Businessman building bridge to a more equal Ireland

Philanthropist Tom Cavanagh honoured by alma mater UCC

Tom Cavanagh at the opening of the Cavanagh bridge at University College Cork. Photograph: Clare Keogh

Tom Cavanagh at the opening of the Cavanagh bridge at University College Cork. Photograph: Clare Keogh


Turin, Moscow and Havana are three iconic cities which helped shape the outlook and work of Tom Cavanagh, businessman, philanthropist and optimist.

In December, University College Cork, his alma matter to which he has given so much time and support over the years, honoured the Fermoy man with a bridge in his family’s name on the grounds of the university.

The Cavanagh bridge will stand as a tribute to Cavanagh’s relentless pursuit of educational advancement, forward-thinking policies and a fairer society for all.

But in his sitting room in Fermoy he traces the roots of his interest in social responsibility and unity to a scholarship he won some 65 years ago.

“It was 1953 and the Italians were pushing for an entity that would unify Europe after two world wars which did so much damage to their country. I think the Department of Foreign Affairs here were involved. Anyway, as a graduate I was selected to represent Ireland and spent three months in Turin, where the people were out on the street every weekend demanding unity across Europe,” Cavanagh says.

“I felt so far removed from Fermoy, the small town I’d always lived in, mixing with nationalities from right across Europe. The brief for the graduates from 40 countries was to study and report on the barriers to unification.”

The irony that today’s Italian government is largely Eurosceptic isn’t lost on the father of four who once shared breakfast with Pope John Paul II in the pontiff’s private quarters in the Vatican.

“I never met anyone like him,” Cavanagh says. “He was a saintly figure, exuding otherworldliness all the time I was there. You really felt you were in the presence of somebody who was very different. I could speak Italian so we were able to converse easily.”

In contrast he also met the great train robber Ronnie Biggs in a hotel in Brazil while on holiday there but that he explains is a “sordid story” for another day.

Sports all-rounder

A commerce graduate, Cavanagh was named the best sports all-rounder in university on three occasions.

“I played for the hurling, Gaelic football and basketball teams and also ran for the university,” he says.

His love of, and involvement in, third-level sport saw him lead out the Irish team as the chef d’équipe at the World Student Games in Moscow in 1975. He even met the then Russian president Leonid Brezhnev.

And in the hours before the official opening ceremony, attended by 105,000 people, at least a dozen helicopters circled the skies overhead to break up the clouds ensuring those in the stadium below were dry as the eyes of the world descended upon the Russian capital. The entire spectacle intrigued Cavanagh.

Russia was fascinating to me. Their socialist system focused on equality. You could walk through Moscow and every home was the same. Soviet blocks of flats. No unemployment. I’d never seen anything like it. Everyone wearing the same clothes, buying the same poor goods. But my, it was grey. No flashing lights or advertising. However, there seemed to be a shortage of happiness. I wondered was this because of the Soviet people or the system under which they lived,” he says.

He returned to Moscow five years later for the Olympic Games.

And in 1986 Cavanagh, who began his working life in the motor dealership built up by his father before diversifying, boarded a flight for Havana with a group of socialist academics.

“I still wondered if this socialist system had merits that could help improve Ireland but in Cuba I found a formerly vivacious people devoid of spark. It was depressing. Though they had top medical and educational facilities the system had failed the people, removing any incentive for personal advancement,” he recalls.

And while he believes capitalism has delivered in the main part, raising living standards for many, he admits it has led to inequalities too.

“The gap between the very wealthy and the rest is growing. It’s not sustainable and we, as a country, must not play a part in assisting large multinationals to avoid paying their fair share of tax. We cannot overlook the imperfections of capitalism too.”

Now in his late 80s, Cavanagh stills speaks with the same energy and enthusiasm about the pursuit of equality as he did in decades gone by.

He points to the French riots in recent weeks as examples of how the people will rise up unless governments place them at the heart of policy.

In the 1980s he formed the Tomar Trust with his wife Marie, who died in 2017, the devoted couple having been married for 61 years. (Tomar comes from a combination of their names, Tom and Marie).

“Marie was a student in Queen’s University Belfast and I met her after a Sigerson Cup match up there in 1952. She was from Belfast and we were very happy together always. I started the trust because I wanted to spend more time on social matters rather than personal affairs and Marie supported that,” he says with his trademark humility and lack of fuss.

Indeed, it was through the support of the Tomar Trust for integration initiatives, in which I am involved, that I first became aware of Cavanagh’s thirst for a better and fairer Ireland.

“One area which must be always highlighted is education which, I believe, is a crucial tool in building future generations,” he says. “The public don’t think enough about education. We leave it to someone else because it’s complicated. Where is societal opinion on the content of the curriculum or the focus on teacher training? Also, I think, perhaps, the teachers’ unions in secondary schools are very strong. Of course, workers need to be represented but not at the cost of advancement and improvement for the students. Resistance to change ultimately helps no one.”

Housing crisis

He also has strong views in relation to the housing shortage saying: “Planners need to be listened to and politicians need to be brave enough to do that with a focus on the long term. We must focus on building communities, learn from past errors and not just build new houses. Commercial interests alone cannot determine the make-up of housing communities. You need a variety of different types of ownership to cater for those from all parts of society.”

He also believes sports bodies should desist from embracing alcohol advertising: “Some have stopped, others like the State-funded IRFU have not. Alcohol is a drug and we must stop promoting it, especially to youngsters through sport.”

His current interest seems to be rural Ireland. “The rural nature of the country is an important part of why we’re successful. In the future you’ll see more people moving away from cities to areas where the quality of life might be better and accommodation less expensive. Where community can be more diverse. It’s vital then that we support rural towns and villages and keep that beating heart of Irish society alive,” he says.

Still full of spirit and ideas Cavanagh, who was behind the hugely successful Irish Business Against Litter League (IBAL), is a descendant of Michael Cavanagh, Young Irelander and biographer of Thomas Francis Meagher, the man behind the Irish flag.

“We founded the IBAL league and watched it grow. I am very proud of that and the change in culture it has helped produce, making Ireland a cleaner country and changing our mindset to littering which was, just a few decades ago, such a major problem in Irish cities, towns and villages. But we have to be continually vigilant and focused on keeping our country clean,” he says.

He is immersed in his work but some day soon plans to take a step back.

“I have 22 grandchildren and great-grandchildren and I would like to stop and spend more time with the young ones . . . I know though that it’s easier said than done.”

And with that his telephone rings and Cavanagh is back in the zone. Thinking, discussing, doing and exploring ways to improve the country he believes in so much.

“I’d be very positive about Ireland’s future,” he says. “We’re a bright and intelligent people, I think we can overcome any hurdles. Our big asset continues to be our people and we must nourish them. The people shouldn’t be far from the Government’s mind in everything that they do.”

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