'Ignorance is bliss'


Image: Photograph of Cleeve’s Irish Toffee tin (http://www.oldshopstuff.com/Shop/tabid/1248/ItemID/17596/Listing/Old-tin-Cleeves-Erin-Cream-Toffee/Default.aspx) (15 May 2017). 

by Ciara O'Donoghue

Ciara grew up in Mungret, a small village on the outskirts of Limerick City.  She is studying for a BA degree in History, Politics, Sociology, and Social Studies (HPSS), majoring in History and Politics. She has enjoyed this course as it has provided many opportunities such as doing a Co-op placement teaching English in Argentina and attending University in Germany through the Erasmus programme. Her choice of research topic for this piece was influenced by being from Limerick as Cleeve’s company has been an important institution in the social and economic history of city. Plus, Cleeve’s made very tasty toffee sweets!

Cleeve's Condensed Milk Company, Limerick, and the Irish revolution

Ignorance is bliss [1] Cleeve’s Condensed Milk Company of Ireland - also affectionately referred to as Cleeve’s Toffee Company - played a major role in economic and social life in Limerick throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth century. The company was established by Thomas Cleeve in the late nineteenth century and, up until its closure, employed thousands of workers in the Munster region.[2] This essay focuses on the relationship between Cleeve’s Condensed Milk Company of Ireland and the general population of Limerick during the Irish revolutionary period. Cleeve’s company experienced a great deal of success until this time, after which the company would see a change in ownership but still retain the Cleeve name.[3]

There is a wide range of historiography detailing this period of Irish history with detailed works from historians such as Dermot Keogh, Diarmaid Ferriter, and Terence Brown. The problem with a great deal of historiography of this period is that there is a strong emphasis placed on political history and cultural studies at the expense of social and economic history. This oversight is probably due to the fact that it is only recently that many crucial primary sources have become easily available. This is not to say that field of economic and social history has been completely neglected. Economic historians such as Cormac O’Grada and L.M. Cullen, with their respective books Ireland: a new economic history, 1780-1939 and An economic history of Ireland since 1660, have both comprised a detailed historical examination of Irish economic history with O’Grada’s work encompassing more up to date historiographical methods. In terms of Limerick social history, The general strike, 1919 by Jim Kemmy and Forgotten revolution. Limerick Soviet 1919: threat to British power in Ireland by Liam Cahill provide a comprehensive examination of the Limerick Soviet which is often a topic very sparsely discussed in the narrative of Irish history. It is hard to tell whether this oversight is intentionally due to Ireland’s foreign policy stances that were in contradiction of communism.

A journey through the history of the Cleeve's company shows the economic successes and downfalls of the condensed milk industry but also demonstrates that the company was not immune to the political instability and general unrest engulfing the country during the Irish revolution. Sir Thomas Cleeve was of English and French Huguenot descent.[4] He was born in Canada and did not arrive in Ireland until his late teens in the mid-nineteenth century. Limerick would become his permanent home and Lansdowne Road in Limerick would become the headquarters of Cleeve’s Condensed Milk Company. Cleeve and his company would quickly become prominent staples of the Munster region with Thomas Cleeve holding the title of the High Sheriff of Limerick on three separate occasions. For some time, Thomas Cleeve operated the company with his brother Fredrick giving the company another title of Cleeve’s Brothers Ltd.[5] The brothers managed the company until Thomas Cleeve’s death in 1908 when the company was passed on to Thomas’s son Francis Cleeve.[6] The company’s successful enterprise was not just contained in Limerick: it also had factories and creameries spread out in the Munster region in counties Tipperary, Cork, and Waterford.[7]

At its most profitable time during and after the First World War, the company was estimated to have employed about 600 people in its Lansdowne Road headquarters in Limerick, with around 3,000 workers and about 5,000 farmers in its factories and affiliated creameries spread around the Munster region. The company was also estimated to have a high number of female employees since the early beginnings of the company.[8] Furthermore the Cleeve’s company offered its employees an above average wage in relation to the estimated wage for factory workers of the United Kingdom in this period.[9] It can be undisputed that it was the most successful condensed milk company in Ireland and some might estimate the most successful condensed milk company in the United Kingdom by the post-war period of the Great War. The products made by the company, specifically its toffee sweets, were constantly being advertised as a quintessentially Irish product made by a quintessentially Irish company. There seems to have been something of a contradiction between the perception of the company and the reality of its creation and management because while it is true to say that the products were produced in Ireland, and the employees were Irish, the company was established and managed by a Canadian, Unionist family![10]

Irish economic historian Cormac O’Grada has argued that the success of the Irish creameries was directly related to Horace Plunkett’s co-operative movement and the modernisation of the agricultural industry in Ireland during this period.[11] Although this is accurate of the Irish creamery industry generally, the success of Cleeve’s company can also be argued as a by-product of the war; Britain required a high amount of condensed milk for its soldiers in the trenches at the front. Moreover, the Cleeve’s Irish company had strong family connections with canned food companies in Canada.[12] There is a common trend observed in the historiography of the co-operative movement in Ireland in which the words ‘co-operative’ and ‘creamery’ become interchangeable. This trend can have the effect of negating the fact that the majority of the earliest creameries in Ireland were not cooperative movements and, in some cases, the creameries were in direct competition with the cooperative movements of the era. The success of the Cleeve's company continued for a short time after the war. Even though this period was economically prosperous for the company, it was experiencing high levels of displaced product in Ireland due to the 1916 rebellion in Dublin - and subsequent war of independence (1919-21) and civil war (1922-23).[13]

The direct economic impact of the Irish revolution on Irish businesses can be observed today in the archives of the Property Losses (Ireland) Committee, held at the National Archives of Ireland. The PLIC was established in June 1916 to assess claims for damages to buildings and property as a result of the destruction caused by the 1916 rising. The Cleeve’s company made four claims to have lost a rounded estimate of £316 of dairy commodities which by today's standards would be worth £29,704.[14]The reasons stated for the lost products were mainly looting by citizens (corroborated by Southern and Western Railway Company) and one case of a seizure by British forces.[15] The company received most of the compensation it claimed for goods lost; however, the company still suffered a loss of an estimated £188. This was a big loss for the company and marked the beginning of the decline of the company which continued following the end of the war. After 1918, exports to Britain fell drastically, causing Cleeve’s company to downsize production and cut wages.[16] Thoughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many young Irish men around the country were being motivated by nationalist ideals promoted in part by volunteer armies but also in part by cultural and revivalist movements like the Gaelic Athletic Association.

Limerick was heavily influenced by the nationalist rhetoric of prominent political figures at this period, while some of the surrounding areas also became heavily influenced by communist soviet ideology from the Russian revolution in 1917.[17] Being a key economic force in the region, Cleeve’s company was not immune to the radicalisation of the Irish population during this revolutionary period. It can be deduced from the witness statements provided to the Bureau of Military History in the 1950s that a percentage of male clerical workers at Cleeve’s were involved in the Irish Volunteer army - although it is not fully clear to which degree these employees took part in revolutionary actions.[18] Cleeve’s company would also experience the effect of the influence of the communists’ ideology with many workers beginning to feel dissatisfied with mounting wage deductions.[19] The growing radicalisation of the Limerick citizens would cumulate with many Cleeve's workers taking industrial action in 1919 by going on strike and occupying the company’s factories demanding better wages and workers’ rights. The event that prompted these abrupt occupations and strikes was the imposition of martial law in Limerick: the city was declared a special military area by the British Army following the funeral of the prominent Irish Republican Army volunteer Robert Byrne in April.

The British army viewed the high attendance of the funeral as an act of defiance by the Limerick citizens and essentially put the city on lockdown requiring workers to get permits to navigate through the military presence. The Limerick United Trades and Labour Council declared a general strike with Cleeve’s workers being one of the first to take part. It was noted at the time ‘that not a single employee made an appearance’ and many of the workers in the factory during this period were noted as being women.[20] The strike would last for two weeks with Limerick declaring itself a ‘soviet’ style region and printing its own currency. This would be the first type of ‘soviet’ rebellion seen in Britain and Ireland. The strike ended after two weeks after a settlement was reached with the British army officials. Cleeve’s company would never fully recover from the industrial action taking by the employees in 1919. A further blow was the occupation in 1922 of one of its factories in Clonmel by the workers who hoisted a red flag on the roof.[21] This led to a meeting being held by the County Limerick Farmers Association wherein it was decided that Cleeve’s milk suppliers would not supply milk to all the Cleeve factories until the flag was taken down from the factory.[22] This issue would eventually be solved with Cleeve’s company paying compensation to the farmers. About sixteen of Cleeve’s factories would close following this event.[23] By 1927, it was announced that the Cleeve’s Condensed Milk Company had gone into liquidation with BB’s Cream buying the company.[24] However, the company would still retain the name Cleeve’s Condensed Milk Company and the Cleeve family would remain on in managerial roles.

The company continued to be an important centre for employment in Limerick and a source of pride for Limerick with the continued popularity of its toffee which had a famous advertisement campaign tagline: ‘ignorance is bliss’.[25] By the 1980s, however, the company once again went into liquidation and finally closed its headquarters at Lansdowne Road. It is evident that the Cleeve’s company was in some tumult after the First World War and during the Irish War of Independence. Although the company achieved immense levels of success during the war. However, with a significant losses incurred during the 1916 Rising, and the many incidents of industrial unrest occurring during the War of Independence, the company would never achieve the success of its former years. It would be an easy to assume that the Cleeve family would have been utterly opposed to the republican action that had taken place but it should be noticed that company contributed in 1950 to the 1916 memorial exhibition in Limerick in the Cleeve name.[26]


[1] Irish Examiner, 29 Aug 1924.

[2] The Nationalist, 11 May 2011.

[3] Irish Examiner, 14 Nov 1923.

[4] The Nationalist, 11 May 2011.

[5]Census of Ireland, 1901: Cleeve household return (Form A), National Archives of Ireland (hereafter NAI)(http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie/pages/1901/Limerick/Limerick_Urban... ) (23 March 2017).

[6] Irish Times, 19 June 1914.

[7] Dominic Haugh, ‘The ITGWU in Limerick, 1917—22’ in Saothar, 31 (2006), pp 27-42.

[8] Evening Herald, 14 April 1919.

[9] William Jenkins, ‘Capitalists and co-operators: agricultural transformation, contested space, and identity politics in South Tipperary, Ireland, 1890–1914’ in Journal of Historical Geography, 30 (2004), pp 87–111.

[10] Irish Independent, 02 Feb 1917.

[11] Cormac O Grada, ‘The beginnings of the Irish creamery system’, 1880-1914' in Economic History Review, 30 (1977), pp 284-305.

[12] Dominic Haugh, ‘The ITGWU in Limerick, 1917—22’, pp 27-42.

[13] Cleeve Brothers: 1916 Claims, 5th Dec. 1916, NAI, Property (Ireland) Losses Committee, PLIC/1/6151 (http://centenaries.nationalarchives.ie/centenaries/plic/results.jsp?surn...) (23 March 2017).

[14] Historical UK inflation rates and calculator (http://inflation.stephenmorley.org/ ) (March 29, 2017).

[15] Cleeve Brothers: 1916 Claims, 5th Dec. 1916, NAI, Property (Ireland) Losses Committee, PLIC/1/6151 (http://centenaries.nationalarchives.ie/centenaries/plic/results.jsp?surn...) (23 March 2017).

[16] Dominic Haugh, ‘The ITGWU in Limerick, 1917—22’ in Saothar, 31 (2006), pp 27-42.

[17] Meath Chronicle, 21 July 1990.

[18] Statement by Morgan Portley, 1957, Military Archives Ireland: Bureau of Military History, 1913-21, WS 1559, p.2 (http://www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie/reels/bmh/BMH.WS1559.pdf#page=2) (23 March 2017).

[19] Liam Cahill, Forgotten revolution: Limerick Soviet 1919: a threat to British power in Ireland (Dublin, 1990) pp 36-65.

[20] Evening Herald, 14 April 1919.

[21] New York Times, 02 Aug 1922.

[22] Nenagh News, 27 May 1922.

[23] Irish Times, 27 June 1923.

[24] Irish Times, 16 Apr 1927.

[25] Irish Examiner, 29 August 1924.

[26] Letter from F. McMahon, Manager, Cleeve's Confectionery (Limerick) Ltd., to E. Dore, 20 January 1950, Limerick 1916 Memorial Archive, 1996.1466.23 (http://museum.limerick.ie/index.php/Detail/Object/Show/object_id/19424) (23 March 2017).