Magee of Donegal – History
The story of Magee is really the story of the middleman turned manufacturer.
During the Christmas holidays from school in 1886, two brothers, Tom and Robert Temple, whose home was a farm near Killygordan, went to do a bit of shooting. Following the shoot, they walked into Stranorlar where they sold woodcock to Kees’s hotel. Feeling hungry, one of them recalled that a cousin of their mother had a shop in the twin town of Ballybofey. Mr and Mrs Magee received the boys warmly and after the meal the two of them took the road home. A few weeks later the Magees had another visitor, Mr Magee’s brother, John, who had opened a retail drapery shop on the Diamond in Donegal town in 1866. John was looking for a new apprentice to take into his shop and consulted his brother about a choice. Remembering Robert Temple, Mr Magee took his brother in his pony and trap to Killygordan to meet the boy. John took a liking to Robert and his parents agreed to the arrangement. In 1887 he joined the household of John Magee in Donegal and began to learn the skills of a counter salesman.
In 1901 Robert told John Magee that he would like to go to another town and open his own shop. John, after 35 years in business in Donegal felt inclined to retire so he offered Robert a partnership with himself becoming the ‘sleeping partner’, and for Robert to buy him out over the long term. They agreed and by 1910 Robert Temple had paid off John Magee and became the sole proprietor of Magee of Donegal. A few cottage weavers were commissioned to produce webs of tweed exclusively for Magee. It soon became apparent that it was difficult to obtain accurate repeat patterns so, in an attempt at quality control, patterns were sent with each order. Shortly after this, yarn began to be supplied to each weaver with the pattern to draft he was to weave. At this stage weavers made their own warps.
During the First World War, Mr Temple built a loom shed in his warehouse and Jo O’Donnell, a gifted weaver from Ardara was engaged to teach and supervise a small group of weavers. Within a year Jo was overseeing the work of about 10 weavers. In 1931 Robert’s son, Howard joined the business, becoming Managing Director in 1949.
After World War 2, Colonel Robert Harris, Howard’s brother in law joined the firm and took control of the weaving division. While developing lighter weaver for the changes in fashion, he suggested to Aer Lingus that their hostesses could not represent their country better than dressed in native tweed. The airline examined the idea and drew up a contract with Magee for a design of tweed exclusive to them.
When orders were short in the late 1940s and early 1950s Magee rented a bog and engaged their outworker weavers to cut turf, to keep them from unemployment.
During the 1960s and 1970s the main Donegal tweed companies began installing power looms, which could weave fabric at four times the rate of a handwoven cloth. At this stage Magee began focusing on machine woven cloth as it was more commercial to produce.
Howard’s son Lynn, joined the firm in 1974 after completing a business degree in Trinity college, in 1985 he was made Managing Director.
In the 1980s the number of outweavers engaged by Magee was approximately 100, today this is just about 10. Lynn notes the handweavers are an important historical aspect of the company and give it a marketing edge. However he feels the technical designs demanded by the fashion industry cannot be matched by handweavers and if they didn’t engage power looms they’d not be where they are today.
Today Lynn’s children Charlotte and Patrick both work for Magee. Charlotte is head of the clothing design team and Patrick looks after wholesale customers in Ireland and the UK. Another generation ready to take the reins of this Donegal institution.
You can visit Magee’s website on www.magee1866.com or by calling into their store at the Diamond in Donegal town.
Article adapted from “This is Donegal Tweed” by Judith Hoad (1987). Copies available to purchase from IrishTweed.com