The idea of a guy ‘who’s done good’ is something that tugs at the heartstrings. The self-made man who’s battled adversity and emerged a better man is as old as time itself.
One such man is Noel Sweeney, living proof a man who has battled the odds of life and overcome the challenges he’s faced. A native of Corigeen, Tulsk, Noel emigrated to England in the 1960’s to become a leading business man, not alone among the Irish diaspora but also in the UK.
Not only that, but Noel is a man that hasn’t lost his connections with home. In recent years, Noel has significantly invested in his local community as a means of saying ‘thank-you’ to the people and places who have shaped and formed him as an individual.
The Tulsk native has supported many local and charitable organisations in his home place, among them Tulsk GAA club, Elphin and Strokestown Agricultural Shows and many other community and voluntary led projects.
It is this generosity of spirit and fidelity to the forces that have made him the individual he is that has resulted in Noel receiving a Papal Knighthood, the Order of St. Gregory, from his holiness, Pope Francis.
Noel will be invested in the order on March 3rd at a special ceremony in his local Church in Chasetown, England. The honour is bestowed upon Roman Catholics in recognition of their personal service to the Holy See and to the Roman Catholic Church. The award recognises recipients’ unusual labours, their support of the Holy See and examples they set in their communities.
The award, known as the Order of St Gregory the Great will be conferred upon Noel by the Archbishop of Birmingham, Bernard Longley at a service at St Joseph’s in Burntwood.
The Order of St. Gregory the Great is one of the five Orders of Knighthood of the Holy See.
The title was established on 1 September 1831 by the then Pope Gregory XVI, seven months after his election. Among the previous recipients are the late EU Commissioner and former Attorney General, Peter Sutherland, former Manchester United manager Matt Busby, former Irish politician and Nobel Peace Prize winner John Hume and the late comedian, Frank Carson.
In 1974, Noel formed Chasetown Civil Engineering Limited. Its success, he claims, was down to the people it employed, which he adds, “were, and are, the cream of the industry. “ In 1990 the company employed 105 people.
Chasetown has built roads and sewers for most of the housebuilders in the country and has an enviable reputation for service and quality. Another company of his, Cameron Homes Limited was formed 25 years ago and builds some 400 houses per annum. Today, Noel’s businesses are recognised by the Home Builders Federation (HBF) as a five-star enterprise.
Five years ago, Noel acquired Galliers Homes Limited; a well-respected and long-established house builder-based Shrewsbury. Today, Cameron Homes Ltd. operates with three regional offices covering the Midlands.
Recently established Keon Homes is a new housing diversion that will be building Social Housing, focusing on building affordable homes in villages for young people who at present can’t afford to get on the housing ladder
All of the Companies operate independently, sharing common values and beliefs. They form a group of companies under the banner of Tara Developments Limited and employ over a little under 1,000 people with a turnover in excess of £200m per annum.
Born in Corrigan 26th December 1943, Noel is the second of eight children, describing his childhood as “a wonderful upbringing on the farm”, adding: “My Mother and Father were outstanding workers, it was only later in life that I realised that we were largely self-sufficient; cows for milk and beef, using the orchard for fruit and pigs for bacon and ham.
“The greatest memory I have outside my family, is my neighbours. Without them, life would have been very different. Even in that not so distant past, our farm and our parents with all eight of the children working away were always looked after.
“In those bygone days, the fair at Elphin or Strokestown, Mass on Sundays or watching St Brendan’s GAA club and playing for them. That’s not forgetting the radio or the carnivals which were the pastimes of the day” recalls Noel with fond recollection.
Noel was educated at the local school in Corraslira and later as a boarder at Summerhill College in Sligo: “Unlike some of the pupils, I now look back and say to myself that the punishments I got, which were more than frequent, were deserved!
“We were taught by twenty-two priests and two teachers the only priest left with us today is Monsg. Peader Lavin. Summerhill did not fail me; I failed Summerhill but still left with my intermediate with two honours and a pass Leaving Certificate. Hopefully my twelve grand-children will not read this!
“I started work at the age of 19 in Sligo, where I did well and became Manager of a factory in Longford at the age of 26. I was married to Carmel at the age of 21, and am still married today. I came to England in January 1972, arriving at the Stork Hotel in Liverpool.
“I got into a conversation with a Junior Government Minister and a local businessman who organised a meeting for me with a number of meat importers. I had £300 to my name, and backed Sandy Barclay, who was riding for Noel Murless in all seven races. I was left with nothing by the seventh race, not even two pence to call my friend, so no meeting with the meat importers, or a job!
“I had no money. My only possession was my wedding ring and a camera. Next stop, the pawn shop where I gave all my worldly possessions other than my wonderful wife and two children” says Noel, looking back on those days of hardship.
“With the help of the Irish Hotel Manager, I boarded the train at Liverpool Lime Street travelling to Birmingham. When I arrived, with the equivalent of 68p, I needed to get to Sparkhill but before I got there my fare ran out.
“I walked for what seemed miles. During the following days, I went for an interview as an Office Manager in an international business and to my amazement, was offered the job. That day (a Friday), on my way back from the interview, I met a friend from Summerhill.
“That friend left after completing his then Inter Cert and was now working in Birmingham on a buildings site. That weekend, I went out and worked with him earning £47. I recognised that I was better with the pen than the shovel very quickly.
“Carmel my wife and the two children came to Birmingham in April 1972. Birmingham was very different to Roscommon. We stayed in Birmingham for three months before we saw an advertisement in the local free paper for a ‘house for sale’ in Chasetown, Staffordshire.
“This was 14 miles from Birmingham, but in real terms, a world away. We bought the house and moved in May 1972. The first houses to be built in Chasetown were 28 houses for the Irishmen to move into when they came down from Scotland to work in the newly opened local coal mines in 1849.
“I still live two miles from the office within the community that I moved to in 1972 and all of my businesses are based close to where I started. I am connected to many local clubs within the area including being President of Chasetown Football Club.
“I am involved with a wide range of charities and charitable causes. These include Sense, the English and Irish College in Rome and also the local school needing to improve its facilities. I take a keen interest in Derby County Football Club and have supported the educational department at their Youth Academy for many years.
“As and when I am able, over the years I have helped many good causes with no desire for headlines. Simply knowing that I have made a difference and helped someone less fortunate then myself is rewarding enough.
“In Ireland I was an employee. The way we run our businesses is so different to those early days in Ireland. We have a very loyal work force; our eldest employee has recently retired at the age of 85 years.
“That man was one of 15 people that started with the Company in 1974. All but two are now retired or deceased; the two joined the Company aged 16. We have never been to an industrial tribunal. My Personal Assistant Lynn joined me in 1975. Now in her mid-70’s, she is still looking after everyone and keeping an eye on the back door and looking after the family’s interests.
“My wife of nearly 54 years, Carmel has been the backbone of our family; a Cavan girl. We had 5 children, four girls and one boy. The first two, girls were aged seven and four years when we moved to England. The eldest Charmaine had been a pupil at Newtownforbes Convent. Oisin, our only son, died ten years ago at the age of 35 – it was a life changing event.
“My wonderful years of drinking and gambling would not have been wonderful but for Carmel and the children. But I gave up drinking in 1989 and gambling 25 years ago. Although I still keep racehorses in training and gave up the 80-a-day cigarettes when I had to six years ago for health reasons”, says Noel.
Noel is an active supporter of charities and organisations that have made him and countless Irishmen and women, the people they are today: “top of the list amongst others would be the Peace Park in Castlebar. Getting the Irish off the streets, the same people that sent the money home in the 50’s and 60’s ‘The Forgotten Irish’ – now times past.
“I inherited the family farm and today it amounts to about 500 acres. My daughter Blaithin, who from the age of 10 to 17 went racing with me every school holiday, gave up her wonderful career with her husband and two girls to go and take over the farm back in Tulsk.
“Now in their second year, they are doing very well and their granddaughters Meara and Isla love Killina School and its teachers. Very different to the way our eldest daughter was treated at school by Irish teachers or teachers of Irish grandparents when she first came to England.
“My eldest daughter, Charmaine, is the mother of three boys, all doing very well, returned from Ireland to England early this year. My second eldest, Aisling, is a school teacher with four children – three boys and one girl called Tully.
“Aisling is into horses just like her mother. Aisling’s husband Euan is a Scotsman (he’s a good chap!) – has just completed the building of a Golf Course for JCB and will stay on as General Manager of the Golf Course and Clubhouse.
“My youngest, Sinead, works part time for an Architectural Company; her eldest of three girls Alannah aged 10 recently received a Queens Award for helping at a riding school on Saturday’s with those who have special needs. Her husband Dan was an estate agent but now is a fully trained plumbing and heating engineer and very successful”, says Noel.
Chasetown is presently getting a site at the National Arboretum Alrewas near Staffordshire ready for a Bronze Horse – representing the thousands of horses who went to the Great War and the 1939-45 conflict. It’s worth noting that the most popular horse used by the Army in those times was the Irish Draught who could be ridden at speed and also pull a gun carriage.
However for the Irish diaspora in Great Britain and the greater population at large, there is only one story that dominates the news – that of Brexit and the future relationship between the UK and the EU. What implications will Brexit, should it happen, have on the Irish community in Britain and company’s like Noel’s?
“In regard to Brexit we are monitoring customer sentiment and visitor levels very closely. It is very difficult to assess the Brexit impact, our greatest concern being customer confidence, it appears to me that Great Britain will either crash out of Europe with no deal or remain with a slight possibility that dates will be flexed out and the fiasco which is Brexit may rumble on for a while.
“We can’t rule out a change in Government or change of Prime Minister. But to try and factor any of these scenarios into my forecast is almost impossible. However, I believe the country is of a size and structure which will be able to respond rapidly to any significant changes.
“We (my companies) have a Plan B and are ready to implement it at short notice. All our people are remainers or so they tell me. We employ many Roscommon people. Many of whom go back at weekends. All of whom are a credit to Roscommon.
“Regarding the Irish and English, it has always been an advantage being Irish and I’ve never felt any jealousy in any English person”, says Noel, looking back on his many years in his adopted home” in England, while remaining true and generous to his Irish roots.