In the 1921 the Gallagher family set up a shirt factory in Lifford (Donegal), having had an involvement in shirt-making in Strabane from about 1888. The Strabane business had petered out, lost by grandfather Paul Gallagher in the late 1920s as he invested in Dunlop shares in the stockmarket all the way from £2 to £12 and back down again to £1. The factory set up in 1921 existed until 1967 and I had an involvement in it for six years , 1961 to 1967. When this factory was established in 1921 it took a couple of years to decide which side of the border it was on. Seemingly with partition there was ambivalence for a time on the exact border positioning. When the border was established it was between the Gallagher residence in Strabane and the factory in Lifford.
The girls (aged 14-17) in the factory in Lifford walked to work (some 4 or 5 miles). The factory had only a pot bellied stove to heat it that had to be lit when the first person came in. It would register little heat until about 10 a.m. There was a two-bar electric fire in the office and a one-bar fire for “Rowdy” the cocker spaniel in a little front room.
Girls started to work at 14 and had to serve a 5 year apprenticeship. In the first year (paid £1-19-1) they would only do menial jobs, cutting threads off shirts, sweeping and cleaning and boiling up the “Burco” boiler. In their second year wages increased to £2-1-3 but on becoming 16 (i.e. 3rd year) they had to stamp a card (i.e. Social Insurance – 4/6 a week) and although their earnings increased the take home went below £2 again. When fully qualified after 5 years the earnings were £6 but this depended on production.
Initially the system was “collective” insofar as the factory had to produce 40 dozen a day and at this everyone got paid. This changed to “piece work” once we had the Max Johnstone system in place. There was a problem with the former system as obviously some jobs are easier than others so half your staff could be gone by 3 p.m. and the others would struggle to finish at 6.00 p.m. (To put a collar on a shirt took 2.15 minutes, to attach sleeves and sides only 1.20 minutes etc.) When the change to piece work was made a person had to produce 480 minutes of wok a day (i.e. 60 minutes x 8 hours) but was paid a bonus per minute on anything produced over 480. The best girls would produce 600+ minutes giving them 125%+ pay (i.e. £6.00 + £1.50). If anyone produced 800 minutes it was obvious that the rate of minutes for the job was “loose” and had to be studied (i.e. work study) and reduced.
There was no music in the workplace and talking was forbidden, hence the girls worked very hard for an hour and then went to the toilets for a smoke. The toilets were in a constant smog. Everyone walked home after work, none had cars and only a few had bicycles. The canteen had a couple of bare deal tables and the “Burco”. All brought own lunch and there were no facilities to cook anything.
Wages were paid in cash, calculated every Thursday and separate envelopes made out for everyone (a long slow process) containing the pay and very little information.
No one ever complained and when the factory eventually closed everyone cried their eyes out.