Creating Work : Irish Town Builds Factory So Young Folks Needn’t Emigrate to Find Jobs

Times Staff Writer

Until recently, most of the young men and women from Sneem in County Kerry, population 300, have had to go elsewhere in Ireland or emigrate to the United States or England to find jobs.

“We had to do something to keep our young people here. So, three years ago the people of Sneem pooled their resources and opened a sweater factory,” explained Father Michael Murphy, 62, pastor of Sneem’s 120-year-old Saint Michael’s Church.

Murphy had the help of San Francisco businessman Brian Patrick Burns, 51, whose grandfather emigrated as a boy to Boston from Sneem almost a century ago, and Sneem’s schoolmaster, Batt Burns, 40 (no apparent relation), in organizing Sneem Fashions Ltd., a co-op of villagers manufacturing Aran (traditional beige colored) sweaters of Irish wool.

Townspeople invested $78,000 to become shareholders. The money was used to buy three looms, other equipment and to rent a two-story building.


Brian Burns, his wife, Sheila, and each of their four children, Sheila, 24, Brian Jr., 22, Sean, 21, and Roderick, 17, also became shareholders, investing an undisclosed substantial sum “to give each of us a personal tie with the town least we forget from whence we came,” said the San Franciscan.

“I visited my grandfather’s hometown 15 years ago and have been going back every year since. I try to do whatever I can to help Sneem,” Burns explained.

A former director and major stockholder of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, Burns is chairman of Robert Half International Inc., head of a large real estate company and longtime trustee of the American Irish Foundation.

Sneem Fashions employs seven people so far. Sales in 1985, the first year, were $117,000 and $125,000 last year, said Noel Harrington, 38, the manager. Sweaters are sold at the co-op store, a shop in France, a shop in the Netherlands and through the mail.


“This is only the beginning. Our employees are 17 to 22 in age. We hope to expand, to get into other things--lace work, glass cutting, oyster farms, making caps--every Irishman wears a cap,” Murphy said enthusiastically. He is chairman of the seven-member board of directors.

Batt Burns, the schoolmaster, is also a director. He has written seven textbooks and, in 1986, was named Ireland’s outstanding schoolteacher. He is also a widely known seanachie (storyteller) and poet.

“Father Murphy and Batt Burns run the town,” said Brian Burns. “They are Sneem’s spark plugs.”

In addition to the sweater co-op, the priest and the schoolmaster have led other efforts over the years to put Sneem on the map.


This year Sneem was selected the tidiest town in Ireland in a nationwide government-sponsored Tidy Town contest. The town won a trophy and an award of 3,500 pounds ($5,460).

Volunteers mended fences, upgraded the roadway leading to Sneem, created two village greens, planted flower beds, and painted all the public buildings and the homes of the elderly. No two buildings on the same side of the street in the same block are painted the same colors.

When it was announced last summer that Sneem won the award with the highest points ever scored in the 30-year history of the competition “it was like we jumped over the moon,” said Batt Burns.

“Oh, the celebration was something to behold,” Murphy recalled. “There was a torchlight procession by everybody in town. They danced until 3 in the morning. I went up to Dublin to claim the trophy.” If Father Murphy, schoolmaster Batt Burns and Brian Patrick Burns have their way, Sneem will someday become an industrial center.