Liam Blake reflects the mood of a town that is losing one of its icon industries. For 51 of the eighty-five years that the Oatfield plant operated out of the place of its birth, Letterkenny, he worked within its walls helping to bring that unique flavour to the taste buds of sweet lovers the world over.
But with the decision by its current owners, Zed Candy, to relocate the entire confectionery output to England, that taste has turned somewhat sour.
“I was down there recently watching them pack and remove some of the machinery. The town will miss it and so will the people who worked in it. It’s just very sad to see it going,” Liam echoes the view of the community.
He’d left the Presentation Brothers school at the age of 14, an age he reached on January 10th, 1950 and took up the job with Oatfield, then, and for many years after, under the ownership of the sweet factory’s founders, the McKinneys.
His initial deployment was operating the boiler and weighing the sugar and he recalls between eighty and ninety people employed there at the time. Liam’s early working years were spent under then manager, Joe Harrison. “Jack Hunter from the Port Road was also high up in the factory at that time.
“The Oatfield lorries used to travel all over the country making deliveries. They’d be packed to the roof with sweets, with Emeralds, hard boiled and toffee varieties. At the time, I remember they used to make a soft cream centre sweet but eventually they stopped making them.
“There was the sugar factory in Tuam and any of the lorries delivering would return with bags of sugar. They never came back empty handed.”
It wasn’t just around Ireland that the Oatfield brand became known and loved. “When he was based in Lebanon as an army captain, Declan O’Carroll sent me back a letter, saying that he’d walked into this shop and was able to buy a bag of Oatfield sweets.”
There were many shops like it, from Kenya to Cambodia, where the confectionary, manufactured and packaged in Letterkenny, County Donegal, was available. At its peak, Oatfield exported to over eighty countries all over the world.
“The McKinneys definitely helped put Letterkenny on the international map,” says Liam.
And over the years provided much needed employment in the locality. “They gave a lot of work to people all over the county.” His own son, Michael, worked there and he lists off the names of others who found steady jobs in the local sweet plant including Paddy Crossan of the Mountain Top, John McGranaghan, Liam Collins, Davy Moore, John Wilson of the the Burmah, Frank O’Donnell, Joe McNab, Matt Moore, Sammy Logue of Rockhill, Kathleen Fox, Bernadette Duffy, Bridget McNab, Rita Doherty and Andy Robinson. And other men who helped run the operation, Bert Davidson, John Fox and Hector Moore.
Born in St. Conal’s Hospital where his dad, Mickey, was the head male nurse at the time, Liam and his family - his mother was Margaret McBride - resided in an apartment there before eventually moving to Knocknamona.
He recalls cycling to work - “you could go up and down the Port Road back then” - and around fifty bicycles parked outside the shed at Oatfield.
“The horn would blew at the factory at 8.30 in the morning - a lot of people went by that clock. Then it would blow again at one o’clock and at two o’clock and finally in the evening at six.”
On January 10th, 2001, Liam completed his fifty-one years - “Chris Donovan was the manager when I left” - and as the equipment and machinery were being readied up in recent weeks for relocation to the U.K. and Oatfield Letterkenny is no more, he renders a sigh for old times.
“It’s very sad to see it going - it’s a big loss to the town and to the county. If only something could have been done to keep it here.”