The news of the Asahi development seemed almost too good to be true. A factory which would employ more than 1000 will have dramatic effects in an area where for years the main business has been exporting cattle and people. As a result everything was made easier for the newcomer. Planning approvals were rushed through, businessmen busied themselves laying on services, the local Press enthused and those who worried about Loch Conn's brown trout or pollution of Killala Bay were dismissed as cranks.’
Critics of Asahi
Others were not quite as enthusiastic. Dublin Corporation took a longer cool look at Asahi's plans as Asahi needed to import acrylonitrile, their basic raw material, which was poisonous and volatile, through Dublin’s port. Others were concerned about the consequent rail journey across the middle of Ireland from Dublin to Mayo. There are similar parallels with the concerns raised thirty years later by the ‘Shell to Sea’ campaign run over the past decade in protest against Shell’s proposal for a gas terminal, a gas refinery and large combustion plant on the North Mayo coast. When operational, the refinery will treat gas transported via a 65km pipeline from the offshore Corrib gas field before it is discharged via a pipeline into the existing Irish gas network. This long running dispute between Royal Dutch Shell in Ireland and the local population over the environmental impact has made headlines across Ireland and around the world. For more information see the campaign group’s website Shell to Sea.
One further cautionary point was raised in the Financial Times article under the headline ‘Teething Troubles in County Mayo’ (26 July, 1977) about ‘the need to walk warily through the labour union jungle.…. Asahi's troubles so far have stemmed from its decision to sign a closed shop agreement with the Irish TGWU to simplify the problems in employing the largely non-unionised labour force in the West of Ireland’.
It is interesting to notice, from the lead up to Asahi's location at Killala, that the process of change was affected through both national and local political action. The national was in the context of the actions of the IDA (Industrial Development Authority). The local was in terms of the actions of the Killala Community Council. Both were part of the political process, but very different in scale and practice. But why were the original local committees formed when they were? And how was it that they were so active and apparently so successful, not simply in the short term but in the long term, especially when other apparently similar ventures in apparently similar local areas have failed?
The answer given by the then (1983) Community Council Chairman was one word – need. But other areas were similarly in need yet they did not obtain similar results. Different kinds of co-operatives and community groups frequently struggle to achieve the results achieved. In Killala the Community Council appeared to flourish with continued effort. The answer to ‘why?’ must ultimately lie with the level of local political initiative and in the mechanism whereby the original momentum was developed and carried on. No matter how many groups sought, as they did, to adapt the so-called Killala Model, it remained a unique factor in a specific context, part of a local ‘synthesis’.
There is no easy way of generalising the effects of the environment on Asahi but they were perhaps less than some people expected, while the effects on society were more than was easily assessed or readily admitted. Asahi was not just an industrial plant and it was not just ‘jobs’. It represented a whole new set of social relations: a combination of economic, political and cultural factors. The combination of this new layer with the existing local society and environment produced what we can conceptualise as the new synthesis which in turn provided the preconditions for the next layer of the 21st century.
See all the articles in this series
See all the series in the Change in the West of Ireland collection
This article is part of a collection on the 'Uniqueness, Interdependence, Uneven Development and Change in the West of Ireland'. To find out more about the collection, a good place to start is the introduction, Change in the West of Ireland.