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by Tom Kenny

In the 1930s, Ireland instructed all of its consul officials in Europe no to issue visas to Jewish refugees, but the country was also in a state of economic stagnation at the time and Seán Lemass realized that new industries would help the country. An Irish Jewish businessman, Marcus Witztum offered to help him and went to Paris, met Henri Orbach there who owned a small hat factory and suggested he open a business in Ireland, a safer place for people of the Jewish persuasion than continental Europe. Orbach agreed.

And so, the Hat Factory came to Galway and started life in Eyre Square. Shortly afterwards another factory called Western Hats opened in Castlebar and later Hirsch Ribbons in Longford. All three factories came thanks to the efforts of Marcus Witztum who was deeply involved in their setting up. In doing so, he brought a number of experts over from Europe to help train the staff. All of these ‘experts’ happened to be Jewish who otherwise would probably have been caught up in the Nazi murder machine and this resulted in Whitztum being dubbed “An Irish Schindler”.

On July 28th, 1937, the Irish Times reported that a considerable quantity of machinery has already been assembled at Eyre Square where temporary premises have been secured by the new Galway Hat Manufacturing Company and work will begin on Monday next. The directors were Louis O’Dea, solicitor; Mr. S. McEllin, Balla; Marcus Whitztum, MD of Viennese Knitted Goods; Henri Orbach, MD of Les Modes Modernes (to give the factory its official title) Galway and Marcel Goldberg, assistant MD. This premises was temporary, owned by Messrs Bailey and Lydon and about 20 people were employed, trained by 12 experts brought over from Europe. The output was about 50 hats per day.

Meanwhile, a new premises was being built in Bohermore by James Stewart & Co. M.J. Kennedy and George Lee, county surveyor were the architects and T.P. McGowan was the clerk of works. The building cost £11,000.  A large crowd witnessed the opening of the factory by Seán Lemass on July 18th, 1938. It was blessed by the bishop who gave the plant a great marketing boost when he said he would encourage Galway women to wear locally made hats rather than scarves when going to church. It was the first industry to set up in Galway for a long time and it was very timely as The Woollen Mills was about to close down. This new plant comprised of 14 apartments and measured 140 x 90 feet. The roofing was of the northlight truss type ensuring perfect daylight lighting. The offices were at the front where there was also a large display room.

At the time, the factory employed 110 girls and 54 men and was hoping to expand this number to about 350. They were producing 1,200 ladies hats per day. They had a license to produce one million hats per annum for the home market which presently consumes 1.3 million hats per year. Within two years, the 250 employees were producing 3,000 hats a day.

With the advent of World War II, there were worries about the ability to access unfinished hat shaped cones from Belgium which were used to shape hats, but then the new factory that produced these cones opened in Castlebar. A little later, the plant in Longford started up and they became major suppliers of ribbons to the Galway factory.

The business took a major downturn in the mid-forties when a ‘head-scarf craze’ seriously threatened the future of the factory. ‘Headscarves are frequently worn in church, they are a distraction to pious people who, when trying to pray, are looking at dog-racing and scenery of all descriptions’. Happily, by 1948, the craze had almost disappeared.

As one of the company’s advertisements said “Everyone knows that no two ladies can agree on the style and colour of a hat” so it was important for the factory to have a busy design department that helped create new fashion trends and they in turn kept the rest of the staff busy. They did a small retail business from the factory, their products featured in major shops all over the country and they also exported to Britain and the U.S.A. They were also a major employer in the city, especially of local women and girls.

Sadly, due to changing fashion trends, the business closed down in 1970. John McDermott was the last manager of the plant. Our photograph is from The Irish Press dated July 1938. The Advertisement appeared in the Irish Times in July 1940.

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