Bringing home the 'fighting Irish'


Martin Naughton’s far-reaching passions include Irish-America, the values that kept Glen Dimplex out of the global financial mire, and the value of bringing 35,000 fans of American football to Dublin, in league with Don Keough

WE NEVER quite understood them, those Irish-Americans. Giddy as toddlers while touring “God’s own country”, with their guileless questions, their insatiable thirst for the land of The Quiet Man, the search for roots that inevitably led them up some godforsaken boreen and to bemused cousins 10 times removed.

They were just as disconcerting on their home turf. They actually meant it when they said “drop in”. And they were embarrassingly hospitable, bringing out the treasured Waterford Glass and Irish linen while the children performed a solemn hornpipe in traditional Irish-dancing costumes, followed maybe by an awkward stand-off about American funding for the IRA, over a glass of Jameson.

They looked like those cool Americans from the sitcoms – but ones that seemed hell-bent on reminding us of everything that was uncool about us. We shared a gene pool, but the cultural gulf seemed as wide as the Atlantic.

It’s no wonder that a sharp, free-ranging mind such as Martin Naughton’s was always fascinated by Irish America. Early on, when an American said they were Irish, Naughton learned not to ask excitedly whereabouts in Ireland; too literal. “Being Irish means you belong to the clan. It’s what you feel. They feel Irish. The big question for them is – are you one, two or four generations? And they say it with pride.”

He says this with undisguised affection, as one who confesses that he has always had a love affair with the US. But Martin Naughton didn’t get where he is today by indulging in sentiment. As a young businessman 40 years ago, he loved the American can-do spirit and the concept that “the business of America is business”. He encouraged his sons, Neil and Fergal, to get their primary degrees in Ireland and their postgraduate degrees in the US; they did so, in Columbia, Stanford and Harvard. And through it all, he recognised the massive economic potential of the diaspora for the Irish economy. If it sounds a tad commercial to delicate Irish ears more accustomed to addressing the diaspora in reverential terms of lighted candles in windows, we probably need to get over it.

It’s the conjunction of the diaspora and a forthcoming American college football game that has us sharing salmon and prawns from Carlingford, boiled potatoes in their skins and some delicious white wine from Lochlann Quinn’s “lake”, as Naughton jokingly calls it, in the boardroom of the grey, rather functional Glen Dimplex headquarters in Dunleer, Co Louth.

A cynic might suspect he has another agenda, but with 10,000 employees and a global company worth €2 billion, of which Ireland comprises less than 2 per cent, Martin Naughton hardly needs the publicity. Plus, as he puts it in his unreconstructed Dundalk accent, “an unknown enemy is hard to destroy, so the less the competition knows, the better”. At 72, he has a legacy to burnish, of course, but his customary aversion to interviews and determination to keep the business private suggests that any soaring ego is under control.

In fact, the only sign of anything soaring in this building is the enormous model of an albatross that hangs incongruously over the heating and cooking appliances in the showroom/lobby (he is fascinated by the bird, which has the largest wingspan of any), and the breathtaking multiples of Glen Dimplex earnings ratcheting up during a gallop through the company’s 40-year history on a 20-minute video.

But he’s a man with good reason to gloat, a rare one who faced down the corporate sirens of the boom. “We don’t really do recessions,” he says. He ensured that his company had the funds to survive two recessions. It has carried no debt for 10 years. He had no truck with cross-guarantees, so his personal ventures – some of which were unsuccessful, such as an involvement with the Irish Glass Bottle debacle – never become entangled with Glen Dimplex. Integrity is a company watchword: if his wife, Carmel, wants a Glen Dimplex product, she has to buy it like everyone else. And it’s just silly, in his view, to live abroad for tax reasons.

An interview he gave The Irish Times in late 2010, a week after the troika entered Ireland, elicited some trenchant views from him that produced “a huge postbag”, he says now. “And not all of them were positive. But they mostly were.” Back then, he suggested the Dáil should be halved in size and that questions should be asked about the need for a Senate and a standing army. He believed that Ireland had “plenty of politicians and very few statesmen”.

He also had a lash at ordinary people and their sense of “entitlement to everything”, unlike his parents’ generation with their self-reliance and enormous sacrifices.

Two years on, he seems a lot more sanguine, or perhaps just more determined to be positive. “I think we’re much harder on ourselves than other people are. This is not a unique situation here . . . But I never liked the ‘Celtic Tiger’ as a phrase. I thought it was arrogant and I used to go mad when I heard ‘We’re the richest country in the world, therefore we can do this or that’.”

Among the big hitters in corporate Irish-America, he says, “the attitude to Ireland is that we dropped the ball, but it’s always said in a way of regret more than anything else . . . And I think genuinely there’s now a sense of respect that we’re getting our act together, taking the medicine without rioting in the streets and burning down buildings. I think we’d be regarded as very mature about how we voted in the last referendum, ie to carry on doing what we’re doing. But we’ve gone down the greasy pole a fair old bit all the same. I would like a faster pace of action, but we are on the right track.”

HE HEAPS PRAISEon the Irish business-manager class, recalling a time when any company coming to Ireland “had to bring everyone in, from supervisors up; when all we had was cheap labour, nothing else. I think the future for Ireland is bright, but we’ve got to balance the books, sort it out.”

He produces a graphic that shows people’s average earnings in eurozone countries over the past 10 years. This demonstrates, as he puts it, that Ireland has “done better than anyone else in the action we’ve taken”. It shows the mountainous earnings spike of Greece, Ireland and Italy around 2009, followed by a vertiginous drop in Ireland. Proof positive that the medicine has been taken.

But that sense of entitlement rankles. “There are still a lot of people who have the expectation that they’re entitled to everything and want to pay for nothing. I think we got spoilt over a period as a country. I think people have become more realistic and have made sacrifices, but there is still the sense that the country owes us a living,” he says, mentioning “old-age pensions and free television licences and free this and that”. He also regards our education system as mediocre. “With university, we’re into the headage business.” Still, the Naughton Foundation is putting generous funding into university scholarships around the country and he is constantly amazed at the calibre of the young students.

The national government he sought two years ago never materialised, of course. So what have we now? “We have no alternative government at the moment. But people in Government go in with the best of intentions. They are patriotic and trying their best and I think they’re hard-working. So I think we should give them every support we can and let’s see what happens when their turn is up.” Any sign of those “statesmen” he mentioned? “I find politicians globally are somewhat disappointing, not just in Ireland,” he says diplomatically.

All this is making him a little edgy and he drags the topic back to Irish-America and that football game. And so we watch another short video, this one a heart-stirring homage to the University of Notre Dame, the 160-year-old Catholic university in South Bend, Indiana, with its indelible Irish roots and the famous “Fighting Irish” tag.

As Dolores pours the milk in his tea – “I’m such an old guy. I’m allowed to stir, but often it’s stirred for me” – Naughton’s conjunction of interests becomes clear: Irish-America, the Irish economy and the University of Notre Dame. The common denominator, unlikely as it seems, is an American college football game next Saturday, which has been the talk of Washington’s corridors of power and major corporate US all summer. The twist is that it’s being played in the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, of all places. And it’s sold out.

This is big. The spectacle will be broadcast coast to coast in the US by CBC sport, and ESPN American will be feeding it to 63 countries. More directly, it is pulling more than 35,000 Americans into Ireland for a week, mainly because one of the teams is Notre Dame and most of its fans are of Irish extraction. Happily, since they comprise a Who’s Who of corporate US, says Naughton, they are serious spenders; to the expected tune of between €100 million and €250 million in a week. And that’s not counting the spin-offs from the numerous conferences and dinners, designed to get Irish business networking furiously with Irish America and to demonstrate definitively that Ireland is open for business.

Many of the incoming heavyweights from the likes of Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, IBM, Berkshire Hathaway, Hearst Magazines and Goldman Sachs will be staying for a week, trailed in many cases by dozens of family members keen to see the land of their ancestors, some being wafted around in corporate jets. A group of 150 pharmaceutical buyers engaged with Enterprise Ireland is building a week-long business schedule around the game.

Side events will include a business forum chaired by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade in Government Buildings, with more than 60 top global businesses represented; a talk for engineers with Charles Bolden from Nasa as a main attraction; and a lecture at the Royal Irish Academy, chaired by historian Kevin Whelan, with Tom Bartlett and Bob Schmuhl of Notre Dame among the speakers.

ALTHOUGH THE GAMEand the events around it have been years in the making, it all seems to have flown under the public radar. Yet it’s being dubbed the largest movement of US citizens in peacetime. Since Navy [as in the US navy] is the “home” team, confusingly, a fair percentage of unusually straight-backed fans with very short hair may be expected. Notre Dame’s spectacle alone will include 200 band members, a 40-strong choir and 10 cheerleaders. Some 445 coaches are being hired to move people around. The day following the game is expected to be Dublin Airport’s busiest day in history.

The Naughton family’s imprint is everywhere. Fergal Naughton is responsible for the Pep Rally, a traditional, free, eve-of-game rally for fans, but in Ireland it is being turned into a huge “Welcome Home Notre Dame” shindig in the 02 organised by Philip King. This time, the 10,000-strong attendance will pay a $20 (€16) admission charge, all of it destined for a handful of Irish charities such as the Separated Children Education Service in Parnell Square and Friends of the Elderly. Glen Dimplex will pick up the tab for the gig.

Neil Naughton is responsible for the Tailgating party, a traditional component of college football, entailing well-filled car-boots of food and drink. The Irish version, sponsored by Coca-Cola, is expected to swamp Temple Bar on Saturday morning with fans, flags, music from the team bands and Irish food showcased by Bord Bia.

Martin and Carmel Naughton will host 100 guests at each of two sit-down dinners on Wednesday and Thursday nights in the newly built curvilinear conservatory of Stackallan, the 300-year-old mansion built by the Williamite general, Gustavus Hamilton, beside the river Boyne. As its current master leafs through a pretty, specially-commissioned booklet about the charms of Stackallan (ready just in time for the week’s festivities), he points proudly to pictures of the tall, handsome mansion, the Naughton offspring and their spouses, Carmel with her bees, her shell house, the guinea fowl, the Japanese Garden, the Ha Ha, and the Birthday Garden – an entire winning garden from the Chelsea Flower Show acquired in 1998 as a surprise for Martin. The next project will be a Chinese garden. So he likes gardening, then? “I can’t sleep in a house that has a shovel in it,” he says.

Naughton believes the show is essential for these influential visitors. “They’re going to go back to the US with an attitude and we want that to be a warm glow of positive things about the country. And it’s why we’re taking time and effort to put work and money into it. It’s why Carmel is opening her home to bring 200 people here and feed them and wine them.” And it’s why he is taking over a high-end restaurant on Friday to encourage yet another 100 businesspeople from here and across the Atlantic to talk to each other.

And does he think Ireland and Dublin can put out the welcome mat? He has no doubt. “There’s a ship called The World that we have an apartment on that came to Dublin in 2010 and then to Cork. [Very wealthy people call The World home. It circumnavigates the world continually, in a four-year cycle]. The World will spend three to five days in a city to get to know it and these were international people from all over, with no connection to us. Leaving Cork, the big thing they talked about after Ireland was the friendliness of the people. The feeling was ‘we didn’t stay long enough in Ireland, we want to go back’. And that’s only two years ago.”

The third component, of course, is Notre Dame. There’s a heartfelt devotion, in time and considerable money, that dates back to a lunch at Newman House in Dublin, before the first American college football game here between Notre Dame and Navy in Croke Park in 1996. An important outcome was a meeting with Don Keough, that has since evolved into a deep friendship. Keough’s own rise from a modest Iowan background to serve on the boards of Coca-Cola (ensuring that Ireland benefited heavily from Coca-Cola investment) and Berkshire Hathaway, among others, exemplifies the trajectory of the Irish in America. His involvement in Irish affairs has been a long and intimate one. He was an economic adviser to six taoisigh, he says from his New York home, and his unswerving devotion to Irish culture led to the “resharpening” of the focus on Irish studies at Notre Dame (which now has 20 full-time professors) and ultimately, the establishment, with Martin Naughton, of the Keough Naughton Notre Dame Centre on Merrion Square in Dublin.

Keough was the driving force behind that first game in Croke Park and he recalls Naughton’s characteristic response as he listened to proposals for a Notre Dame programme in Dublin: “What took you so long? If you were Jewish, you’d have been in Jerusalem long before now.”

SINCE THEN, a couple of thousand Notre Dame graduates and undergraduates, many inspired by the sustained powerful force of the Irish grandmother, have streamed through the distinctive blue door of O’Connell House (once the home of Daniel O’Connell) over the years for Notre Dame’s Dublin programme, in partnership with Trinity College and UCD.

Keough, who broke through the glass ceiling of “No Irish need apply”, speaks of Notre Dame as a place “that gave the Irish something to be proud of.

“This was a struggling group, working its way into American society and this little Catholic school from the middle of nowhere in the mid-west that no-one had ever heard of came east to play Army in 1913 and beat them. So the Irish adopted Notre Dame as theirs. It gave the college a magic dignity.”

Through all the vicissitudes, Keough remains loyal to his heritage. “There is a special magic about the Irish. They still have an identity here. It’s the sense of feeling at home. The diaspora is real.”

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