Founder of duty-free shops and peace activist

 

Brendan O'Regan:  Dr Brendan O'Regan, who has died aged 90, founded airport duty-free shopping and spearheaded the development of Shannon airport.

The duty-free concept was so successful that it was adapted as the basis for the industrial free zone adjacent to the airport. This led to the growth of Shannon as a European manufacturing basis for US companies, and to the creation of the first new town in the history of the State.

He devoted much of his life to the cause of peace and reconciliation in Ireland, founding Co-operation North (now Co-operation Ireland) in 1979. The organisation drew support and membership from people of both unionist and nationalist traditions, as well as those who saw themselves outside these two groups. This set the scene for the work of Co-operation Ireland, which continues today, bringing more than 10,000 people together each year in projects which focus on shared learning and mutual benefit.

Born in Sixmilebridge, Co Clare, in May 1917, he was one of the six children of James O'Regan and his wife Nora (née Ryan). He attended the local national school before going on to Blackrock College, Dublin, for his secondary education.

His father, a successful businessman and former chairman of Clare County Council, instilled in him the belief that the most important thing a person can do is create work for others - a sense of practical patriotism. When his father purchased the Old Ground Hotel in Ennis, he encouraged Brendan to pursue a career in hotel management. Taking his father's advice, he studied abroad, returning in 1938 to manage the Falls Hotel in Ennistymon. Here his energy caught the attention of senior civil servants, and he was asked to manage the ailing St Stephen's Green Club in Dublin. He quickly turned the club into a profitable enterprise.

In 1943 the government appointed him as catering comptroller at Foynes flying boat base, a refuelling point for transatlantic seaplanes. In 1945 he was transferred to the airbase at Rineanna (now Shannon) where he was again in charge of catering.

He enjoyed telling the story of the first lunch served at Rineanna. "Lord Headfort said to me: 'That's quite extraordinary, we didn't expect anything like that. Could I congratulate your chef?' I said, 'But he's not on duty today'. And he said, 'My God, if you can do it like that when the chef is off, what will it be like afterwards? There was no chef of course: the stuff was coming in a laundry basket from the Old Ground."

Two years later he opened the world's first duty-free shop, selling Irish whiskey to disembarking passengers. Gradually other products were added, and in 1954 a mail order service was introduced. Irish Coffee, credited to chef Joseph Sheridan, is another legacy of the early Shannon days.

Applying the lessons of a visit to the United States under the Marshall Aid Plan, he helped draft a report that became the blueprint for a vision of Shannon revolving around tourism, air freight and industry. It was his pioneering vision of the development of hotels and amenities in support of tourism that led to his appointment in 1957 as chairman of Bord Fáilte Éireann, a position he held for 16 years.

He identified the potential of Bunratty Castle as a tourist attraction and with the co-operation of its owner, Lord Gort, it was renovated and opened to the public in 1960.

He believed that teamwork was the key to Shannon's success. His vision extended beyond the challenges facing Ireland. He saw that lessons learned from promoting friendship in Ireland could be applied in other parts of the world and, to assist in this, he also established the Centre for International Co-operation and the Irish Peace Institute.

After his retirement, he established Obair Enterprise in Newmarket-on-Fergus, which seeks to develop a spirit of enterprise in the community, and he continued to be involved in the work of Co-operation Ireland through his role as president.

In 1978 an honorary doctorate was conferred on him by the National University of Ireland and Queen's University Belfast honoured him in 1999. The University of Limerick conferred on him an honorary doctorate in 2002. He was awarded a CBE in 1993 for his contribution to reconciliation in the North, was voted "Clareman of the Year" in 1984 and was made a freeman of Limerick city in 1995. He married in 1950 Rita Barrow, who predeceased him, and is survived by his sons Andrew and Declan, and daughters Carmel, Geraldine and Margaret.

Brendan O'Regan: born May 15th, 1917; died February 2nd, 2008