A friend, a teacher in Northern Ireland, who is forever puzzling over the intricacies of our race, recently asked me what I considered to be the essence of the Irish character. Clarence Darrow, the great American defense attorney, came to mind. Darrow who spent his life defending the poor and the downtrodden, liked to have Irish men on his juries because he believed that they, of all people, had compassion.
I like to think that Darrow’s opinion of the Irish is accurate. My friends over at Concern Worldwide, the Irish relief organization, say it is. Siobhán Walsh, who heads up Concern’s New York office, tells me that, per capita, the Irish in Ireland give more towards world hunger relief than any other country. That compassionate trait is also evident in Irish-Americans, Siobhán says.
And so in these days of corporate scandals we are happy to relate that there are many fine corporate leaders out there who do have a social conscience. Of course, they are all Irish or Irish-American! Or so we would like you to believe.
Seriously, though, a quick glance at those profiled in our Business 100 feature shows that there are many fine philanthropic efforts being carried out by the Irish in corporate America.
Here are a few of my favorites:
Tom Moran is the CEO of Mutual of America, but he is also the North American Chairman of Concern, and he is doing a fine job of ensuring that the organization has the funding to continue to bring relief to the poor and disadvantaged in troubled spots all over the world.
Raymond Gilmartin is chairman of Merck, a company which is donating millions in drugs to prevent river blindness in a program reaching 25 million people a year in more than 30 countries. (Read “Into Africa, Seeing and Believing,” page 16.)
Brian Connolly is president of Avon, the cosmetics company that annually gives millions towards breast cancer research. And James Irwin, Chairman of IMPAC, supports writing programs in Connecticut and Mexico, and is responsible for the richest literary prize in the world — the IMPAC Award of 100,000 euros presented annually in Dublin. (See interview with Irwin on page 56.)
And then, of course, there is Charles “Chuck” Feeney, who has taken philanthropy to a whole new level.
Feeney, who grew up in a working-class home in New Jersey during the Depression, made a fortune when he founded Duty Free Shops.
And he gave it all away. Quietly.
While other philanthropists have their names up in lights, Feeney gave on condition that he remain anonymous. Much of his fortune went to institutions in Ireland, where Feeney is the largest private supporter of higher education. The University of Limerick received in excess of $38 million, but didn’t have a clue who its benefactor was until the sale of Feeney’s business revealed the extent of his staggering contributions, made through the Atlantic Philanthropies organization.
After years of silence, we are honored that Mr. Feeney agreed to be interviewed by Conor O’Clery for this issue. And further that he allowed Peter Foley to take his photograph for our cover. (For years, magazines such as Time and Businessweek have solicited us for the only available photo of the philanthropist, which was taken at our Business 100 Awards back in 1997, when Feeney was our keynote speaker.)
Why Irish America, you may ask, when the world’s media is clamoring to interview Feeney? Because he is an Irishman. And proud of it. (And he has a friendship going back for years with our publisher, Niall O’Dowd.) Feeney’s grandparents emigrated from Ireland to the U.S. at a time when the Irish were experiencing much hardship. It was a time when they were the underdog, and often needed the services of Darrow and others. And now that the Irish have reached the pinnacle of success in America, it is heartening to see that, out of struggle and discrimination waged against our ancestors, a compassionate heart survived and was passed down to a generation who can afford to give a helping hand to others. ♦