The news that workers at the Waterford Crystal plant in Waterford are on an extended sit-in after being told their jobs were gone is sad indeed. The 500 workers, some of the most skilled artisans in the world, are the latest victims of the economic recession that has plunged Ireland and many other countries into a deep state of gloom. Waterford declared bankruptcy recently and the firm went into receivership. The receiver announced the closure of the plant last week, but there are still hopes that one of the two American investment consortiums said to be interested in it will save at least 300 jobs if Waterford reopens. That may well be so, but there is little doubt that hard times have come to arguably Ireland's most famous export. The case of Waterford's woes is particularly disheartening. There is no greater Irish brand, save perhaps the shamrock logo, and it is famous all over the world. There are few Irish Americans who do not proudly possess some Waterford Crystal, which is usually brought out for a special occasion. Over the decades Irish Americans have been the major buyers of Waterford products, with not a little bit of ethnic pride. The Waterford showroom in Waterford City is, not surprisingly, one of Ireland's top tourist attractions, and the company has always been to the forefront of Irish exports around the world. A crystal business was first created in Waterford in 1783 by the Penrose family. In 1947, a Czech immigrant Charles Bacik created the modern day Waterford Crystal, which soon became the premier crystal brand in the world. In 1986 Waterford, now owned by Anthony O'Reilly, the former Heinz CEO and Independent Newspapers chairman, took over Wedgwood, the famous British pottery maker and the new company, Waterford Wedgwood thrived for many years. In recent times, as tastes have changed and currency fluctuations conspired to make Waterford far more expensive for American buyers because of the weak dollar, the brand began to falter. However, until Waterford actually declared bankruptcy a few weeks back, there was always a sense that somehow the Irish icon would muddle through. And no doubt it will with new owners, who will have a free hand to cut and slash and sell off until they come up with a workable model. There is no question that a brand like Waterford still has enormous cachet on the world stage, and parts of the company can be restored to profitability. Already much of the manufacturing has been moved abroad and that will surely continue. In the meantime, there are hard times ahead for the workers in Waterford, many of whom now fear that their pensions are threatened. In a world where many of the certainties of people's lives have been washed away in recent months, the downfall of Waterford is just another example of why we live in such troubled times.
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