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Philanthropist Chuck Feeney’s generosity had ‘a profound impact’ on Ireland, memorial hears

Resource type: News

The Irish Times | [ View Original Source (opens in new window) ]

By Sorcha Pollak

Chuck Feeney was a tenacious, empathetic and inexhaustible man with an impatience for self-importance and a fundamental drive to invest in people’s talents, a memorial to the late Irish-American billionaire philanthropist has heard.

Dozens of Mr Feeney’s family members gathered in Dublin’s Trinity College diningroom on Saturday night to remember the man who spent the last four decades of his life giving his billion-dollar fortune away.

“He was sort of a Robin Hood to the people,” Patrick, Mr Feeney’s son, told attendees at Saturday night’s event organised by his father’s foundation The Atlantic Philanthropies.

“Others saw him as a bit of a rebel and a peacemaker, some saw him as a sort of freedom fighter like Che Guevara. Other people thought he had taken a vow of poverty like Mother Teresa.”

Mr Feeney, who died in October aged 92, was an Irish-American who made his fortune as a worldwide retailer of luxury goods.

By the time of his death, he had donated more than $8 billion (€7.5 billion) to education, medical research, healthcare, ageing and civil society through his Atlantic Philanthropies foundation in the United States, Ireland, Vietnam, Australia, Bermuda and South Africa. Nearly €2 billion of this was dedicated to funding Irish causes.

Patrick recalled how he and his siblings “were sworn to a type of secrecy, a code of non-speaking – we didn’t really know what we were not speaking about” when his father, who was notoriously shy, began his philanthropic activities across the globe.

He also noted how the family “always had to share our dad with many people, but most of all, we’ve had to share our dad with Ireland”.

“My father was born with a love for this country,” said Patrick, speaking following the burial of his father’s ashes in Glasnevin cemetery on Friday. “His ancestors were from Longford and Fermanagh and when they left Ireland it was clearly with a promise to return someday because for my dad, Ireland was always home.”

He noted how many people had pointed out the proximity of his father’s grave to the resting spots of Michael Collins and Eamon DeValera, but that it was more appropriate that Mr Feeney lie alongside the tombstone for a young boy carved in the shape of a football and a memorial for deceased Irish United Nations peacekeeping forces.

Also speaking on Saturday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar underlined Mr Feeney’s impact on both sides of the Irish Border and paid tribute to his “vision for a more vibrant, more prosperous, more modern and more united Ireland”.

“His generosity had a profound impact on the entire island, transforming our higher education system, deepening respect for human rights, investing in programs on ageing, and children’s services, and moving the peace process forward to anchor a more stable society on our island,” said Mr Varadkar.

He also noted the Government’s proposed National Philanthropy Policy, currently being developed, would ensure the contribution of philanthropy in Irish society would be “properly understood, developed and valued”.

Christopher Oechsli, president of The Atlantic Philanthropies foundation, also paid tribute to Mr Feeney’s children and wife who, he said, were the real anonymous donors as they “donated their father” to the world.

He said Mr Feeney “backed people” and was “oriented to finding the best people and the best in people – it was his most cherished form of investment”.

Citing the Mexican-American civil rights activist Cesar Chavez, Mr Oechsli said true wealth was not measured in money, status or power but in the legacy we leave behind. By these standards, Mr Feeney “will remain the wealthiest of men to have walked the earth”.

Prof Ian Robertson – codirector of Trinity College’s Global Brain Health Institute, which Mr Feeney funded through his foundation – highlighted the ground-breaking neuroscientific projects of some of its 273 fellows – work that would not have been possible without the billionaire’s philanthropic support.

The research being carried out by these people across the globe is “just examples of one startling thing – Chuck Feeney isn’t really dead,” Prof Robertson told Saturday’s dinner. “A rare number of people in the world become selfless, they learn to stop being slavishly attached to advancing or defending themselves – they become someone egoless,” he said.

“In the past, we called people like this saints. Casting off the ego can be a risky and frightening business and that’s why most of us never manage it. I believe Chuck Feeney achieved it.

“Chuck’s goodness is an eternal value and that’s why he’s alive today in 273 fellows across the world. Goodness is contagious and we’ve all been made better by having caught Chuck’s infection.”

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