Obituary: Michael Conlon

Visionary Cork county manager who attracted industry and jobs to region

Michael Conlon: December 15th, 1926-November 15th, 2016. He clinched a gas interconnector deal between Ireland and Britain. Photograph: Mark Kelleher

Michael Conlon: December 15th, 1926-November 15th, 2016. He clinched a gas interconnector deal between Ireland and Britain. Photograph: Mark Kelleher

 

Michael Conlon, who has died in his 90th year, was one of Ireland’s most dynamic public servants. Not alone did he manage Cork County Council for 18 years, a period in which his achievements were considerable: Conlon was also a former chairman of Bord Gáis, headed up the Trustee Savings Bank, and was the youngest manager of the State-run Pigs and Bacon Commission.

It would be hard to exaggerate the importance of Conlon’s vision in attracting industry and jobs to the Cork region. The major, if ill-fated, oil storage depot at Whiddy Island in Bantry Bay was built during his tenure. He also spearheaded the Inniscarra water scheme, which provides a steady supply of clean, potable water from the man-made lake behind the ESB hydroelectric dam.

A source of both domestic water and a vital element of the raw material for Cork’s burgeoning pharmaceutical sector, the scheme focused international attention on Ireland as a base for global corporations such as the Pfizer plant at Ringaskiddy, which began production in 1970.

Born in Mount Temple, Co Westmeath, Conlon was schooled by the Marist Brothers at Athlone, cycling 120 miles to and fro every week. Bright and competitive, with a quick sense of humour, he played golf and tennis. When he had something to announce, he liked to hold a press briefing in his office at the top of the 12-storey county hall. An indefatigable worker, he was also a master of the art of delegation.

Noisy protests

Conlon was 33 when he took over as Cork County manager in 1960 and built a team of the most talented and effective personnel in the council. In a county encompassing one-seventh of the State, progress was not without its hiccups. As people became more environmentally aware, noisy protests were held outside the towering office block built during his tenure.

Unphased by protests, Conlon continued to support industrial projects that promised jobs. Seeing the need to build houses for the inflow of workers, he set about creating a series of dormitory towns around Cork city in the 1960s and 1970s.

Beginning with Ballincollig, a few miles west of the city boundary, he fast-tracked the building of housing estates around the old village that once played a role in the Napoleonic wars by manufacturing gunpowder for the British empire. Under his plan, the sleepy hamlet of a few shops and pubs rapidly became Ireland’s fastest growing town. Other villages, such as Carrigaline and Blarney, also mushroomed.

One of Conlon’s legacies is Cork’s superb regional park, which the council acquired from the Irish Defence Forces. Where a network of slow canals once carried gunpowder through this archeological treasure, a leafy public park now flourishes by the river Lee.

Conlon led the local authority until 1978, when he left to head up the Cork and Limerick savings banks (later the Trustee Savings Bank). Twelve years later he become chairman of Bord Gáis, a position he held until his retirement in 2001.

Price of gas

In his time at Bord Gáis, Conlon served under seven different ministers and could boast that the price of gas never rose on his watch. He oversaw the expansion of the company and clinched a deal for an interconnector between Ireland and Britain under the Irish Sea.

Conlon also sat on the board of the Mercy Hospital in Cork and was a director of the National Concert Hall. He received an honorary doctorate from UCC.

Until the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, he continued to keep himself busy into his 80s, doing the monthly accounts for a company owned by one of his sons.

When asked by one of his 18 grandchildren, “What does a chairman do?” he replied: “He is the guy that gets fired when something goes wrong.”

Michael Conlon is predeceased by his wife, Kitty. He is survived by their seven children, Bryan, Deirdre, Niamh, Rory, Orla, Clodagh and Dara, and by his brother, Fr John Conlon.