Navan’s Furniture Co-op
Crannac Furniture in the 1970s. Photos thanks to Olivia Clarke Carroll.
In 1906 James Mc Cann M.P., Ardsallagh, converted Athlumney flax mill to woodworking and sawmilling and founded the Navan Sawmills and Furniture Factory. Armchairs of Irish oak and walnut were exhibited by this business at the 1907 International Exhibition in Dublin. The firm supplied all types of native wood and parts for traps and carriage building, vans and all vehicles. A large part of its production of fencing, sheds, crates and boxes was exported to Britain.
In 1915 the mills at Athlumney were purchased by the Goodearl Brothers from High Wycombe. They installed new machinery to produce Windsor and cane seated chairs. During World War I they manufactured large amounts of tent pegs. In 1919 the Goodearls sold the operation to Daniel Alesbury of Edenderry timber mills. In 1924 water power was supplemented with the installation of a steam engine. The factory specialised in wood-spoke wheels for English car-factories and also produced high class furniture and horse drawn vehicles. In March 1933 the mill was destroyed in a fire and new furniture factories were opened by its former workers.
In 1945 John Hogg and Co. Ltd. furniture manufacturers was founded. Wilfrid S. Elliott joined John Hogg as joint manager in 1957 and in 1960 the Elliott family purchased the company. In 1961 with the assistance of Coras Trachtala Teo John Hogg and Co. changed over the style of furniture it was producing. In April 1961 the firm employed Arthur Edwards to design a new style of chairs and settees. This new style, Crannac, was launched in Dublin in early 1962 on the home and export market. The word “Crannac” is derived from the Irish word for “a little copse or wood.” The designs were aimed at the hotel, public lounges, public buildings and offices but were also suitable for private homes. The Crannac frames were made from afromosia, a wood which was imported from Ghana. The finish was not stained or varnished but oil finished by hand which preserved the natural features of the wood. The seats and backs were of special quality polyester, the seats resting on Vitaweb rubber strapping. The coverings were in specially designed Irish tweed, woven by Magee of Co. Donegal. Nine shades of tweed were selected from 500 different combinations. The tweed was 100 percent wool and moth proof. John Hogg and Co. were positioning themselves as specialist chair manufacturers.
Edwards Designed Furniture from Crannac
At the launch Managing Director Wilfred S. Elliott said the range of furniture was small but they had worked hard over the year. They “have now proven and are still proving, that Navan men and Irish men can equal the best …. For the future our ambition and determination is to bring a distinctive Irish line in furniture so that people will not say ‘There is a good reproduction of Scandinavian design’ but rather ‘That is Irish furniture.’”
Minister Michael Hilliard said “the town of Navan … is identified with the furniture for a very long number of years with a number of local firms engaged in the trade.” There were 160 firms involved in producing furniture at the time with sales of two million pounds and imports only amounted to one hundred thousand pounds so most of the country’s demand for furniture was met by home produced furniture. The range being introduced was being targeted at the export market. By 1963 the Crannac range amounted to one fifth of all furniture exports from Ireland.
In August 1963 John Hogg and Co. Ltd. opened their first large scale exhibition of their Crannac range of chairs, settees and coffee tables in London. Eighteen models were on show including a new dining chair which was stackable. They also exhibited their range at Munich and Manchester trade shows.
In September 1963 Wilfred Elliot, went on a trade mission to the USA. He was launching the firm’s new type furniture, “knock-down” furniture which was made so it could be assembled and disassembled by the customer with little bother. This concept originated in Scandinavia and Hoggs were the first to adopt the system in Ireland. The firm received enquiries from Canada and the Middle East in relation to the product. The firm was exporting at least one lorry load of Crannac furniture each month to Britain via the ferry to Stranrear. Among its customers at home were Jury’s, the Intercontinental and Silver Springs Hotels and in Britain – Edinburgh’s Jordanburn Hospital, Edinburgh University, London University and Vauxhall Motors.
In August 1964 Gael Linn took a controlling interest in John Hogg and Co. Ltd. Donall O Morain, chairman Gael-Linn, said the association with John Hogg and Co. would help to consolidate Gael Linn’s interest in woodcraft. The investment would also provide an opportunity to promote the Irish language. “The pioneering work which our company has been carrying on in the field of design and export selling has been heretofore seriously restricted because of the magnitude of capital costs relative to the resources of a small concern such as ours.” said Wilfred S. Elliott, MD of John Hogg and Co. Ltd. The factory employed about 55 people.. The initial designer of the range was Arthur Edwards and Andrew Milne was also employed to design articles for the range. In 1965 a new designer Valentino Rossi joined John Hogg and Co Ltd.
Workers Sit In
In February 1965 an exhibition of Crannac furniture was officially opened by Mr. M. Hilliard, Minister for Posts and Telegraphs in the Building Centre, Dublin.
In 1971 Gael Linn sold all their shares to Edward McElroy of Castleblaney for the reported sum of £14,000. The existing workforce of 30-40 were retained and it was stated that Crannac sales had increased over the previous year despite the recession in home and export markets. McElroy was joint managing director of McElroy Bros. Ltd. Castleblaney.
In April 1972 the workers sensed something was happening and formed a workers action committee with the assistance of Jim O’Brien who acted as chairperson. At the end of April 1972 McElroy had decided to close the factory and put the firm into liquidation. The reasons for closure were the “troubles” in Northern Ireland, which was having an effect on the hotel industry and increases in taxation. The furniture factory of Messrs. W. Walsh and Co. Boyne Mills had closed at the end of 1971. Derry Fitzgerald, chairman Navan Trades Council, said “We have no intention of allowing the factory to close without the strongest possible fight.” A delegation from the Trades Council met the Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, who was in Navan on other business.
The workers began a sit-in which lasted three months. Thirty eight workers were involved in the sit in, one of whom left halfway through. No notice of any kind was given to the workers of the intended closure. Cllr A. Kavanagh proposed that the Navan Urban Council stand behind the workers “They are great men who deserve the appreciation and encouragement of the people of Navan in the glorious stand they have taken. They are prepared to continue in the exercise until those responsible for their plight are brought to book.” The Navan Trades Council, opened a benevolent fund for the redundant workers. Derry Fitzgerald, chairman said “These men … were thrown out without any notice. At present they are receiving no wages or benefits of any kind. We are not just speaking of 43 workers but 43 families with heavy commitments. The men of Crannac have been sacrificed in the interests of big business. It is up to the people of Navan and surrounding areas to support them in this just cause.” A collection was taken up from every factory in the locality. The Beechmount Ballroom gave the proceeds of a dance to the worker’s cause.
Jimmy Tully T.D. arranged a meeting with the officials of the Department of Industry and Commerce for the workers. The delegation included Paddy Brennan, Oliver Travers, Joe Reilly, Noel Casey and Fr. A. Farrell C.C. Mr. Fitzgerald deplored the alleged reluctance of the liquidator to facilitate prospective buyers.At the end of May the workers decided to purchase the factory and operate it on a co-operative basis. The sale of the venture was set for auction on 20th June. The workers pooled their redundancy monies and issued shares in the co-op. They elected an acting management committee comprising of Oliver Travers, (chairman), James O’Brien (vice-chairman), Joseph Reilly (secretary), Noel Casey (treasurer), Patrick Brennan (PRO), Michael Rogers and Charles McHugh. A bank account was established with Fr. A. Farrell and Noel Casey as trustees. Patrick Brennan, secretary Navan branch of the Irish National Union of Woodworkers said “The co-operative system has proved successful in other parts of the country and in the Castle Shoe Company, Dundalk in particular. We feel confident that with the continued unity and solidarity of the workers we can remould Crannac into a boom factory.”
The new Management Committee with some of the Workers
Michael Hanrahan, assistant secretary of the Navan Chamber of Commerce, said “I am all for workers sharing in the profits of their productivity. This venture will be a trial for the Crannac workers and indeed for the co-operative system. I wish them every success. It might seem at first sight that a small co-operative industry would have little chance of success. But the Crannac workers can take heart from the experience of the Castle Shoe Co-operative in Dundalk.” Michael Viney writing in the Irish Times said “There has to be strong leadership as there was in Dundalk. There must be cold professionalism where it counts – notably in financial control, quality control and marketing. A worker’s co-operative is competing with capitalists and must operate to capitalist disciplines.”
Twenty five of the forty three workers were interested in the co-operative and each invested £200 and public subscription had raised a further £8000. Thirty seven workers became members and there were a number of non workers who were members including Mark McLoughlin, Griff Cashman, Michael Woods and Leo Collins. A number of workers were not interested in taking part in the co-op. The directors of Tara Mines made a donation of £1000 towards the workers. Fr. Farrell said some £30,000 was required for the purchase of the company and a further £20,000 to float the company. Fr. Farrell said the group had been given a firm promise of £65,000 loan from the Industrial Credit Corporation. Oliver Travers told the local Chamber of Commerce that two salesmen would be engaged one in Scotland and one in Ireland. A labour force of approximately thirty would be employed and the firm would concentrate on producing eight of the original fourteen lines, cutting out six. A short list of three prospective managers was drawn up. A committee comprising Michael Woods, Jim Fitzsimons, Leo Collins, Noel Casey and Fr. Farrell was appointed to contact people likely to invest in the project.
In late June the workers’ offer of £49,000 for the firm was accepted. Patrick Brennan said “I would like to thank everyone who helped us to realise our ambition in buying the factory. They have shown tremendous confidence in us and we are determined not to disappoint them.” An RTE news team attended the ceremony to mark the official opening of the co-operative. “This is not the end. It is the end of the beginning. Everything now depends on the workers here. The eyes of the country will be trained on them as they embark on this historic enterprise”, said Fr. Farrell at the opening ceremony. Bishop McCormack said that the closure of the factory had presented a serious social problem. Instead of adopting a defeatist attitude the workers had displayed remarkable initiative and courage in purchasing the factory and setting up an industrial co-operative. Most undertakings of this nature were in the agricultural sphere and he felt that the Crannac employees were setting a headline for similar ventures in other parts of the country by their tremendous courage and spirit.” A management committee of nine people of whom six had to be workers in the co-op was established to run the business.
Fr. Andy Farrell
By October the manager, Jim Thornton, was able to tell the Urban District Council that production had exceeded expectations. At the first AGM of the co-op held in March 1973 the venture reported a profit of £11,187. The promised loan from the Government had just come though. Fr. Farrell said “The faith the people of Navan had shown in the workers had been thoroughly justified. The men had stayed together well and over thirty were now employed in the society.” He believed that the success of Crannac might well prove a blueprint for a solution to some of the industrial problems of the country. Griff Cashman of the Graphic Arts Co-operative Dublin said “there are now three or four co-operatives around the country and it is hoped that a type of league of industrial co-operatives could be established in the future.”
At the second annual meeting in October 1974 sales were reported as having increased but profits were down. The outside manager had not been a success and Oliver Travers took over as manager with Noel Casey as assistant manager. “It was felt that the successful running of the society was best in the hands of share-holding employees. Their interest in the co-operative is required, not alone to make Crannac furniture but in managing the whole concern.” Over the year the number of employees had increased by eight. It was decided to proceed with the erection of a new showroom. A dividend of 5% was declared.
In 1976 Crannac decided to sell directly to the public. Sales to the retail trade had reduced over the previous year. It was proposed to erect a new 3,000 square feet showroom. The business would open on a Saturday and Sunday and be able to sell on a hire purchase plan.
A year later Oliver Travers was able to report that direct selling to the public had been “a major success.” The showrooms had already been extended and further extensions were planned. A year later plans to extend the showrooms were postponed and the foam store converted to provide additional exhibition space. There was a demand for a wide variety of domestic furniture and the business need to stock and display a complete range. Items not being produced by Crannac were now being stocked. The policy of opening seven days a week had attracted customers. The majority of orders were taken on Saturday and Sunday with 95% of the customers coming from Dublin.
In 1978 another year of continued growth was reported at the society’s AGM. An additional 5,000 square feet of show space was added to provide a total showroom area of 11,000 square feet. The construction of a new shop was commenced. A showroom was opened in Cork. A radio advertising campaign began with the slogan “Only an hour from Dublin.”
By the 1980 AGM Crannac had experienced a difficult year, partly due to a six week petrol strike. The showroom in Cork was closed as it failed to generate enough sales. The business suffered a downturn in showroom sales in the early 1980s but this was replaced by a substantial contract for chairs from the Middle East. The furniture industry was going through a difficult period. Another industrial co-operative commenced operating in Navan in 1982, the Navan Bedding Co-operative.
Paddy Brennan, General Manager, Frank McCluskey, and Jimmy O’Brien, Crannac Co-op secretary in 1993 outside Crannac, Dubluin Road premises.
In July 1983 John Bruton, Minister for Industry and Energy launched a new book “Workers Co-operatives: Potential and Problems” at Crannac premises. Minister Bruton appealed for a more positive attitude towards workers’ co-ops. “Many co-ops established previously have been described as “children in distress” born out of rescue-type situations. Too often the idea of setting up a co-op emerges only after a firm has collapsed or is about to do so. A workers’ co-op should not be seen as something that follows the demise of an industry. There’s no reason why a group of workers with a good business idea, and the skills and know-how to make it work, should not get together and launch out on a co-operative enterprise.” The case study of the Crannac Co-op by Paddy Brennan formed part of section 3 of the book.
Due to reduced sales workers at Crannac were laid off for six weeks in early 1986. This was a difficult year for the enterprise as lack of disposable income was having an effect on showroom sales. The firm concentrated its efforts on the hotel, clubs and entertainment sectors. The firm completed contracts for the Great Southern Hotels, Jury’s Hotels at Dublin and Limerick, Westbury and Burlington Hotels, Dublin Airport, Montague of Portlaoise and Elm Park, Sutton, and Royal Dublin Golf Clubs together with numerous lounge bars, hospitals and other institutions. Oliver Travers left the co-op to establish his own manufacturing business and Patrick Brennan, chairman of the co-op took over the management role. The co-op’s secretary, Noel Casey, also left the firm to commence business on his own and Jim O’Brien, secretary of the Meath Trades Council succeeded him in the position. Des Clarke was appointed to the new position of production foreman. In the mid 1980s workers contribute £500 each to support the co-op.
In 1993 Crannac Co-op celebrated its 25th anniversary. At the time it employed 22 workers.
By 2000 the co-op decided to move to new premises. The condition of the existing building was causing concern. A full meeting of the co-op committee decided to re-locate the factory to the Mullaghboy Industrial Estate while retaining the showrooms at its existing location. Fr. Andy Farrell cut the ribbon on the new £1.9 million plant in August 2001.
In May 2003 the future of Crannac was causing concern. The future of the enterprise was the main item on the agenda for the annual meeting of shareholders held on 29th May. The increasing inroads being made by imported furniture was the chief threat to the industry. The meeting having decided to wind up the enterprise Fr. Farrell addressed the annual meeting congratulating the management committee on the “honourable” course it had taken in face of losses of about £0.5 million in the previous few years. He regretted what was an “historic experiment” had been brought to an end due to soaring insurance costs and cheap imports of furniture to Ireland. Crannac was the longest running worker’s co-operative in Ireland.
CRANNAC MEMORIES – Fr. Andy Farrell
I will always remember the 1st May 1972. We had a scheduled mass in honour of St. Joseph the worker, in Navan church. At about 7 o’clock I was driving on the Dublin Road and I noticed about six Crannac workers outside carrying picket placards. I concluded they were on strike and I thought “wouldn’t they be better off above in the church putting their labour under the protection of Almighty God”. I soon learned they weren’t on strike at all but locked out by a force that was putting private interest above the livelihood of 63 families. I thought to myself, “There is no point in us talking about justice if this type of thing is not challenged”. I called about ten of the men into the newly restored Community Centre for a meeting. They were dumfounded and confused. Together, we made a few quick decisions. I encouraged the men to sit in the factory to prevent anyone else taking over their means of livelihood. They didn’t need much encouragement. I promised, and meant it, that I would pay them to sit in. I had a substantial Social Needs Fund at the time. I would not be able to pay them as much as they could earn, but enough to keep bread on the table for as long as the sit-in continued. As it turned out, I did not have to deliver on my promise – only for a week or so. We, also, decided to hold a meeting of all the workers in Crannac, in the factory, a few weeks later. We met in the factory on a wet and cold miserable Saturday afternoon and the spirits of the men were as cold and miserable as the May rain outside. I remember Fr. Campbell from Dundalk, who had been involved in a co-operative in Dundalk, attended. It was decided to continue the sit-in. It was, also, decided that the workers would form a co-operative and acquire the factory themselves – that they would pool their redundancy monies, open the enterprise to public subscription and apply to the Government Rescue Board for a starting Grant.
A few days later, a few of the men’s leaders – I think Paddy Brennan, Noel Casey, Oliver Travers and myself went to Government buildings to make the case. I remember while we were waiting to be received, Oliver Travers looked about him in contemptuous awe and asked “Are those corridors of power?”. I said “They are corridors alright but whether there is power there or not we will shortly know”. We met the officials. They wanted to be satisfy themselves on three points – (1) that they had adequate plant and machinery (2) that they had a keen work-force and (3) that they had good prospects of markets. The men satisfied them on all three points , and raised the question of a manger. The men had a manager in mind. He was willing to return from England to take up the position, but the Department of State, without any consultation, appointed its own man as manager. Thereby hangs a tale!
The Board agreed a Grant of £75,000, but it would not be cleared or paid until September. The Civil Service was going on vacation for the month of August, but the sale of the factory was scheduled for mid-July. The men needed a bridging loan until the Government Grant came through. We expected the Credit Union to provide it, but, inexplicably, they refused. We went to A.I.B. and they obliged. To make a long story short, the men bought the factory but until the price was paid over they could not occupy it. P.V. Doyle had ordered £18,000 worth of furniture for one of his hotels in Dublin and said he would pay for it if the furniture was delivered within a week. Legally, the men weren’t entitled to take out furniture. I was consulted on the morality of the situation. As I remember, I said, “There is the law of the land and the law of God. There is nothing in the law of God to prevent you from taking what is morally yours”. Joe Reilly, R.I.P. went in that night and ferried the furniture to Dublin. The factory was opened under the new co-op. management in the first week of August 1972 and was blessed by Bishop McCormack. The men co-opted a few sterling men of integrity and honour onto their management committee. I recall Michael Woods, then General Manager of the Credit Union and Leo Collins, Lord rest him. Too many of the men prominent in that thrilling saga are no longer with us. Death has claimed Joe Reilly, Oliver Travers, Leo Collins, Joe Finnegan, Paddy Clarke. Forgive me if I can’t recall all the names, but their spirit lives on.
The project weathered two decades of the roughest economic climate in the 80’s and 90’s when many other enterprises with more auspicious origins went under. But Crannac survived and flourished and on 23rd August 2002 moved from the old Crannac factory on the Dublin Road to a beautiful new factory in Clogherboy. It was a day of triumph and rejoicing. But soon rejoicing, was turned to mourning. The next meeting to which I was invited was to deal with the liquidation of the whole enterprise. It was no longer possible to compete against the importation of flat-pack from the Far East and against the obscene increase in insurance costs, recently inflated because of “Nine-Eleven”. Paddy Brennan, the very capable manager, said to me “We go deeper into debt every day we work”. It was a sad ending, but a most honourable one. They had made excellent furniture for thirty years, kept over 40 men employed and concluded business not owning a penny to anyone.
Noel French holds the Owen Binchy Memorial Medal (U.C.C.) for research into Co-operatives
SOURCES: Meath Chronicle, The Waters of the Boyne and Blackwater, Cyril Ellison.