Liebherr was heading for Mallow… but Killarney locals had other ideas

The late great Michael MD Mackey O’Shea pictured outside his Main Street store

ONE glance at the Lakes of Killarney and he was hooked.

The fascinating story of how nature itself snared the heart and mind of a wealthy German industrialist is one of the most remarkable examples of how a chance encounter can lead to great opportunity and prosperity.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, when a chronic shortage of building materials and equipment thwarted development opportunities in devastated Germany, an ambitious young engineer by the name of Hans Liebherr patented a revolving tower crane that could be transferred between sites with relative ease.

It provided an ingenious and sustainable solution to a major economic dilemma and it planted the seeds that promoted the growth of one of the world’s most successful business empires.

By 1949, the determined young engineer was manufacturing cranes in the southern German town of Kirchdorf and, within a very short space of time, he had over 100 employees and a turnover of in excess of €1 million.

Dr Hans Liebherr was persuaded to set up in Killarney

Within a decade, capacity had been reached and Mr Liebherr set his sights on securing a new overseas production facility from where he could tap into the lucrative US and international markets.

He flew to Dublin, rented a small car and drove towards Cork on the understanding that a suitable site might be available in Mallow. But an astute group of Killarney businessmen, learning of his imminent arrival, had other ideas.

Displaying a can-do approach that would put the IDA to shame, they quickly spotted an enormous opportunity for the Kerry town where jobs were scarce and emigration was rife.

The then chairman of Killarney Urban District Council, local dentist Teddy Clifford, rallied the troops and, almost faster than it takes to tell, the group had arranged to have dinner with Mr Liebherr in the Great Southern Hotel where he had booked in on the eve of his planned visit to Mallow.

Flanking the council chairman to break bread with the bemused German industrialist that evening in 1958 were Michael D (Mackey) O’Shea, engineer and GAA legend Dan Kavanagh, solicitor Donal Courtney, Michael Tim O’Sullivan and Fr Bobby Murphy and, in no time, they had persuaded him to visit a local site they believed would meet his requirements perfectly.

Early the next morning Mackey O’Shea, an incredibly astute and progressive businessman who left school at 13 and set his sights on creating his own empire, drove Mr Liebherr to view the lakes from Aghadoe and then brought him to a parcel of land, adjacent to the shore, where he could build his new factory.

The spectacular setting of the Liebherr Container Cranes plant in Gortroe

The rest is history. Even though Killarney was over 30km away from the nearest port – an essential requirement for the company – the German businessman was sufficiently impressed to purchase the land where the Europe Hotel and Resort now stands as well as a large 60-acre farm in Fossa where the crane manufacturing plant was constructed.

Now, 63 years on, the Liebherr empire is one of the most successful in the world, the Killarney plant alone employs over 800 people and it has delivered close on 1,000 container cranes worldwide.

The Liebherr Group is an industrial giant producing everything from cranes and construction machinery to refrigerators and airplane landing gear. Divided into more than 130 autonomous companies, employing more than 35,000 people around the world, it has an annual turnover of over €8 billion.

With the company headquarters in Bulle, Switzerland, the Liebherr family also owns the five-star Europe Hotel and Resort and the Dunloe Hotel and Gardens in Killarney, Árd na Sidhe Country House at Caragh Lake and Lackabane Golf Course which it acquired from Killarney Golf and Fishing Club for €6 million.

In the beginning: The Hotel Europe in 1961

In an ironic twist, when motorists entering Killarney at the Cleeny Roundabout turn right, they enter the Hans Liebherr Road, named in honour of the German who died in October 1993.

When they turn left, they approach the Mackey O’Shea Roundabout, named in 2008 in memory of the man who did more than most to entice Hans Liebherr to Killarney.

Born on High Street in Killarney, Michael D O’Shea served a three-year apprenticeship as a carpenter with local tradesman Batt Kelliher before starting his own haulage business with a donkey and cart in the early 1920’s, transporting boxes from a sawmills in Cleeny to Killarney Railway Station to be dispatched countrywide by rail.

He built up a very successful business before selling it to CIE a decade later and he then tried his hand as a haulage driver and hackney operator as well as fruit deliveries.

Michael Mackey O’Shea in his trademark black hat

In 1937 Mackey purchased the Main Street hardware store from Charles Meagher and he later opened two more hardware outlets as well as setting up an undertakers business.

A lifelong pioneer, he was one of the founder members of the Fianna Fail party in Kerry and, in addition to enticing Liebherr to town, he also played a big part in bringing the former Pretty Polly factory to Killarney.

When his company was celebrating the golden jubilee of its opening in 1987, MD O’Shea was asked to share the secret for a successful business: “Competitiveness, hard work, a will to succeed and the personal touch,” he replied.

And one other trait: Being a pioneer all through his life: “I think that has been one of the main reasons I’ve succeeded,” he declared.

Michael MD Mackey O’Shea passed away in October 1989, in his 89th year.