FOR over thirty years, UNIFI in Letterkenny was the town’s major employer. At its height the huge Kiltoy site employed up to 780 people.
When the gates of the textile plant were chained shut for the last time back in 2004, with the loss of nearly 300 jobs, there were fears that it could stifle the town’s rapid growth.
Competition from overseas and the loss of major contracts were cited at the time as being the main reasons for the firm’s manufacturing demise.
My own parents worked in Courtaulds-Lirelle which became UNIFI Textured Yarns, Europe Ltd. My mother, Rose, was the first company nurse, my father, Danny, was a security guard while I even spent a summer in Drawtex!
It was a place where friendships were formed and families reared on the wages. Every department was a tribe and every shift had its own personality. It was a town within a town.
To put it in context, UNIFI Textured Yarns, Europe Ltd. used more electricity than Sligo while the plant also had its own water supply.
Later this month, ‘Unified’ will take all of those personal stories and wrap them up in one big rip-roaring, all-singing extravaganza in An Grianán Theatre.
Written by Guy Le Jeune and directed by David Grant, with original music by Fionn Robinson and choreography by Aoife Toner, ‘Unified’ celebrates the sounds and stories of that era.
Guy Le Jeune, who also wrote ‘Fiesta’, is a native of Hinckley in Leicestershire but he’s called Letterkenny home for the past 17 years.
“I enjoy making theatre from people’s memories. It’s incredibly rewarding sitting at the back of the auditorium and hearing people turn around to one another and say: I remember that,” he said.
So why was an Englishman asked to write a musical about what was a Letterkenny institution?
Sock and underwear capital
“Hinckley used to be the sock and underwear capital of England. Whenever you walked through the town you could hear the chatter of knitting machines but that’s all gone. It’s the same story here in the North West. We had Adria in Strabane, the shirt factories in Derry, Fruit of the Loom in Buncrana and Derry, and Unifi.
“Hundreds of jobs disappeared when machinery was shipped out to Vietnam, Morocco, Turkey or wherever. Seeing that history disappear had a profound effect on so many people,” he explained.
Today, the Unifi site – once ear-marked for a private hospital and retail units – lies vacant.
“I walk my dog around the Unifi site and nature has taken over with trees starting to grow through the concrete. Hares and goldfinches follow you around.
“However, it you delve a little deeper you’ll still see electronic parts sticking out of the ground and pieces of plastic as you wander through the site. This place had a history,” he said.
Having initially been approached by Dessie Larkin, Chair of the Earagail Arts Festival (and former Unifi employee), Guy decided to speak to some ex Unifi people – including Brian Murray, Danny Ruddy and Ken McIntyre – to hear more about their memories and stories.
“I was then put in touch with about thirty people who chatted away but, as is always the case, I realised that I had far too much stuff.
“I soon found out though that the real character in the story was the building. It was operating 365 days a year. It had its own unique noises, smells and vibrations. It had a personality all of its own. Here it was going 24 hours, four shifts, a day and there were people, doing the same job, who never got to meet one another. It was as if there was a ghost floating around the place,” he said.
Guy not only wanted to tell the story of the workers and management but also the place and the time.
“When we first talked about the idea it was going to be ‘Unifi, the play’ but I thought that might be a bit dull so we switched it it Unified, the musical,” he said.
“This is a celebration, a sing-along about a place that was effectively a city within a city and yet the same characters come through again and again.
“Whether you knew nothing about Unifi, or you worked there for thirty years, the show has something for everyone. If you did work there you’ll probably recognise one or two of the characters although nobody is named,” he laughed.
To celebrate the sounds of the era, the audience will hear ‘Elvis’ singing about acronyms, country and western tunes, some blues, a bit of rock and roll, rap and even some Motown.
The musical also takes time to look at the globalisation issue but the writer concludes that there were a lot more positives than negatives to come out of Unifi’s thirty years in Letterkenny
“Without Unifi and its American direct foreign investment I very much doubt that we would have the likes of Pramerica, Boston Scientific, Zeus and United Health Care here today. Workers came out of the place better trained than anyone else around and a lot of them walked straight into new jobs because of the training they received in Unifi.”
‘Unified’ runs from Thursday 21st July – Saturday 23rd July in An Grianán Theatre and tickets cost €15/€12. There will also be an opportunity to celebrate the sound of the era with the Unified after-show gig with R.A.W. on Thursday 21st July (included in the price of the theatre ticket). It is funded by The Arts Council of Ireland, Fáilte Ireland and Donegal County Council.
While the brothers kept in contact over the years through regular letters and Christmas cards they had never seen...