First Encounters: Charles Handy and Ronan King

‘You meet your hero, but don’t expect such access to him’


Charles Handy is a leading management thinker, social philosopher, writer, broadcaster and author of 22 books.

Elizabeth and I went to Rosslare to do a three-day workshop in Kelly’s Hotel on what we call “the still life process”. We help people explore their identity and themselves by choosing five objects and a flower that symbolise them and the important things in their life..

On the first morning this chap, Ronan, arrived: he said he had suddenly decided he must come, because he’d been following my books for years. Elizabeth needed a volunteer on the third day and we rather cottoned on to this large, slightly exuberant, very charming chap. Elizabeth persuaded him to be the guinea pig: he mentioned he couldn’t be here on the second day as he had to go to Belfast but he’d come back on the third; he picked his five objects and a flower in front of everybody. In the process you get to know somebody pretty well.

I said what do you do and he said, well, one of the most interesting things is chairing this thing in Ballymun. He said, you know Ballymun? And I said, yes, we’d been there 20 years ago to interview Father McVerry for the BBC – a wild place with ponies, graffiti, drunks. He said, that’s not what it’s like now, you must come and see.

So, he took us out to Ballymun and it was a very different place. I was wondering, how do we capture this new spirit. We came over three times, met up to 30 people or so, each time staying with Ronan in Killiney. We had this mutual admiration society: he admires my scribblings, I admire this man of action.

We gradually decided that Liz would photograph a cross selection of people who represent the new Ballymun, the idea being that it would help to present a new face for the town.

Late in life you don’t make many friends, but what started as a work relationship has flourished into a personal friendship. We’ve met their children, they’ve met ours, stayed in each other’s houses. He’s very hospitable, generous, fills a room in every sense.

The interests we have in common are things like our families, their traumas, trials, excitements . . . Elizabeth and I have two children and four grandchildren, we’re slightly ahead of Ronan and Edel. I’m 81, 21 years older than he is. We talk about politics in general, Irish politics . . . I’ve never lost my interest in Ireland. I have a sister, cousins here, come over every few months.

It’s unusual that both wives like each other – that’s not guaranteed in my experience. It’s rare to find this kind of friendship late in life, this instant intimacy. We trust each other.

Ronan King is an accountant who has worked in the private, public and voluntary sectors. He is chair of Ballymun Regeneration Limited (BRL), is on the board of Special Olympics Ireland and is chair of consultants The Amethyst Group. He and his wife, Edel, live in Killiney, Co Dublin, and have four adult children

My first encounter with Charles Handy was in about 1985, when [RTÉ producer] John Quinn ran a series on Charles’s book, The Future of Work, on radio. I’d never heard anyone talking about such fundamental change in people’s lives. Charles was talking about how the idea of someone joining a company at 18 and coming out of it at 65 was defunct.

Every time I heard there was a new Charles Handy book out, I’d be first in the queue to get it, and found a lot of my peers were exactly the same. We were acolytes, totally. He has this wonderful mellifluous voice, very soothing, refined, very British. So it was a shock and a pleasant surprise to discover that he is a proud Irishman.

I heard that Bill Kelly was inviting Charles over to run a three-day retreat in Rosslare. I couldn’t go for the three days because of my schedule, so didn’t sign up for it. The night before it started, I said to my wife, you know, I’ve been reading Charles Handy for nearly 30 years; he might not be with us much longer and the man will be just 100 miles down the road. So the next day I drove down, and the first person I bumped into was Charles.

When I mentioned that I’d just become chair of Ballymun Regeneration he said, oh, we know Ballymun, dreadful place, but said he’d love to see what it’s like now. A few months later he and Elizabeth came and stayed with us, which was a great honour.

You meet your hero, but you don’t expect that you’d have such access to him. I found that nothing was too much bother, he was so self-effacing, and grateful for anything done for him. My wife said “He is such a gentleman, the grandfather we all wish we had.” What I really appreciated was his pride in being Irish. He grew up on a farm on Clane in Co Kildare; his father was the vicar there.

A lovely part of our friendship is that we share our concerns for our children. They have a son an actor, and my daughter Joanne is an actor too – we share the worry for them.

Charles and Elizabeth are both in demand, dividing their time between corporate and charitable work all over the world – he can command five-figure sums from a corporation for an hour’s presentation and yet he worked for Ballymun for nothing.

For over two years, he and Elizabeth visited Ballymun repeatedly, walked the streets of Ballymun, knocking on doors, meeting residents.

I relate to Charles Handy because my value system, like his, was not to pursue money for the sake of money.

It’s a relatively young friendship but a powerful friendship, hugely rewarding for me to be able to sit with a man who has had such an influence on so many people’s lives.

The Ballymun People photographic exhibition is on show in Dublin airport ; in the Helix, DCU from November 11th-29th; in Ikea from November 30th-December 9th; in Ballymun Library from December 9th to the end of January

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