Alex Findlater obituary: Last of the merchant gentlemen of Dublin

Fun-loving, charitable businessman was part of Dublin commercial and cultural lore

Alex Findlater: his father’s premature death in 1962 placed the future of the firm on his then young shoulders.

Alex Findlater: his father’s premature death in 1962 placed the future of the firm on his then young shoulders.

 

Born: September 25th, 1937

Died: May 30th, 2019

Alex Findlater, who has died following a riding accident in Punjab, India, was one of the most determined, fun-loving, charitable men of his generation.

As chronicled in his book, Findlaters - The Story of a Dublin Merchant Family (2001), his forebears were Scots excisemen who founded the Dublin wine and grocery firm in 1823. Robbie Burns, Scotland’s national bard, was a family friend, while James Joyce cited Findlater’s great-uncle Adam Findlater in both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.

In Dublin, the Findlaters prospered. By 1906, the company had expanded into groceries, tea and provisions, with 14 shops. They built Findlater’s Church on Parnell Square, as well as the Todd Burns department store on Mary Street. Their Mountjoy Brewery, established in 1852, was Dublin’s second-largest exporter of stout by 1866. They also operated hotels in Howth and Bray.

There were 21 shops by the time Findlater took over the business in 1955. His father’s premature death in 1962 placed the future of the firm on his young shoulders.

Born in Hatch Street, Dublin, Findlater was educated at Castle Park School in Dalkey, Repton in Derbyshire and Trinity College Dublin. Always sporty, he adored cricket, angling, boating and dancing and, later, horse riding. However, his greatest passion was hockey. He was one of the players on Trinity’s star team during a golden age for the club and had several international trials. His mother, Dorothea, played hockey for Ireland in the 1930s. She starred in the film Older than Ireland in 2015, and was Ireland’s oldest woman when she died at the age of 108 in 2017.

Honour in business

In 1968, Findlater was obliged to close all 21 branches and sell “Findlater’s Corner”, the company’s signature block by the Parnell monument on O’Connell Street, due to stiff competition from the new supermarkets. Newspapers were impressed by how Findlater assured the firm’s 178 employees “that he had made provision for their future”.

Closing a business with “honour” meant a lot to him. In 2015, he wrote to this paper expressing dismay at the disrespectful manner in which Clerys employees were treated when the Dublin shop closed. From 1969 to 1974, Findlater undertook a “peregrination” to Europe, learning German, Spanish and French at language schools in Germany and Switzerland, followed by a period at Insead, the International Business School, in Fontainebleau.

Findlater’s forebears built the Olympia Theatre in Dublin and the Empire in Belfast. Perhaps this encouraged him in 1974 when he co-organised cabaret shows starring Marlene Dietrich and Sammy Davis jnr in London. In 1986, he was instrumental in bringing the Bolshoi Ballet to Dublin; 16,000 people watched them perform over four nights at a purpose-built 4000-seat theatre in Simmonscourt.

He established, with his brother-in-law, Frode Dahl, Findlater Wines Merchants Ltd, at 147-49 Upper Rathmines Road in 1974. Boosted by his personal charm, the business flourished despite the recessions of the 1970s and 1980s. All the wines and spirits for the State banquet for Ronald Reagan in 1984 were supplied by Findlater Wines. Their “Millennium Wines” were one of the most recognisable symbols of Dublin in 1988.

Rathmines restaurant

Always thinking ahead, Findlater and Frode computerised the business in 1984. Three years later, with his first wife, Seong, Findlater opened the Wine Epergne restaurant in Upper Rathmines, which was managed later by head chef, Kevin Thornton.

In 1991, “The Chairman”, as he was affectionately known, leased the Victorian stone vaults beneath Harcourt Street station. This became the headquarters of Findlater Wines, importing and wholesale business, for the next decade.

One of Findlater’s greatest attributes was his sense of charity. In 1993, a speech he gave while accepting a Business Heritage Award from the Dublin Junior Chamber, inspired the annual Bloomsday Bike Rally. It has raised more than €1 million for the Irish Youth Foundation and is still going strong. Along with his Bloomsday partners, Bill Cullen, Fergal Quinn and Patrick Campbell, Findlater performed on the album Messenger Bike by composer Pete St John, for the IYF charity.

In 2001 he sold the firm to Cantrell & Cochrane. He was retained for “ambassadorial” duties, but he was now free to write Findlaters, his well-reviewed family history. This was followed in 2016 by his book 1916 Surrenders: Captain De Courcy-Wheeler’s Eyewitness Account. He had recently begun work on an autobiography.

In 2010, Findlater married interior architect and artist Trish Fitzpatrick. They settled in Cong, Co Mayo, where they created a beautiful garden together, and enjoyed fly fishing, travelling and horseriding.

Gregarious, confident but self-effacing, impulsive, interested, contemporary, and completely at ease sporting a topper, Alex Findlater was one of the last of Dublin’s merchant gentlemen.