Public-spirited Limerick merchant prince

 

George Edward (Ted) Russell, who has died aged 92, was a Freeman of Limerick city, where for more than half a century he was an outstanding public figure and leading businessman.

He was five times mayor of Limerick, a member of the City Council for 37 years until he retired in 1979, served on the Harbour Authority for 46 years and was for 26 years chairman of the Limerick Harbour Commissioners until he retired in 1992. On that occasion the minister for defence and marine, Mr David Andrews, visited Limerick to unveil a plaque renaming the floating dock in honour of the retiring chairman.

The minister paraphrased St Matthew by saying that "a prophet in his own country is the exception rather than the rule".

Later Russell told one journalist: "I believe I am now the only person, other than the Queen of England, who has a city docks named after them in their lifetime."

Russell served for one term as an independent member of the Dáil for East Limerick and was later a member of the Seanad in 1969-77. He was unsuccessful as a Clann na Phoblachta candidate in 1948, and 1951 and in a byelection in 1952. He resigned from the Clann during a local split in the party and joined Fine Gael, but was unsuccessful as a candidate for the party three times, 1965, 1973 and 1977.

He always described his Dáil term as "short and sharp". He once said: "I have mixed feelings about national politics now. It was interesting, but it was very much a full-time job. I had a lot of business responsibilities at the time and quite honestly I always preferred local politics."

The Russell family background had always been Parnellite and Cumann na nGaedheal.

Although he raised some $45,000 as chairman of the Limerick Memorial Committee during a visit to America in 1957, he always considered that it represented his most embarrassing occasion. At the time it appeared he had lost the great gold ceremonial chain of the office of mayor of Limerick. "It was missing for over 12 hours. After a sleepless night and endless prayers for its recovery," he explained, "it turned up just in time on unlocking the boot of the official car."

For most of his life he was chairman of the family provender milling business and was chairman of the Silvermines company for 38 years. This followed an investment of £2,000 by his 83-year-old aunt, Helena O'Connor. Her nephew said at the time: "She was supporting this speculative Irish industry when many others were reluctant to do so." He was also chairman of Aran Energy.

Despite all Russell's public activities, he said it was his work with the Cancer Association of Ireland that he considered his most significant contribution to society. He served as chairman of the association 1949-61 and saw the building of St Luke's Hospital, Dublin, as well as diagnostic clinics throughout the country. This was long before he was to know that this was to be his fatal illness.

Ted Russell was born on April 9th, 1912, the week before the Titanic sank. He first attended Crescent College in Limerick and for a short time Mount St Benedict's near Gorey under the famous Father Sweetman, but he was then sent to Stonyhurst Jesuit College in England. There, apart from receiving a fine education, he became a proficient rugby player.

On leaving Stonyhurst he went straight into the family business of Dan O'Connor, Millers.

On his return to Limerick joined the Bohemians Rugby Football Club, with which he played during his school holidays. He was captain of the club in 1936 and 1937 and later became president and trustee. He also rowed with Limerick Boat Club, although his father and uncle were founder members of the rival Shannon Rowing Club.

He played for three successive seasons with Munster and in 1938 got a final Irish rugby trial. "I was, however, too light as a forward at 12 stone 10 lb to be picked for Ireland. There were then men like Sammy Walker and Jack Higgins weighing 15 to 16 stone," he said.

Thirty-two years ago Russell donated 2½ acres of land at Barrington's Pier, near his home, which has been developed into a People's Park.

In recognition of his long service to the city of his birth he was elected an honorary freeman in June 1995, and in 2002 the University of Limerick awarded him an honorary doctorate in economics.

He is survived by his wife, Derry (née Gleeson of Nenagh), three daughters and a son: Mary Barton (Kent), Margaret Harnett (Dublin), George A. Russell (Limerick) and Derry O'Neill (Dublin).

George Edward (Ted) Russell: born April 9th, 1912; died November 28th, 2004