Brian P. Burns, grandson of an Irish immigrant, and a nationally regarded business executive, attorney and philanthropist, passed away on August 12, 2021. He was 85. He is survived by his wife, Eileen, and eight children.
Born on July 12, 1936, the fifth of seven children to John J. Burns and his wife Alice, Brian traced his roots to County Kerry. He was a graduate of the College of the Holy Cross, and Harvard Law School.
Over the years, Brian gained a reputation as a moving force behind corporate mergers, he was the founder of BF Enterprises, Inc., a publicly owned real estate holding and development company, but it was a merger of a different sort, that of two major Irish-American organizations, for which he will be remembered in Ireland and Irish America.
Brian became the youngest director of the American Irish Foundation, established in 1963 by then-President John F. Kennedy and Ireland’s President Eamon de Valera.
As director, Brian had some major achievements. He was the leading fundraiser behind the effort to restore the world famous Marsh’s Library at St. Patrick’s Close in Dublin, the oldest public library in Ireland. He also founded an American Law Library at University College, Cork in honor of his late father, the Hon. John J. Burns.
Despite these accomplishments, Brian wanted to do more.
“I frankly had envied, in a constructive way, the manner in which six million Jewish people were able to raise billions of dollars each year for the young State of Israel, whereas, by contrast, hundreds of disparate Irish organizations were doing cumulatively a very tiny bit for Ireland even though there were over 40 million of us,” he recalled in a profile that ran in Irish America magazine in 2013, on the occasion of his induction into the Irish America Hall of Fame.
He told Patricia Harty how he was determined to arrange a merger between the American Irish Foundation and the newly minted Ireland Fund, formed in the early 1980s by Dan Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Tony O’Reilly, the Irish-born businessman who would become chairman of Heinz.
After a number of rebuffs and unsuccessful efforts, with the assistance of chairman A.W.B. Vincent and Bill McNally, who was then executive director of the Ireland Fund, the two organizations became The American Ireland Fund, and the merger was celebrated on March 17, 1986 at the residence of the Irish Ambassador in Washington, D.C.
“President Ronald Reagan presided over the signing ceremony.” Brian recalled. “My young daughter, Sheila Ann, and I were thrilled to witness it.”
The merger of the two organizations indeed proved that Brian’s instincts were right. The American Ireland Fund has raised millions of dollars for projects that promote peace, culture and charity throughout the island of Ireland. Brian remained a lifetime trustee of the organization.
In addition to marking this historic merger, 1986 was also a memorable year in that Brian established The Honorable John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College, in honor of his father, who had enjoyed a spectacular career in law before his untimely death in 1957.
John J. was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on May 1, 1901. He attended Harvard Law School, and in 1931, one day shy of his 30th birthday, was appointed associate justice of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts. He went on to become part of one of the first New Deal agencies of the Roosevelt administration, and served as Amb. Joseph Kennedy’s attorney and closest adviser, while carrying on a successful law practice.
In that tradition, Brian served as a key trustee to the Joseph P. Kennedy Trust from 1998-2010, and was one of the few non-family contributors to David Nasaw’s sweeping biography of Joseph P. Kennedy, The Patriarch.
The John J. Burns library at Boston College has over 300,000 books, 17 million rare manuscripts and other ephemera. It is the largest collection of Irish rare books and manuscripts in the Western Hemisphere. In 1990, the Burns Foundation endowed the library with a Visiting Scholar in Irish Studies chair. Hon. Mary McAleese, former president of Ireland, served as the 2014 chair. The current Burns Scholar is Louis de Paor, chair of Irish Studies at the National University of Ireland.
Meanwhile, Brian Burns’ collection of Irish art, the largest of its kind by a private collector in the world, exhibited to great acclaim at Boston College, Dublin’s Hugh Lane Gallery, the Yale Center of British Art in New Haven, Connecticut, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and the Phoenix Art Museum in Arizona. (One hundred works from the collection were sold at Sotheby’s in November 2018).
In 2012, Brian generously donated an important 1853 Famine piece from his collection titled “Lest We Forget” to Quinnipiac University’s Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum. He was also a principal benefactor of the first Irish Famine memorial in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which was dedicated in July, 1997 by former Irish President Mary Robinson. And he donated to Boston College a series of sculptures by Irish artist Rowan Gillespie called “The Four Irish Nobel Laureates.” The specially commissioned sculptures are permanently housed in the John J. Burns Library.
A 1996 winner of the Erie Society’s Gold Medal Award, Brian served as vice chairman of the Irish American Fulbright Commission (1992-98). He was a member of the Trinity College Foundation Board in Dublin, served as a member of the Irish prime minister’s Economic Advisory Board, and was a trustee of Boston College. In October, 2012 Palm Beach Atlantic University presented Brian with the American Free Enterprise Medal.
He was asked, in 2017, to become Ambassador to Ireland by President Donald Trump but he declined for health reasons. He handled many real estate issues, especially those relating to the Florida resort, Mar A Lago, for Trump.
Brian’s wife, Eileen, served as a member of the Advisory Board to the National Gallery of Ireland.
In his Irish America Hall of Fame induction speech in 2013, Brian’s wife and his father were foremost on his mind.
“I’d like to first bow to my wife, Eileen, who’s been an extraordinary partner and adventurer. Every time I think of taking on a project, she says, ‘What’s stopping you?’
“It was some eighty years ago that my dad was introduced to Joe Kennedy when he was the youngest judge and youngest professor at Harvard Law School. Joe asked him if he would join with him to form the Securities and Exchange Commission under President Roosevelt. . . Now my dad’s been dead for some 57 years but he left us all with a flame – we’re only here for a short while and we better get going, not waste our time. So I’ve tried not to do that, and causes in Ireland and for Ireland have really caught my attention.”
As Turlough McConnell, a good friend of Brian and Eileen’s who reached out to Irish America with the sad news of Brian’s passing, said: “We will never see his like again. Brian’s now with the ancestors he revered and honored.”