I move the motion standing in my name:—
That the Dáil is of opinion that a conference representative of the flax growers, flax spinners and scutch mill-owners in Saorstát Eireann should be convened as early as practicable for the purpose of suggesting what action, if any, should be taken to ensure the stabilisation and development of the flax industry.
I ask the leave of the House to amend the motion by inserting after the word "convened" the words "by the Minister for Lands and Agriculture." Some Deputies may think that this is not a matter of much importance, but that it is of importance is shown, I think, by the fact that last season out of the 26 counties in the Free State flax was grown in 13 counties, and in 17 counties in 1925. It was grown in 20 counties in the year 1920. That flax was grown in 13 counties in the Free State last season shows that the industry is one of some importance, and I hope the House will give this motion favourable consideration. The conditions in Ireland greatly favour the production of flax. It is only in moist and humid climates that flax can be grown successfully, and in a way to produce a strong fibre. Hence it is that we have only a few countries in the world that can compete with us in the matter of flax-growing. Ireland has always been prominent in the growing of flax, and in doing so successfully. Therefore, I think we should not let the industry die out. We do a lot in trying to promote and propagate some crops which other countries in the world can produce better than we can. Another aspect of the question to be considered is that in the counties which grow flax we have the machinery and mills and the trained hands.
The mills that we have are as up-to-date as any that are to be found in any of the flax-growing countries in the world. We have the trained hands, able to take part in the handling and management of the crop in any quantity. Should the industry be allowed to die out, the result will be that these trained hands will have to go elsewhere.
I might mention that an acre of flax grown in the Free State gives employment to four hands all the year round, that is, from the growing of the crop on the farm until the linen leaves the weaving mill. Therefore, if you grow 4,000 acres of flax you can give employment to 16,000 hands. I am not going to put suggestions before the Minister as to what the result of the conference should be. I hope he will agree to call the conference together. If a conference representative of all parties really interested in the industry is called together, it will, I am sure, be able to hammer out a scheme that may be of the greatest benefit to this industry and to the country generally. Last season there were practically 7,000 acres under flax in the Free State. Putting the yield at an average of 30 stone to the acre, which is not an extraordinary yield—that would be much below the average in a good many counties—and taking the price that we got for it this year, the crop was value for £120,000. That, taken with the amount of employment that was given in the production of the crop in the Free State, is a very important matter. I might point out in that connection that, while the prices for all other classes of farm produce dropped last year, the price of flax soared.
During the past four years I have been asked repeatedly by those interested in flax production in the different counties in the Saorstát to bring forward a motion of this kind, but I did not feel in a position to do so during the period of depression that has continued since 1920. Now that we see that the tide has turned and that there is a possibility that the flax and linen industries are about to take their rightful place amongst the industries of the country, a place which they held for centuries, I think it is only right that this conference should be called together to suggest ways and means for promoting their welfare. During the past season the growing of flax was as profitable and economic a project to tackle as in the boom years from the end of 1917 to 1920. In 1919, we were getting from 35/- to 45/- a stone for flax. Every stone of flax that year cost about 32/- to produce. This season we got on an average 11/- a stone, and every stone of flax was produced at 4/-. Consequently it was as economical a proposition to grow flax this season, when there was a profit of from 6/- to 7/- a stone on it, as it was in the boom years.
According to figures supplied to me by the Department of Agriculture, the acreage under flax in 1920 was very high. It was about 34,000 acres. In 1926, the acreage was practically 7,000 acres. Speaking for my own county— the County Cork, where not only ourselves but our fathers before us were cradled in flax—we suffered very much more than any other of the flax-growing counties, for reasons which I am not going to mention now. As I stated before, it cost us 32/- a stone to produce flax in the boom years, in the year 1919-20, but for reasons that I need not go into we were unable to sell the flax until late in the year 1922 or early in 1923. In the year 1919-20 we could have got an average price of 30/- per stone for it—the price on the Belfast market at the time was from 30/- to 35/—but we had to hold it over for two years, and then all we could get for it was from 8/- to 10/- per stone. The result was that the acreage under flax dropped in my part of the county.
Another reason for the drop in that year was the closing down of the spinning-mill in Cork. The City of Cork can lay claim to having erected the first mill in which flax was spun by machinery in Ireland. It was erected over 150 years ago. The present structure was built and fully equipped in 1854, and normally employed 900 hands. In pre-war days it had a turnover of £125,000 a year, while during the boom years the turnover reached practically £350,000. The value put on a spinning-mill may be gauged from the fact that if you were to put up an up-to-date one now like that, the cost would be at least a quarter of a million. The machinery in the Cork mill is as up-to-date as any to be found in any of the mills in the North or in any other place where they have spinning-mills. The skilled hands are still in Cork City to handle the flax, just as they are in the country. As regards the conference that was held by the Department of Agriculture twenty-five or thirty years ago with regard to the revival of the flax industry, what was wrong with it was, I believe, that the spinners, those at the finishing end of the business, were not brought in touch with those at the other end of it.
There was no cohesion between them. This motion is intended to get that cohesion. Although this factory is not working, the representatives of it are still there to attend the conference and give us the benefit of their advice, and, I believe, some good would result.
I have before me the profit and loss accounts of the factory from 1899 up to 1923, when the factory ceased to work. During that time there were only four years in which there was a loss. These years included 1920, 1921, 1922, and 1923, when everybody suffered losses. The losses were small compared with the losses that some of us suffered at that time. From 1899 to 1920 a profit was shown, and a dividend and bonus paid each year, except in 1901. I appeal to the Minister to bring this conference into being, so that we may be able to place this industry on a solid foundation. As a result of the war, the factory lost its market abroad, owing to Government control. They had formerly Continental and American markets, although the bulk was sold in Belfast. When the depression came, they were not able to recover their foreign markets. Our Government has trade emissaries on the Continent and in America, which is the principal market for Irish linen. Irish linen holds the premier place in the world—there is no other linen like it. If our trade emissaries were able to provide markets for our linen it would be of great benefit to the country. The factory used to work about 780 tons of flax per year. If the factory were working it would mean a second market for the flax-growing farmers. To-day the one and only market they have is Belfast. If this factory were working it would supply an alternative market for practically half the flax produced this year in the southern portion of the Free State.
I again appeal to the Minister to call this conference together. If he does so, I am confident it will have good results. It would not be establishing a precedent. We had a Flax Advisory Committee under the old regime. When you are dealing with a highly technical matter such as this, the advice of those who are engaged in the industry would be very valuable. I hope that the Minister will give favourable consideration to my motion, and see that the conference is called at the earliest possible moment, in order to try and revive one of our oldest industries.