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The O’Neill Family and Tobacco Manufacturing in Bagenalstown

November 27th, 2010 by Margaret Cushen

Local History Compiled by Margaret Cushen.

The following article was written by the late John Sheill, Market Square and Railway Road and published in Contact, Bagenalstown & District Community Magazine in 1984.

John Sheill had extensive business interests in Bagenalstown, his main business was in the Market Square on the site where

the Manor House, Shoparound and Rooster’s Take-Away are now located where he owned a private house, grocery, bar, hardware store, and a butcher’s shop which occupied one side of Market Square. He also had an extensive farm and produced the highest quality seed barley and wheat.

O’Neill’s Tobacco Factory was located on the corner of Kilree Street and Market Square. The property is now owned by Mr. Joe Phelan.

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The Bagenalstown Tobacco Factory was established in 1830 by Mr. John Nowlan and thirty years later was bought by my grandfather, Joseph O’Neill, who came from Co. Wicklow. He emigrated to America early in life and settled in Virginia for a short time, where he saw tobacco grown and learned the manufacturing process. He returned to Bagenalstown in l860 where he bought a house and shop in Market Square. He married a Miss Byrne, from Ballycormack, whose family, having been evicted from their farm by landlords in Kilgreaney, went to live with their uncle, Thomas Byrne, Ballycormack. My mother, Margaret, inherited this farm in Ballycormack when Thomas Byrne died, and sold it in 1917 to Thomas Farrell.

The factory was small to begin with, but year after year it made rapid strides in the manufacture of both quality and yearly output. At the Dublin Exhibition of 1882 Messrs. O’Neill & Sons were awarded a first prize medal and certificate.

My grandfather, Joseph O’Neill, had two sons, John and Joe, both of whom entered the business, and five daughters, Bridget, Mary, Margaret, Katie, Theresa and Mary Ann (Mother Gabriel).

John, who was keenly interested in machinery, worked in the factory itself while Joe took up the position of salesman and marketed the tobacco. John, in his search for new machinery, travelled to England, France, Germany and Italy, and quite often on these trips was successful in selling tobacco. He studied chemistry during this time, and, after passing his examinations, opened a shop in what was Paddy Cleary’s Barber Shop, (now Barrow Vision.), Kilree Street. Because of Joe’s popularity and management ability, both factory and shop prospered during this time.

When my grandfather, Joseph O’Neill, died in 1901, all of his children were unmarried and working in the business, with the exception of Mother Gabriel, who joined the Presentation

Order in Bagenalstown, and later moved to Mooncoin, where she died. Bridget Mary married Thomas Phelan, draper and publican, Market Square, now the home of his daughter—in-law Mrs. Phelan. My mother, Margaret, married my father, Michael Sheill in 1907. Michael Sheill owned the premises opposite in the Market Square which he purchased in l903 on moving to Bagenalstown from his native Blackwater.

Michael’s brother, Larry Sheill, married Katie in l915. Theresa never married and continued to live with her sister Katie in the O’Neill home in Market Square. These four sisters lived all their lives in Market Square.

Though times were hard, the business of making tobacco prospered under the direction of John and Joe until 1911, when, for personal reasons, John left the business never to return to it. On his death in 1930 his share of the company returned to his family. Joe continued to operate the company along with his two sisters until his death in 1914.

My mother, Margaret, took charge of the business for two years and during the War, pipe tobacco was extremely popular. Being an only child I spent a great deal of time with my mother as she worked and I learned the skills of making pipe tobacco.

The tobacco leaf came in very large hogsheads (about 15ft. long and 8ft. high) by rail to Bagenalstown. It was normally purchased through an agent named Mr. Sprat at a cost of €200, without duty. It was taken to the factory from the railway station by a horse drawn four wheeled wagon. But it could only be opened in the presence of an Excise Officer, Patrick Newman from Rathduff at that time. The case, when pulled up on the loft by pulley and chain, was opened and then sorted into large and small leaf. About sixteen men were employed; who stripped the tobacco leaves from the stalks, making two distinctive groups. The leaves were then put into large caskets, sprinkled with water and oil, placed on a large table where four men on either side fed them into a rope making machine. It was twisted into continuous rope making strands, then put into a container and taken down to the lower floor where it was wrapped in oil paper and placed in a pressing machine for about four weeks. This machine was manned by Paddy O’Brien, whose son Paddy now lives in Pairc Mhuire. The classes of tobacco manufacture were roll (eight) and coil (four).

The factory operated completely on steam and, because of the very high pressure required, a boiler man was employed full time to manage the boilers. After four weeks of pressing, the tobacco was taken out and cut into lengths ready for sale.

The stalks, with chemicals added, were ground very finely, the resulting powder being several different varieties of snuff. The partaking of snuff was a popular indulgence at that time, and it was also a very profitable part of the business.

Two men worked in the shop while, in all, eighteen men were employed in the factory under the foremanship of a Mr. Flaherty who lived on the Parade. Mr. Jim Reddy, Kilcarrig Street. was an employee of my uncle, Larry, Sheill, in the factory and on his farm in Moneybeg. Michael Delaney was commercial salesman for the company in Ireland and in the office a Mr. Harney, who later left to work in the Cigar Divan, Carlow.

The company was very successful until 1921/22, when things began to change with the advent of flake tobacco and the increasing popularity of cigarettes. O’Neill’s plug tobacco required cutting with a sharp knife, and then a continuous flaking into the hand.

Changes were needed, but my uncle Larry, who was managing the company at that time had no family and had incurred a few industrial relations problems (today’s term). He became more involved in farming and so decided to close the factory and the machinery in l927. Perhaps if my uncle had purchased cigarette making machines the factory might be in operation today! He died in l933, but his widow, my aunt Kate, lived in the O’Neill home until her death in l965, aged 96 years.

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