Chuck Feeney: Giving It All Away
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Atlantic Philanthropies has this year wound itself up as quietly as it arrived in Ireland more than 30 years ago, after dispensing €1bn on Irish projects. Our reporter profiles Chuck Feeney — the billionaire backer of an extraordinary foundation.
By Liam Collins
Everybody you meet as you delve into its past wants to tell you their ‘Chuck Feeney story’: his insistence on travelling economy class, arriving with his belongings in a plastic bag, using the train or bus to get from the apartment he used in Baggot Street, Dublin, to his base in Limerick, or his piercing gaze when he “asked the question nobody else wanted to face”.
The greatest distraction about Atlantic Philanthropies is, ironically, its founder Charles ‘Chuck’ Feeney, the secretive Irish-American billionaire who gave all his money away, yet left nothing behind bearing his name.
“For years I was afraid to buy a new car in case he thought I was wasting money that could be better spent elsewhere,” one academic who ferried him around during his visits told me when I went searching for the soul of his philanthropic foundation and its work on this island.
Atlantic Philanthropies has now “spent itself out of existence”. Its headquarters in Baggot Street were sold earlier this year and its last grants have been allocated. It has been wound up just as quietly as it arrived in Ireland more than 30 years ago.
Feeney himself lives in retirement in San Francisco and although many Irish people may not be even aware of his existence, his contribution to this country can be found all around them, even if there is no memorial to commemorate him.
In total, Atlantic Philanthropies dispersed €6.5bn worldwide, mainly in Ireland, Vietnam, the US and Australia. More than €1bn of that vast fortune, made from the sale of his company Duty Free Shoppers, was distributed in 1,000 grants which helped to change the face of modern Ireland.
Although the money was channelled through Atlantic Philanthropies from its offices in Dublin, originally only identified by a brass plate with the name ‘Tara Consulting’, Feeney was omnipresent in the operation.
“He would ask the one question that nobody else in the room wanted to address: ‘Where is the rest of the funding going to come from?'” said Kevin O’Dwyer, who was in charge at Marymount hospice in Cork when it was undergoing a fundamental restructuring with funding from Atlantic Philanthropies.
An overwhelming spend
When you make a start to find out where the money went, it is almost overwhelming – huge tracts of Irish universities were funded by Atlantic Philanthropies, various hospices, the Mercers Institute for Successful Ageing (MISA) in St James’s Hospital, and the room housing the Book of Kells in Trinity College, Dublin, are just some of the visible results.
Travelling around Ireland, meeting beneficiaries, took me to the Community Centre in Darndale, Dublin, to lunch in Glenstal Abbey, Co Limerick, and a personal tour of the library by Abbot Mark Patrick Hederman, and Nasc, a refuge for migrants high up on Ferry Lane, overlooking Cork city.
It also funded organisations like Amnesty International, the Gay & Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN) – which didn’t please everybody – and the ill-fated Centre for Public Inquiry, which was closed down in a welter of controversy.
Born into an Irish-American family in New Jersey, Chuck Feeney served in the Korean War before graduating from Cornell University and setting up Duty Free Shoppers with three partners. He first visited Ireland in 1971 looking for business opportunities and to tour Shannon Airport, where duty-free shopping was pioneered by the late Brendan O’Regan.
The two became friends and developed a shared interest in the conflict in the North.
“He believed that substantial social conflict, like that in Northern Ireland, would be extremely difficult to break; you needed lawmakers who would implement change and an economic surge of development to take people out of crisis,” says Ed Walsh, founder of the University of Limerick, who became a friend of Feeney’s, as well as the first major Irish beneficiary of his funds.
The gift of education
Feeney believed Irish education had not kept pace with the rest of the world, finding the country “down at heel” when he first arrived. “With educated people, you can achieve more,” he said and began funding education projects in the early 1980s.
As the money poured in through Atlantic Philanthropies, its origins were shrouded in secrecy. Feeney insisted that neither he nor his foundation should be credited with the buildings it was funding. But perhaps the most dramatic shift came in 1998, when the introduction of the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI) was agreed between Atlantic Philanthropies and the newly elected Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, despite some serious opposition from high-ranking civil servants who believed that things were moving too fast and that they didn’t have enough control.
“By matching funding from AP we would move very quickly,” said the former Taoiseach, who was not long in office when the proposal was put to his government. “PRTLI was of major benefit to this country.”
“I witnessed these changes at first hand, primarily through my experience in higher education but also via my involvement in the area of ageing,” says Brian MacCraith, President of Dublin City University, in the foreword to a new booklet commemorating the work of Atlantic Philanthropies. “Before the intervention of Chuck Feeney, the global reputation and ranking of Irish universities in terms of scientific research was very poor indeed. It led to massive investment in research infrastructure that transformed the higher education landscape for decades to come. Very quickly we had world-class laboratories equipped with state-of-the-art instrumentation and, importantly, teams of high-performing researches that wanted to stay (or indeed come to) Ireland.”
The sums were staggering: Trinity foundation €207m, University of Limerick Foundation €103m, DCU €118m, Cork University €90m, Galway University €67m – and with matching funds from government.
In 2002, Atlantic Philanthropies held a series of what some insiders describe as “contentious” discussions about the future of the organisations.
‘Irish by heritage’
There was a feeling that its concentration on higher education was conferring more benefit on the privileged then the underclass. It also decided that, in keeping with Feeney’s commitment to “giving while living”, the foundation would “spend itself out of existence” over the next 15 years.
It pledged its future grants to four areas of Irish life: ageing, early childhood, youth health and human rights. Funding organisations like GLEN and some organisations that would eventually coalesce to campaign for the Children’s Referendum and Same-Sex Marriage Referendum was sometimes controversial, and there were claims of “American money buying an Irish referendum”.
“Chuck Feeney is Irish by heritage and citizenship,” countered Chris Oechsli, President of Atlantic Philanthropies, defending the organisation. “It was based in Ireland, it was an Irish entity and populated with Irish citizens and the ultimate force in the organisation is strictly Irish.”
Feeney not only got great satisfaction in giving his money away, he also had great fun and made great friends like the artist Desmond Kinney, whose murals adorn many of the buildings he funded, and the musician and scholar Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin.
“We did not push ourselves,” says Mary Sutton, AP’s country director for the Republic of Ireland. “The grantees and their work, and what they achieved with our help were always the focus.”
She also realises that with such a war chest, Atlantic Philanthropies tended to dominate other organisations in that sector. “What we want to convey now is that people can achieve a lot with a smaller amount of money… well-chosen decisions, focused, modest grants can achieve amazing results.”
One of those most inspired by Feeney was the founder of Microsoft, Bill Gates, one of the richest men in the world. “His decision to become public with his giving has transformed philanthropy and most certainly inspired others to get involved,” he said in an exchange of letters. “Chuck reminds us all of the importance of living our lives in the service of others.”