Obituary: Eddie Kelliher

An Olympic sailor and family man who transformed Eason’s retail business

Eddie Kelliher: He was a pragmatist and his life was characterised by a steely decisiveness and meticulous attention to detail.

Eddie Kelliher: He was a pragmatist and his life was characterised by a steely decisiveness and meticulous attention to detail.


Born: March 8th , 1920; Died: June 1st , 2017

Eddie Kelliher, who has died in his 98th year, was an Irish Olympic sailor, former president of Dublin Chamber of Commerce and managing director and chairman of Easons, the book retailer.

Born in Tralee, Co Kerry, business was in his genes. The Kellihers were millers and general merchants since 1859.

Educated at Castleknock College, he went on to become an accountant and, after training for a year with the firm’s accountants in Cork, joined the family business. Cycling the winding roads of Kerry, he sold feed and supplies to farmers, in what proved to be an invaluable apprenticeship.

Tall and handsome, with twinkling blue eyes, he was fluent in Irish, could converse in Latin, had a passion for the Greek classics, and a conversational knowledge of French, Spanish and Italian. He was a pragmatist, and his life was characterised by a steely decisiveness and meticulous attention to detail.

An accomplished sailor, he represented Ireland at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics (along with the late Harry Maguire and the late Rob Dalton) in the Dragon class. The event of a lifetime, ending suitably with Black Velvet parties of Guinness and champagne, Tokyo was the peak of a sailing career which began off the Kerry coast and matured over decades at the Royal Irish Yacht Club in Dún Laoghaire where he had many successes and is fondly remembered.

He continued to sail throughout his long and full life, and his wife, Doreen (nee O’Sullivan), from Valentia Island became his cockpit hand when a regular crew man moved to Cork. Having represented Ireland in the first Dragon World Championships, the couple sailed together extensively in the Mediterranean, often charting a course based on the travels of Ulysses or some other classical figure. On retiring from competitive racing, they lived for several years aboard a 37ft Nauticat (cruising boat) in Mallorca, from where they explored the Mediterranean before returning to live in Ireland.

Nationwide expansion

Realising in 1953 that the business would not support two families, Kelliher sold his share to his cousin and moved to Dublin where he joined Eason and Son Limited, to manage the shop in O’Connell Street. Rapidly promoted, by 1957 he was appointed director. He became managing director in 1970 and was chairman of the group 10 years later, a position he held until his retirement in 1984.

The years spent wheeling and dealing with Kerry farmers also bore fruit as he transformed Eason’s retail business, expanding the company nationally from its O’Connell Street base to every city and sizable town in the country. That he was his own man also became apparent when he rejected a powerful politician’s request to stop distribution of the satirical magazine, Private Eye, which carried an article showing him in a bad light. It duly appeared on the newsstands.

As president of the Dublin Chamber of Commerce (1978-1979) he was appointed to the government commission on industrial relations, which produced tough medicine for wildcat strikes, including fines on trade unions and a cooling-off period in activities vital to the economic life of the nation. His calls for the abolition of State monopolies and for Ireland’s complicated social welfare system to be simplified also made headlines.

Despite his onerous business commitments, he was above all a devoted family man. But when it came to sailing he was the quintessential “club man”. On the stroke of 10.30 every morning until his death, he visited the Royal Irish Yacht Club to read the club’s copy of The Irish Times.

Predeceased by his wife, Doreen, and daughters Christine and Laura, he is survived by daughters Brenda, Judith, Felicity and Genevieve; sons Desmond, Malcolm and St John; sister Sue McKenna; 12 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.