It was 34 years ago this month that David Hegarty took up employment in the Oatfield sweet factory in Letterkenny.
On the day following his 15th birthday on May 28th, 1978, after the then manager John Fox, who had previously told him that a job was his when he reached the required aged, advised him to get himself a pair of white trousers and a white tee-shirt. “I remember I got them in Tinney’s shop on the Main Street and I started on the Monday.”
Started at the long established plant just as six other members of his family have done over the years.
This week as the owners, Zed Candy, continue to relocate equipment to the U.K. prior to closing the Letterkenny operation for good at the end of the month, David and his work colleagues - only 17 remain and this number will be further cut by next week - reflect despondently on the end of an era.
Originally from Bomany, just outside Letterkenny, but now resident in Ballybofey, he speaks of the “great going concern” that Oatfield once was since first being established in the town by the McKinney family in 1927.
“There’s been some amount of sweets produced here,” he says as he glances around the now all too appropriately named finishing department.
At the peak of operations, 80 tons of confectionery a week were produced here from high boiled sugar to toffee. And sweet lovers in over 80 countries around the world enjoyed chewing over the product.
“I can’t remember the country exactly but I was chatting to a man once who said he had bought a packet of Oatfield sweets in the middle of nowhere.”
Gerry Dooher, who has been employed at the factory for over 23 years, says: “You’d see the Oatfield brand on the back of old buses in Malta. The sweets were exported as far away as China and Australia. And you could also get them in the Caribbean.”
He lives in Gortlee where in the past the scent of the toffee would be sniffed pleasantly by many a nose. “I’ll not get a job so handy again.”
Philomena Gillen from Manorcunningham has worked in Oatfield for 39 years. “I was involved in a number of the departments. I’ve made the sweets - I’ve done it all.”
Neil Wallace has “only” been employed at the factory for 14 years but fully shares the emotions of his work colleagues at the closure. He had three sisters who also worked at the plant.
Indeed that family element was highlighted by all the employees. And one family in particular came up for special notice.
“It’s a sad day for the McKinneys. They put a lifetime’s work into this place,” remarks Neil.
A view echoed by all. “They were a very generous family to work for - you’d get a pay rise before any of the other factories. It was one of the best places to work in. When it was family owned, it was a great place to be,” Gerry insists.
Nell Hay from Kilmacrenan, who will walk away at the end of the month having served 33 years in Oatfield, agrees. “Great people to work for - we’re really going to miss it.”
Mena McMonagle from Glenwood commenced employment twenty-four years ago and while a period of broken service followed, she too believes the closure is regrettable.
“We knew it was going to close when they laid off people two years ago but for a long while we didn’t know when. Every week you’d be waiting and wondering. It tormented us for the last couple of years.
“And now to think we’re only getting a two weeks redundancy package. You’d think they would give us the three weeks and a wee handshake to go with it,” Mena maintains.
“Not knowing was the worst,” Nell nods.
Don Gamble from Ramelton is another long-server, clocking in for 33 years and now preparing to clock out for the final time. “Aye, it’s a sad one. When you work this long, it’s in the blood.”
David Hegarty says he will miss the people he worked alongside. And, adds Gerry Dooher, the certainty of a wage at the end of the week.
“I think Oatfield could have survived in Letterkenny had it been managed right. This country needs factories that are able to export products, not another bloody supermarket.”
But with the final batch of sweets having been boiled at the plant on Friday last, the only thing that is being exported is Oatfield itself to the significant loss of Letterkenny and those who have toiled there to build its undoubted reputation.