1876 - 1989

Images from the Collen Archive

The Library of Trinity College Dublin

The Collen Archive contains the historical records of an Irish construction and engineering business; it offers an important resource for research on Ireland’s built environment and aspects of social, economic and cultural development.

The Collen Archive
TCD MS 11482

In September 2014, the Library of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin, began a one-year project to catalogue and preserve the Collen Archive. The Archive, together with project funding, was generously donated by Collen Group Limited. It contains historic company records dating from c 1879 to 1987; these include thousands of photographs and negatives, over fifty volumes of financial records, minutes, copy letters, and some personal research papers.

The Collen family’s involvement with the building trade dates back to 1810, when the stonemason John Collen, and later his son Thomas, were active at Tandragee in County Armagh. 
Thomas’ sons, especially the entrepreneurial John, catalysed the family building enterprise. In 1867, John initiated the opening of an office at Portadown. His business achievements later led to social success, notably in 1906, when he was appointed as a deputy lieutenant of County Armagh.
By 1872, John had opened another builders’ yard and an office in Dublin. 

A bespoke monogram plaque, incorporating the letters 'CB' (Collen Brothers) and miniature heads of the brothers John and Thomas Collen, illustrated their pride in the family business.

The Collen business experienced many changes during the early 20th century. John Collen’s death in May 1921 marked the end of an era for the family. Developments on the national stage, including two World Wars, the Easter Rising and the partition of Ireland, changed the environment in which the company operated. In 1949, it separated into two branches. Collen Brothers Limited continued to trade in Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, in the Republic, the brothers Standish and Lyal, both graduates of the School of Engineering at Trinity College Dublin, led the newly formed Collen Brothers (Dublin) Limited.

Experience and Innovation
The new company, Collen Brothers (Dublin) Limited, combined experience with innovation. A period of rapid expansion began in the late 1950s; this led to an increase in employee numbers and more managerial delegation. However, Standish and Lyal remained the key decision makers. The atmosphere was very much that of a family business with a strong sense of community.
During the 1950s, Standish Collen used expertise developed during his wartime service with the Royal Engineers to establish Collen as the sole supplier of Bailey bridges in Ireland. 
In the 1960s, Lyal Collen initiated the creation of an in-house design office; it was later incorporated as Collen Design Limited. This enabled the company to offer clients a complete design-and-build service, something which was quite unusual in Ireland at the time.

In the 1970s, the introduction of precast prestressed concrete Double Tee beams marked another new departure for Collen, and its subsidiary, Cretestone Limited. The Double Tees were manufactured off site, thus reducing turnaround time; they could withstand heavy loads and had a large span to accommodate large open interiors.

Economic and Industrial Development
Collen’s work was often closely intertwined with Ireland’s economic and industrial development, especially in the 1960s. At Dublin Port, the company designed and built Ireland’s first roll-on roll-off car ferry terminal in just nine months, ready for the British & Irish Steam Packet Company (B&I) Dublin-Liverpool car ferry service to begin in May 1968. 

Other projects completed by Collen at Dublin Port included the construction of new quay walls, container ferry terminals, and commercial buildings. These schemes were facilitated by a new system for the production of caissons (watertight retaining structures), conceived by Collen engineers.

In a new departure during the late 1960s, Collen acquired land at Tallaght, just outside Dublin City, and developed what became the country’s largest industrial estate. The company prepared and sold factory sites; they often derived a double benefit by subsequently securing building contracts from the site purchasers. 

The industrial estate at Tallaght attracted a number of high profile companies including Irish Biscuits Limited (formed by the merger of W.R. Jacob’s and Boland’s).

The Swiss pharmaceutical firm Sandoz also acquired premises at Tallaght.

Societal and Cultural Development
Construction projects which reflected aspects of Irish society and culture were a regular feature of Collen’s business. The company won several contracts to build community facilities. At Abbeyleix, Collen reconstructed the old fever hospital, replacing it with a new hospital, which opened in September 1936; the project was financed by the Irish Free State Hospitals’ Sweepstakes lottery scheme.
Collen also engaged in the construction of recreation and leisure facilities. In the early 1950s, the company constructed extra terracing for the Gaelic Athletic Association, as part of an improvement scheme at the prestigious Croke Park Stadium.
The Royal Dublin Society was another prestigious client from whom Collen regularly won contracts. These included major projects such as the construction of Sandymount Hall and the Simmonscourt Pavilion (completed in 1949 and 1975), as well as renovation and reconstruction projects such as the new library (completed in 1965).
In 1987, Collen built a striking new clubhouse for Howth Yacht Club, following a design competition run by the Club in conjunction with the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland.
Claire Allen & Estelle Gittins
Credits: Story

Curation: Claire Allen & Estelle Gittins
Manuscripts & Archives Research Library

Images: Gillian Whelan & Sharon Sutton
Digital Resources & Imaging Services

Technical support: Greg Sheaf
Digital Systems and Services

Copyright Acknowledgements

Copyright in images has been acknowledged where possible. In those instances where we have been unable to establish ownership of copyright we would be grateful for assistance in updating our records.

We are grateful to Davison & Associates Ltd., Fennell Photography, and Brian McEvoy for permission to reproduce images.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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