How sportswear firm O’Neills took on Covid-19

O’Neills was among the first businesses to be impacted by Covid-19, but the sportswear firm has turned the crisis to its advantage and it is now making scrubs for medical workers across the island of Ireland.

As director of O’Neills Paul Towell explains it, like many businesses across Ireland Covid-19 had a chilling effect on the company’s fortunes in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland.

“Everything stopped,” he said. “All sports stopped, all activity on the island literally stopped. All the shops closed, all our wholesale shops and sales operations in Ireland, the UK, Australia and Canada and on mainland Europe just stopped. Everybody stopped paying you and so our income had just stopped.”

“It’s hard to know if the world will ever be the same again but we are very happy to be back up and running and supporting the needs of medical workers”

The company like many thousands of other businesses suddenly had to let go of most of its 950 staff, maintaining just a skeleton staff to manage online sales.

O’Neills had been hit by the big freeze that came with the Covid-19 lockdown and restrictions imposed by authorities across the island. The decision to shut down operations was a tough one.

The choices of champions

Young man wearing blue hospital scrubs.

An example of the scrubs being made by O’Neills. Image: O’Neills

The O’Neill’s sportswear brand is synonymous with GAA and rugby and a plethora of other sports in Ireland, including cricket. The company was set up in 1918 and is the largest manufacturer of sportswear in Ireland with production plants in Dublin, Derry and Strabane, kitting teams out with everything from uniforms to footballs and sliotars.

Whatever challenges O’Neill’s had to overcome in its 102-year history, there was nothing like the freeze imposed by the Covid-19 lockdown.

“It all happened in the space of two weeks and a decision had to be taken,” Towell said. “If we had tried to continue for another two weeks with no money coming in it would have eaten into our reserves, which we would still need for when things open up again. You need a company to go back to.”

Just when things were at their bleakest, hope came in the form of the Northern Ireland Health and Social Care Trust which urgently needed someone to manufacture scrubs for frontline medical workers.

“They approached us to see if we’d be interested in manufacturing scrubs. The main thing we needed was fabric to make the kits and we already had our knitting plants and dyeing plants which had all been closed.

“On a Friday our MD in Northern Ireland went to see the Trust. By Saturday he made samples and by Monday they gave us an order for 50,000 sets of scrubs.”

With the support of Bank of Ireland and Invest NI, O’Neills was able to prepare its manufacturing plants to accommodate the production of scrubs and configure its assembly lines to adhere to social distancing rules.

“We were able to take back 180 people and make the dyeing plant in Dublin operational. The following weekend we set up our units in Dublin, Derry and Strabane along strict social distancing lines with staff continually cleaning and spraying.”

The orders from the Northern Ireland Health and Social Care Trust came flowing in as did orders from the Health Service Executive (HSE) in the Republic of Ireland.

“The material we use for our sports kits is actually very suitable for scrubs because it is lightweight, can be washed up to 70-degrees and it dries very quickly.”

At the time of writing, more than 200 employees of O’Neills are back at work and Towell said the company will hire back more people to meet demand.

“Bank of Ireland and Invest NI were very supportive. The bank reacted with speed to the situation. Among the challenges was getting 80,000 kilos of yarn to keep up with orders.

“We are now also cutting the fabric for plastic masks for hospitals.

“It’s hard to know if the world will ever be the same again but we are very happy to be back up and running and supporting the needs of medical workers,” Towell concluded.

Responding with speed to the needs of businesses like O’Neills to support the equipment needs of frontline workers has been characteristic of Bank of Ireland’s response to the Covid-19 crisis.

As well as offering protections for businesses and personal customers, the bank’s responses have included providing dedicated supports for healthcare workers, self-isolation and cocooning supports, a priority hour for over-65s and carers, to name a few. Bank of Ireland has also donated €1m in emergency funds to the Community Foundation for Ireland to help support the most vulnerable across the island of Ireland

Written by John Kennedy (

Published: 16 April, 2020