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by Tom Kenny

In May 1971, it was reported that U.S. computer manufacturer, Digital Equipment Corporation (known here simply as Dec) had chosen Galway for its first hardware manufacturing base in Europe because of the availability of an English-speaking workforce, a favourable tax policy, a local university and the anticipated entry of Ireland into the EEC.

The company started with 30 employees, reaching 109 by the end of the year, at its 40,000 sq. foot Mervue plant, assembling and shipping mini-computer systems, mainly for the European market. At the same time, work began on a new 130,000 sq. foot facility at Ballybrit. The business grew rapidly and by the time Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave officially opened the Ballybrit plant in September, 1973, the factory was employing an extra 40 people per month.

In 1975, the company began the important process of software kitting at its Mervue plant. On August 22nd, 1978, a fire destroyed this plant but a little over a year later it was back in business which was just as well as demand for software and digital products had reached an unprecedented level. The company was a trailblazer in terms of attracting US companies to Galway and set an example for many others to follow.

Sadly, a shift in customer buying patterns and an excess manufacturing capacity were cited as reasons for closing down the Ballybrit hardware plant in 1994 with the loss of 720 jobs, but happily, many of these highly skilled and experienced employees did very well afterwards. In early 1998, DEC was bought by Compaq Computer Corporation of Houston, Texas, a PC manufacturer who wanted to move into a more profitable high-end market. This made little difference to the Galway operation as they had exactly the kind of expertise Compaq needed. In 2002, the company merged with Hewlett Packard, a company which like Digital, had a strong track record in product, innovation, research and development, and once again, the quality of staff in Ballybrit meant they were able to adapt to the changing requirements.

It was the first multinational company to come to Galway. There were very few technical people in the area at the time, so they advertised in England and thus attracted a number of Galway born engineers home. In the early days there was a novelty about working in a computer factory, electronics were exciting. There was an attraction about working for an American company with an enlightened HR department who encouraged employees not to leave their brain at the door when they were coming to work, to continue to develop themselves and to further their education. On one occasion they hired an entire class from Crawford Technical College in Cork and sent a bus down to collect them. Another time, they hired an entire ANCO class here in Galway. They brought people to the US for further training and they offered in-house courses in things like presentation skills. Mary Kelly finished her Leaving Cert on a Wednesday and started work in production the following Monday.  One day, she read a notice offering to train people as technicians and so she trained for 12 months (partly in the US) and became a technician. This emphasis on and support for staff doing further education was why many of them referred to the plant as 'our college'. There was no union involvement but the staff were very well looked after and all were addressed by their christian name.

From the beginning, they became involved in the community, they-played in the inter-firms leagues in football and hurling, they had two soccer clubs, were major participants in The Tops of the Town competitions, collected generously for local charities and they financed the People's Park in Salthill.

Our photographs show the Digital plant in Mervue in 1971, and staff working at assembling computers in Ballybrit c.1975.

This weekend, 7th and 8th of May, they are celebrating 50 years in Galway with a major reunion of 'dec-heads' which includes a series of events culminating in a dinner in the Ardidlaun Hotel which is already booked out. Our wish for the company is simple, "Go maire sibh an Chéad".

Our thanks to Kathleen Glynn for her help with the above.

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