Bob Dunfey: An Irish-American entrepreneur with a role in the peace process

Obituary: He loved west Kerry and introduced many influential friends, including Ted Kennedy, to the wonders of the Dingle Peninsula

Robert “Bob” Dunfey snr, who has died at the age of 88 with Parkinson’s disease, epitomised the Irish-American success story.

From running a fried clam stall with five brothers, he co-founded a family-owned chain of 47 hotels in the US, Mexico and the Far East, developed a love affair with west Kerry and played a significant if low-key role in the Northern Ireland peace process.

A Democrat, he was a close friend of US negotiator George Mitchell, who was former US president Bill Clinton’s special envoy for economic initiatives for Northern Ireland and an occasional visitor to Dunfey’s holiday home in the Corca Dhuibhne Gaeltacht.

Born in Lowell, Massachusetts into a family of 12, he and his brothers opened a clam stand at Hampton Beach in 1945. By 1954 they had established the Omni Dunfey group on buying their first hotel. Dunfey never looked back.

By the mid-1990s, they controlled a string of hotels across the US, mostly in urban areas, but also including luxury hotels in the US, Mexico and Hong Kong. Having gradually divested the family's interest, Dunfey formed a venture capital operation based on social criteria.

Politically, he was well connected. In New Hampshire, his brother, Bill, was regional director of the Democratic National Committee. Dunfey had frequent conversations with Bobby Kennedy during his 1968 campaign for president to brief him on how it was going in Maine.

He supported numerous campaigns, including George Mitchell’s and Ed Muskie’s for the US Senate. In 1980, Dunfey asked then judge Mitchell to fill Muskie’s Senate seat when he was appointed secretary of state by Jimmy Carter.

An adviser to the White House Conference for Trade and Investment in Northern Ireland, he accompanied Mitchell on his first tour of Belfast, Derry and Border towns. Dunfey and his brother, Jack, also travelled to Oslo with John Hume and David Trimble when the two Northern Ireland leaders were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998.

For 40 years of support for the peace process through initiatives in Northern Ireland and cultural preservation projects in the Republic, he has received several awards.

Hard worker

Dunfey had a reputation as a hard worker who preferred to operate behind the scenes. But not afraid of controversy, he is credited with a significant impact on the Maine economy in 1966 when he successfully led a campaign to allow restaurants, lounges and hotels to sell alcoholic beverages on Sundays.

Over the years, he introduced many influential friends, including former senators Ted Kennedy, Patrick Leahy and Chris Dodd to the wonders of the Dingle Peninsula. With many cousins around Ballyferriter, his pride and joy was the house he built there overlooking ocean and cliffs.

His purpose was to have new generations of family reconnect with Irish relatives. His school master and archaeologist cousin, Denis O’Connor, helped him select its Irish name, Feorann, “edge of the sea, a verdant bank on a mountainside . . . ”

His ashes will be interred at Ballyferriter alongside his sister Mary, brother Walter and nephew Philip.

He is survived by former wife Shirley, wife Jeanette Marston Dunfey and five children, Robert, Roy, Eileen, Brian, and Maryanne, and by four of his 11 siblings, Jack, Eileen, Jerry and Eleanor.