The Asahi plant produced jobs as well as acrylic fibre, and 1000 jobs as originally forecast would have had a very dramatic effect on the local, depressed, agrarian society. But, due to recession and overproduction for the European acrylic fibres market, and perhaps over ambitious forecasting, targets were not achieved. Nevertheless, the 450 people employed in 1983 by Asahi represented a considerable social impact in an area where there had been little employment outside agriculture, considerable under employment within agriculture, and very low incomes from agriculture.
The local economy would have expected to benefit from Asahi employment. Suddenly, at least some people had more money to spend. New houses and demand for durable consumer goods like furniture and washing machines increased, along with higher spending on food and clothes. As the expenditure on such items also increased nationally and regionally in the 1970s, it is difficult to gauge exactly the local economic impact of Asahi; but when in 1983 the company threatened to close the plant, a reported 2600 people signed a petition voicing dismay. This clearly exceeded the immediate workforce of 450 and suggested some kind of wider impact. Mortgages and improved standards of living were widely reported as being in jeopardy, affecting not only the workers, but local traders as well.
While higher living standards were obvious effects however, we really have to look more deeply than this and explore the effect upon the nature of the local society into which Asahi arrived.
Impact of Industrial wage labour
Firstly, there was the effect on the local class structure. Industrial wage labour was introduced into a society where traditionally people had earned a living from agriculture and fishing and where the associated social structure was dominated by small-scale peasant proprietors. With the arrival of Asahi a newly defined section of the community was able to make a living locally by earning a wage through working for others.
A significant proportion of this new industrial wage labour force was women. In 1980, 130 women were employed in Asahi, a quarter of whom were married. It was not unknown locally for women to work outside the home, for example in the service sector, nor for others to emigrate and work in factories elsewhere. With the arrival of Asahi, women locally had the prospect of financial independence and an alternative to marriage or continuing dependence on relatives, and responsibilities outside the home.
Impacts on farming
Industrial wage labour introduced new definitions of work and time. Industrial timekeeping was significantly different from the seasonal and daily routines of farming and fishing, and this could cause problems of adjustment. In Killala, as in Southwest Donegal, those problems were exacerbated by the fact that many of Asahi's workers continued farming part-time.
Ironically part-time farming probably helped to keep industrial wages low; it might even in that sense have contributed to attracting industry. In the case of Asahi, the company was made aware of this problem early on, and shifts were organised so that part-time farming and industrial work could be compatible. Asahi had to adjust its arrangements, and perhaps gained an awareness of the need to consider many aspects of location as a result.
One effect of this was that farming was not diminished locally, but rather, it became integrated with wage labour, the old with the new, a combination within a new uniqueness. A visitor to the derelict buildings on the Asahi site in 2015 was told that the waste from the coal fired boilers was much appreciated by local farmers who were allowed to take it away to use for roads on their farms and the well surfaced farm roads in the area are a legacy of Asahi.
Part-time farming, supported in this way by alternative employment, may have also affected the agricultural sector. People who had other jobs were less likely to make demands on government to improve conditions for agriculture and might have been less concerned with the process of consolidation and amalgamation of farms. Part-time farming could be found elsewhere in Ireland but in the West of Ireland, its combination with other elements rendered it specific to the region.
Asahi also introduced into the area in the process of industrial relations. In a small, family, farming community the notion of workers and managers had not existed, although it was of course experienced by Mayo emigrants to British industrial areas like the West Midlands. There was no local trade union experience, but as soon as construction work started on the Asahi site, unions arrived with the people who came into work as electricians and fitters and other skilled jobs. Irish trade unions operated much as British ones do, by a process of negotiations with the ultimate sanction of withdrawal of labour. However, in Ireland union relations with management had been less fraught than those in the UK.
The Japanese however, had a very different approach to industrial relations, based on a strong corporate ideal whereby the welfare of the total company was above all other considerations. The people in the area had not only to get used to working within industrial structures, but had to do so with the Japanese management. However, when a group of craft workers took action which threatened a continuation of Asahi's operation in Killala they found itself in dispute not only with management but also with the local community who felt that if Asahi closed it would be a local disaster, thus illustrating the dependency of such a community on a single major local employer. For this area, and the region as a whole, dependency was not new. Dependency on Asahi replaced dependency on landlords: out of historical dependency on England into dependency on Japanese industrialism and European markets. Interdependence remained, but in different contexts, and was still manifestly unequal.
Now move on to 1997 The closure of Asahi.
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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.