Tears in the town that Wyeth built

Carmel and Emma Ryan with Cllr Kevin Sheahan who were helped by Wyeth. Photo: Brendan Gleeson

ASKEATON mother Carmel Ryan knows better than most the value of the local Wyeth Nutrition factory, where her husband Michael worked from 1976 until his retirement in 2009.

“We put four kids through college because of Wyeth. It is a place that has given people a job for life,” Ms Ryan said.

After their daughter Emma (39) was born prematurely with Spastic Quadriplegic Cerebral Palsy, Wyeth stepped in, helping finance family trips to Budapest, where Emma received vital treatment to give her the best outcome to her life-limiting condition.

Emma Ryan has made enormous strides in her life, she is currently enjoying her fifth year working in the town’s tourist information office.

Ms Ryan praises Wyeth’s intervention almost four decades ago which, she believes, “helped me live more independently. I am working now, and that is all because of the help Wyeth gave me.”

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Like most others in the town, Emma is “totally shocked” at Nestlé’s announcement that it is preparing to close the Wyeth plant. The unexpected announcement has put the future of its 542-stong workforce in peril.

“All the young (workers) that have just started building houses and have mortgages and children … they are going to be up in the air now,” she added.

The proposed factory closure is the “talk of the town” locals say, and while staff who have worked there over a long-term can expect to enjoy “very good redundancy packages”, there is concern for younger staff who have not built up loyalty points to cushion the blow.

Considered the oldest town in county Limerick, Askeaton’s ancient castle ruins point to the town’s rich history as the former home of the Kings of Munster.

And for the past 49 years, towering over the castle walls, the Nestlé owned Wyeth Nutrition baby formula manufacturing factory has spread the wealth, with the average employee earning six figure salaries above €100,000.

However, Wyeth workers now fear all that glitters will no longer be golden due to Nestlé’s plans to shut the factory and shift production lines to China and Switzerland.

In the face of the closure, Josh Sheahan, owner of the local Top of the Town pub, located close to the Wyeth plant, said he fears for the future of his trade, which has already been damaged by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“If the factory closes, it will have a massive impact, I am savagely concerned,” Sheahan said.

“It definitely is the end of an era – it’s going to be massive for the town, not only for Askeaton, but it will have a massive impact all over the region.”

Sheahan’s namesake, uncle, and local Fianna Fáil councillor, Kevin Sheahan, said Nestle’s announcement of its impending departure was like a “scud missile” hitting the town.

“Askeaton benefitted from Wyeth from the first day it arrived,” he laments. “If the place closes, it will be a very serious situation that families will find themselves in. It’s very worrying, some people can cope with pressure, others cannot cope with pressure – we saw that with the financial crash where some people sailed through it no matter how badly wounded they were, but for others the consequences were horrendous.”

“It will be a sad day when we are forced to buy back the baby food from the Chinese that we are presently making here.”