Gillian Bowler recalled as ‘glamorous trailblazer’

Funeral hears tributes for ‘tough but fair’ businesswoman who died aged 64


The extraordinary life of an entrepreneur and travel holiday trailblazer was celebrated when family and friends gathered for the funeral service of businesswoman Gillian Bowler.

Ms Bowler died on Wednesday aged 64 after a long illness. Blackrock Clinic chaplain Father Gerry Byrne told mourners at the Victorian Chapel of Mount Jerome Crematorium in Harold’s Cross, Dublin that they were celebrating a “truly wonderful life”.

Professor Diarmuid Hegarty of Griffith College, who gave the eulogy said: “Let she always be remembered as intelligent, bright, glamorous and a tough but fair businesswoman, with the greatest of God’s gifts - a generous heart”.

He told mourners “she possessed in abundance the characteristics of a true entrepreneur - self belief, hard work, attention to fine detail and determination to be the best and not to be defeated”.

A photograph of Ms Bowler with her sunglasses on top of her head in her trademark fashion was placed on her coffin alongside a wreath of white lilies as the service commenced with music and song by Encore Occasions.

Her grandson Sean read from the Book of Ecclesiastes “There is a season for everything under the sun” as Father Byrne said “Gillian truly lived through and blazed through all the seasons”.

In his eulogy, Prof Hegarty described her as “incredibly innovative, great fun to work with, supportive, understanding, ahead of her time, an inspiration particularly to women, glamorous, intelligent, an indomitable spirit, never afraid to take a risk, a legend, a trailblazer”.

He outlined her iconic career as a pioneer in the travel industry and highlighted a few anecdotes of her childhood, which he said were an indicator of her search for adventure.

She ran away from home on the Isle of Wight aged six and boarded a train with her teddy bear and suitcase, before being rumbled by the ticket collector.

She sought more adventure when she made a home-made bomb that blew up the kitchen stove.

Her school years were interrupted by illness and on her 15th birthday she moved to London to work for Greek Island Holidays which employed three people and introduced her to the travel and holiday industry.

She moved to Dublin to set up an office and it was there she first met her husband Harry Synder but romance only blossomed later in Corfu where he ran a bar. She started selling her first holidays to Greece with a £100 loan.

At the end of the first year of trading they had sold 200 holidays. “She brought glamour to the package holiday industry.” By 1983 they were selling 25,000 holidays out of a total annual market of 200,000.

Prof Hegarty said that over the next dozen years they developed Budget Travel into Ireland’s largest package holiday company which in 1999 was flying 400,000 people to holiday destinations, had 30 shops in Ireland and employed 400 people.

In 2005 she received the Griffith College distinguished fellowship award in recognition of her distinguished contribution to business and public services. Other recipients included John Hume, Seamus Heaney, Mary McAleese, Peter Sutherland and Chief Justice Susan Denham.

She served as chairwoman of Fáilte Ireland, President of the Institute of Directors, founding chairwoman of the Irish Museum of Modern Art, as well as chairing a tourism taskforce.

She joined the board of Irish Life in 1998 and chaired Irish Life & Permanent from 2004 to 2011 leading the board through the aftermath of the financial crisis.

“This was probably the most stressful part of her professional life,” Professor Hegarty said.

He said the quality of her professionalism and commitment was displayed when she was sick in hospital. He had phoned her to discover she was working through the PWC report on Irish Life & Permanent as she wanted to assess the company’s response.

He added that “the public does not know the extent of Gillian’s generosity from her own pocket to relieve the stress of many who were caught in the financial crisis”.

Father Byrne said he had known her for the past 25 years as she visited Blackrock Clinic over the years for treatment. “Those trips to the clinic made it possible over those years for her to continue that kept her strong for all that she achieved over those years.”

Despite her illness she was always concerned about other people. She was “very generous with her time, skills and expertise, helping so many people all along the way”, he said.

Her husband Harry, step-daughter Rachel, grandson Sean and her sister Geraldine were the chief mourners. Her mother Josephine was unable to attend the service.

The mourners also included former tánaiste Mary Harney and her husband Brian Geoghegan, former senior civil servant Tim Dalton, harpist Deirdre O’Callaghan, former Irish Life & Permanent (ILP)chief executive David Went, Tedcastles Group chairman and former ILP audit committee chairman Breffni Byrne, PR consultants, Ray Gordon, Eileen Gleeson, James Morrissey, Sister Stanislaus Kennedy, broadcaster Pat Kenny, writer and broadcaster Deirdre Purcell, former RTÉ director of public affairs Kevin Healy, journalist Maureen Cairnduff and gardener Diarmuid Gavin.