LAST Wednesday, Cllr. Brian O’Donoghue, Cathaoirleach of Carlow County Council, led the welcome reception to County Carlow for our two-time Winter Olympian, Ms Tess Arbez.
Tess’ grandfather, father of her mother Marguerite, is Francis Neerman, born in Carlow Town in 1944, and he is the son of Auguste and Alida Neerman of Ghent in Belgium. Auguste worked for the Belgian company Lippens which built the Carlow Sugar Factory in 1926. Auguste was one of the senior executives who came from Belgium in 1925 to establish the Carlow Sugar Factory. From 1939 to 1949 he was factory manager, one of the most prestigious positions in the country at the time.
Tess, who lives in France, completed for Ireland at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, and the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China in February 2022. She has made history by becoming the first Irish competitor in a speed skiing event, the Super-G, in 2022.
Cllr O’Donoghue said: ‘Tess joins the County Carlow athletics hall of fame which has represented Ireland at the Olympics’ rower Sean Drea, on track: TJ Kearns and Marcus Lalor and in riding Sam Watson . At the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, PL Curran was the chef de mission and he spent his career at the Carlow Sugar Factory. Tess has the distinction of being Ireland’s first female competitor in a speed skiing event and she is also County Carlow’s first Winter Olympian and our first female Olympian. I congratulate Tess on her wonderful accomplishments. I greatly admire her tenacity, her bravery and her resolute desire to be an Olympian.
Tess said “It’s amazing to be here, really nice to reconnect with my Irish Carlow roots, such an honour, and I had no idea my family had such a big impact on Carlow”.
Tess’ mother Marguerite, who was present with Tess’ father Jean-Max, says she spotted a song written on the walls opposite Carlow Cathedral and the title sums up Tess perfectly as athlete, “Sweet as Sugar and Strong as Stone”. . She explained that it’s “such a surprise to see everyone here to welcome us home, for me it’s even more emotional because my family history was hidden for a while, our Irish roots were in Carlow but my Carlow born father died when I was ten so there was a whole chapter that was gone”
Just over ninety-seventy years ago on Friday 24th July 1925 the town hall and borough of Haymarket hosted a major public meeting held here to publicly demonstrate that Carlow was the place to build the new candy. The poster for the meeting, which was printed by the Carlow Nationalist, is on display in our county museum. The Irish government then decided, following the leads of the sugar beet, to establish a sugar factory. The government has sought a lead partner in Europe as Ireland has no expertise in sugar production. The government chose the Belgian company Lippens. Soon it became clear that Lippens’ preferred choice was to locate the factory somewhere in the Barrow Valley. During the spring and summer of 1925 the people of County Carlow and surrounding areas, through our civic and religious leaders, launched a campaign to ensure that Carlow would be the chosen site for construction From the factory. Hence the famous meeting of July 1925, attended and spoken by Mr. Schurmans, representative of Lippens.
According to photographs in the Carlow County Museum, Auguste Neerman was here in Carlow in September 1925 and by December Lippens had chosen Carlow as his factory base and had set up his first offices in the former Clubhouse Hotel in Courtplace. For ten years, from 1939 to 1949, Auguste Neerman was director of the Carlow Sugar Factory. This would undoubtedly have been one of the most important positions in the industry not only in Carlow but in Ireland.
Their son Paul, with his scientific background, also worked for a time at the Carlow factory and married a local woman, Sally Keogh. While their daughters, Nancy and Juliette were involved in life at Carlow, Juliette was for a time the secretary of the Carlow Lawn Tennis Club and in December 1945 played a cello solo at St Fiacc’s Hall, Graiguecullen at the first concert of the Orchestra and Choir St Fiacc.
Nancy starred in the very first Carlow Little Theater production in 1945. Their first play, The whipped handsaw Nancy play the role of Berney Regan and according to the Nationalist Review she “…gave a most compelling performance…she has a very clear, effortless voice…she was cast very well and has played its role to perfection.”
Present at the Town Hall was Mrs. Nancy Chillingworth, Chef de Mission of the Olympic Federation of Ireland for the Winter Olympics in Beijing. She said: “Tess is a bit special, apart from being an amazing sportswoman Tess is a great team player. It’s really important for her to finish for Ireland and to be a member of the Ireland team and you can see that in the way she supports her teammates when they finish.”
While she was not present, Tess’s grandmother, Nicole Neerman, widow of Francis, through the Cathaoirleach, sent a message to be read at the event at Town Hall. She said: “I want you to be assured of my presence of mind and heart during the wonderful celebrations held today in honor of my granddaughter Tess. I regret not being able to be here today but I must tell him and his mother Marguerite how proud I am of them”.
The visit was coordinated by the Carlow County Museum who organized a tour of the museum, a tour of the factory site and the location of Belville, the house in which the Neerman family lied. The Arbezes also visited the Carlow Sports Partnership summer basketball camp at Tyndall College and presented participants with Irish Olympic pins. Bishop Denis Nulty welcomed them to the Cathedral where on April 1st1944 Francis Neerman is baptized.
The County Carlow Museum asked Tess if she would like to display anything from her Olympic journey at the museum. Tess proudly displayed her ski suit and ski gear from the PyeongChang 2018 Games. Over the next few months, these will be on display at the Museum. Tess said: “It’s really great to put them in the Museum for the Sugar Factory display, so we can see all the connections between the Sugar Factory and downhill skiing.”
Tess and her parents, Jean-Max and Marguerite, received a replica of the museum’s sugar factory poster, as well as a Carlow Tourism basket of Carlow products for them to enjoy during the visit of one