At age 11 or 12, Valerie Clarke got a tour of the Lemon and Co. sweet factory in Drumcondra.
Now aged 72, she still recalls the taste of those sweets, she says. Sweets these days just don’t taste the same to her.
“The brand name was bought years later but none of them are the same as the original taste we had back then,” she says.
Factory tours were quite common then, she says. But a sweet factory tour? That was a major thrill. “We were talking about it for ages afterwards,” she says.
“We were all waiting in a room, there were glass cases with all different types of sweets in it and we were nearly dribbling looking at them,” she says.
The girls were brought out onto the factory lines to witness the various types of sweets being made and sorted, she says.
It was at the end that they got some sweets to try. “I’ll always remember the tin boxes. It was a single layer of a variety of their sweets and we were able to use them as pencil cases afterwards,” says Clarke.
In recent months, Dublin City Council historian in residence Cormac Moore has been giving talks around the city on this history of Lemon’s Pure Sweets, as Lemon and Co. was originally known.
He’s been surprised by the reaction, he says – with some attended by as many as a hundred people.
Former workers, and childhood consumers, and even members of the Lemon family – one drove from Belfast to Drumcondra to attend a talk – have stopped in to hear what he has to say.
“The nostalgia of childhood memories struck me,” Moore says. “People have a great affinity for confectionary. Their eyes light up when they think of long-forgotten sweets they had as children.”
Lemon and Company
Moore got reeled in by the Clontarf Historical Society, he says.
They handed him a brief history of the company compiled by a descendant of the Lemon family, Mary E. Lemon, who lives in the United States.
From that beginning, and additional research, he put together a chapter on the company for the book History on Your Doorstep Volume 2 (which is available in all Dublin City Council libraries).
According to that chapter, Graham Lemon started Ireland’s first major confectionery business in Capel Street in the early 1840s. At first, he made the sweets himself by hand, gaining a reputation for excellence.
In 1847, Lemon moved to a larger premises in 49 Lower Sackville Street, now O’Connell Street. His ornate sign for “The Confectioner’s Hall” is still there today, one storey above the modern shop sign for Foot Locker, beside McDonalds.
The Confectioner’s Hall was a factory as well as a shop. There, Lemon sold barley sugar, mint humbugs, and “yellow man” rock.
Lemon grew wealthy, buying up properties in the city – so many, in fact, on Little Grafton Street, off Grafton Street, that the street was eventually renamed Lemon Street.
“The whole story is fascinating,” says Moore. In 1853, the Great Industrial Exhibition came to Dublin and Lemon got a chance to impress Queen Victoria by demonstrating how to make sweets using steam.
The queen bought some of his sweets for her children. She returned to Dublin in 1900 and it is recorded that she “specially patronised Lemon and Co for their Easter novelties and expressed her appreciation for their products”, the book chapter says.
A Sweet, Sweet Taste
When the rebellion broke out in 1916, the adults got a taste for freedom but the kids of Dublin’s inner-city got a taste for something even sweeter.
“A lot of the kids were from slums and couldn’t afford sweetshops,” says Moore. “So, in the first few days of the Rising, they took the opportunity to get treats they normally couldn’t afford.”
Poet and novelist James Stephens writes in The Insurrection in Dublin that a lot of looting took place during the Easter Rising and among the favourite targets were sweet shops.
“There is something comical in this looting of sweet shops – something almost innocent and child-like,” he writes. “Possibly most of the looters are children having the sole gorge of their lives.”
“They have tasted sweetstuffs, they had never toothed before … and until they die the insurrection of 1916 will have a sweet savour for them,” writes Stephens.
Naturally, Lemon’s Confectioner’s Hall shop and factory on O’Connell Street was thoroughly looted during the rebellion. Lemon and Company later received compensation of £630.
A Golden Era for Sweets
Following the war of independence “the Irish free state imposed tariffs on foreign confectionary so that brought a boom to indigenous companies”, says Moore. “Sweet factories sprung up.”
The Confectioner’s Hall in O’Connell Street could no longer cope with demand. In 1926, Lemon and Company opened a new factory at Millmount Place, in Drumcondra. Today, there are homes on the site.
From the 1940s through to the 1960s, Lemon’s were regular advertisers in newspapers. They employed a well-known slogan: “This is Saturday, This is Lemon’s day.”
But, says Moore, they had to abandon it. They discovered people were not buying their sweets on other days of the week, he says.
Lemon and Co. were popular as an employer, says Moore. Many of their employees were women.
Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who hails from the Drumcondra area, recalls in his autobiography that the workers sometimes threw broken sweets to the children out the windows.
Finally, in the 1970s when the tariff barriers came down, the indigenous confectionary companies found they didn’t have the economies of scale to make competing with international companies viable.
Lemon’s struggled and was bought out by Irish Tea Merchants in 1979. Barker & Dobson took over the Drumcondra factory saving 130 jobs, but the factory closed soon anyway, in 1983. It’s been replaced by housing.
These days, just the Lemon and Co. brand name has survived. It’s still used by Valeo Foods on its Chocolate Macaroons and Season’s Greetings, amongst other sweets.
The next talk by Moore on Lemon’s and Co. is due to take place on 3 February at Richmond Barracks in Inchicore.
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