Key figure in the State’s first marine policy

Eoin Sweeney obituary: Born October 12th, 1947 – Died July 7th, 2017

 

Eoin Sweeney, who had died aged 69, was an economist by training and polymath by nature who was known for his boundless energy and his single-minded determination to harness the potential of Ireland’s marine resources.

“I was a marine bore,” he once quipped, and he was among several who influenced the decision by former taoiseach Charles J Haughey to create the first dedicated government department of marine in 1987. This led in turn to the formation of the Marine Institute, where Sweeney put much of his vision into practice before transferring to the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI).

Lack of real interest in his chosen subject of study at university and time spent at sea on several Donegal fishing vessels were formative influences.

He was born in Oxford, the first of five children of two Irish doctors – Nuala McHale, from Mayo, and Patrick Joseph Sweeney, a British army physician with Donegal and Tipperary roots. The couple moved to Enniskillen,Co Fermanagh, in 1951.

Their eldest was, as his 15-year-old daughter Lola noted at his funeral, “rebellious and extremely opinionated” in his early years. While studying at University College, Dublin, he participated in the People’s Democracy march from Belfast to Derry, and made the front page photograph of The Irish Times on January 5th, 1969, after loyalists attacked his group and he was led away by RUC officers.

The conflict in the North distressed him, and led him to look for ways to “meaningfully contribute to” building a “mature and economically successful republic”. This was best articulated in a paper which he co-wrote with Fergus Cahill, entitled Ireland, Science and the Sea, published by the National Science Council in 1975, which is regarded as the State’s first marine research strategy.

Union background

Sweeney worked initially with the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU, now Siptu), and moved to the National Board of Science and Technology, where he managed the State’s research vessel, Lough Beltra . He also initiated InnovaWood, a knowledge transfer network for the forest and wood institute throughout Europe.

Marine engineer Eugene Lavelle, who maintained and ran the 21-metre research ship for him, remembers being in Sweeney’s office one day in 1986 when a call came through summoning him to the Dáil. Charles J Haughey, then leader of Fianna Fail in opposition, had recalled a brief conversation about the potential of the marine. He wanted Sweeney to put pen to paper – there and then. He was given just 20 minutes to write what became a party ardfheis promise to address the neglect of Ireland’s marine resources.

Eoin Sweeney: receiving his lifetime achievement award from then minister Simon Coveney
Eoin Sweeney: receiving his lifetime achievement award from then minister Simon Coveney

After the Marine Institute was established in 1992, Sweeney worked initially as a consultant and was appointed by chief executive Dr Peter Heffernan to manage a major component of SeaChange, the State’s marine sector strategic programme. Through his membership of various bodies, including an OECD expert committee, he gained an international reputation. He worked closely with wave energy pioneer Dr Tony Lewis of University College, Cork and was seconded to lead a dedicated ocean energy unit established within the SEAI. In 2015, he was conferred with an Irish Maritime Industry Award for lifetime achievement.

Charismatic and inspirational, he was a wise mentor and friend to some of the Marine Institute’s first hired graduates, including Dr Yvonne Shields, now Commissioners of Irish Lights chief executive, Conor Mowlds and Dr Mark White. He took a keen interest in the arts, wrote poetry, was never without several newspapers, and could turn his hand to almost anything, including working behind a bar in which he once held a share.

He dealt courageously with many setbacks, including expulsion from Clongowes Wood College, a later painful break in his career, the loss of several siblings at a relatively young age and – latterly – his own illness. Friends describe him as “learned, open, dynamic”, and a man who held no bitterness, having sometimes taken the “rap” for others.

He was devoted to his women – his wife Elena, three daughters and grand-daughter. President Michael D Higgins, a close friend, recalled that he first met Sweeney several decades ago when he was involved with Prof Ivor Browne’s Irish Foundation of Human Development. Mr Higgins was struck by his frustration at how policymakers had “turned their faces from the sea”.

Sweeney “set about converting anyone who would listen to the potential of our maritime resources,” Mr Higgins said. “His views were all the more interesting as he combined his training as an economist with a great interest in ecology. To know him as a friend was a great privilege. He was always so full of life and radiated a warm humanity.”

He is survived by his wife, Elena, his daughters Aoife, Lola and Laoise, granddaughter Lily, brother John, and extended family.