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Drumshanbo: ‘The gin took off beyond our wildest dreams’

Thirty years ago the closures of three big employers inflicted huge trauma on the Leitrim town. But now it is thriving again and, driven by a vibrant food and drink sector, plans are in place for even further growth

Drumshanbo man Noel McPartland was reminded of a trip he made to Saudi Arabia almost 50 years ago when Pat Rigney recently announced a further €10 million investment in the Shed Distillery. The distillery’s flagship brand, Drumshanbo Gunpowder Irish Gin, is sold in more than 80 countries around the world, but long before it became a fashionable tipple McPartland was selling another product made in Drumshanbo to far-flung markets.

His success as sales manager with Lairds Jam, notably in the Middle East, meant that the company had to build a bigger factory which is now home to the Food Hub, where the Shed Distillery and another half dozen businesses are located.

“I covered the Middle East, the US and the Far East, selling jam,” says the 87-year-old who also remembers being part of an Irish trade mission to Libya in the 1970s, which involved sitting in a tent in the desert for an hour with Col Gadafy (“a very peculiar man”) promoting Bo Peep jam from Drumshanbo.

“We hit the jackpot in Saudi Arabia in 1977 when we got a contract for over a million jars of jam. That was the reason the new factory had to be built as we outgrew the old factory on Church Street,” says the Leitrim man. He recalls a time when many of the labels leaving the Drumshanbo factory were in Arabic.

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McPartland was one of the founder members of Drumshanbo Community Council (DCC) set up in response to the closures of the Arigna coal mines, the Arigna power station and Lairds, which all happened over a relatively short period in the 1990s. The closures meant the loss of around 500 wage packets locally, a huge trauma for the town.

The DCC secured a 99-year lease on the jam factory building where the Food Hub was established in 2004, in time attracting established players in the food and drinks sector such as McNiff’s Boxty, Chef in a Box and, in 2013, the Shed Distillery.

It’s not lost on McPartland that the distillery now employs 100 people – almost as many as Lairds when it closed its doors after 60 years in the town.

Fergal McPartland, son of Noel and manager of the Food Hub, points out that there are now 180 jobs in the seven businesses located there, and with a second food hub, to be known as the Leitrim Food Enterprise Zone, planned for the town, there is an air of optimism around.

The second hub will open its doors next April when Chef in a Box, providers of ready-made meals, and currently with a workforce of 50, moves to the former shoe factory on the Dowra road, having outgrown its present base.

Fergal and Enda McGloin, chairman of the DCC and also a Fine Gael county councillor, were among those who met Rigney on what he described as that “fateful day in 2013″ when he came to talk to the community about the possibility of locating a distillery in the town.

McGloin says they were lucky they succeeded in attracting such a “gold-plated company” and believes the presence of the Food Hub was an attraction as it meant the company did not have to start from scratch on a greenfield site. “The gin took off beyond our wildest dreams,” says the DCC chairman.

Rigney recalls initial concerns but he was impressed by the community spirit and the sense of “everyone pulling together” when he first visited Drumshanbo.

“The facilities, to be honest, were not in great shape at the time. There was a lot of unemployment, they did not have the best wifi connections. They were down on their luck a little bit. We started with one job, and then two and then three.” He says that for the first five years he held down a number of other jobs himself, as he had children at school and college.

Ten years and a dizzying array of accolades on, the €10 million investment announcement has buoyed locals who see it as a further commitment to the town by the Dubliner whose parents Mary and Seamus met in Drumshanbo in the 1950s. She was a book-keeper in the nearby Arigna Mines and he came to audit the books there and boarded in the town.

But Rigney doesn’t allow himself to become too misty-eyed when it comes to business. He is conscious of “headwinds in the industry” and says he doesn’t want get into trouble by “going too far too fast”.

“I am very aware that we have a huge sense of responsibility to the community and to everybody who works there so we will be very very prudent in how we expand.”

Part of the investment is earmarked for laying down more whiskey and expanding the ‘Visitor Experience’, with tours attracting 30,000 annually.

The workforce, which includes 15 people from the local Ukrainian community, will remain at around 100 for the foreseeable future.

“We also have seven amazing young people on a graduate development programme and one of them is Ukrainian,” says Rigney. “She is a young lady who left Kherson in a car, under fire, with her mother and a cat, an unbelievable story. And she is only 24.”

The connection to the Laird family continues as the Shed Distillery is set to fund the refurbishment of the local Methodist church, including a historic organ once played for Queen Victoria when she visited Dublin.

Caleb Laird, who founded the jam factory in 1934 – and who started to generate electricity in the town in 1905, 50 years before the rural electrification scheme reached there – was a stalwart of the local Methodist church. When he bought the organ for the church, the roof had to be taken off to install it.

Rigney attended the final service there on December 3rd.

He has also established links with another Drumshanbo religious institution that has literally put a roof over his head. When he heard that that the Poor Clares, a local enclosed order of nuns, had re-roofed the convent, he bought the slates and used them for the roof of the Visitor Experience centre, which was officially opened in 2021.

“Noel had me enrolled with the Sisters, which I understand means they pray for me on a regular basis – which I need,” he says.

Whatever about prayers, McGloin and Fergal McPartland know the town needs investment to ensure that it continues to grow and both have been successful over the years in accessing various funding sources such as the International Fund for Ireland, Enterprise Ireland and the Rural Regeneration Development Fund.

Fergal McPartland says close to €4 million will be spent on the first phase of the new hub while a second phase, incorporating a food innovation and education centre with links to Atlantic Technological University Sligo, formerly IT Sligo, will involve a further €3 million investment. “All this in an old IDA advance factory which was idle for the best part of 40 years,” he says.

He points out that food grade infrastructure is expensive to provide and after choosing to specialise in that area, Drumshanbo has a reputation within the sector. “Obviously there was a tradition of food from Lairds time. We didn’t just pluck it out of the air.”

Karol Scollan, who runs the Gala supermarket in the town, says Drumshanbo now feels quite upbeat, something which would have been hard to envisage when Lairds and the coal mines closed.

The town lost its two banks and its filling station and the number of pubs is down from 17, when the Arigna mines were open, to six.

But Scollan says anything that creates more jobs in the Food Hub “is great for my business and a lot of other businesses”.

Meanwhile, the closure of the Bank of Ireland (in a main street premises built by Caleb Laird) two years ago has presented another challenge for DCC. In a joint venture with Leitrim County Council, it hopes to establish a remote working hub there alongside a number of artisan shops, a riverside walk and a town square.

“We have acquired the bank and the building next door. All we need now is planning and the funding,” says McGloin. “The planning notice has gone up on the site.”

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