Universities honour their 'Renaissance man' Feeney


PHILANTHROPIST CHUCK Feeney was described as the “Renaissance man of Irish higher education” when the universities of Ireland conferred an honorary doctorate on the Atlantic Philanthropies founder in Dublin yesterday.

The Irish-American businessman was praised during the ceremony in Dublin Castle for donating more than €1.25 billion to projects across the Republic and Northern Ireland, and for giving some €800 million to Irish universities.

Former president Mary Robinson, chancellor of Trinity College Dublin, described Mr Feeney’s philosophy as one of “giving during living”. She said he had used his wealth “in the spirit of the true benefactor” to help people anonymously and unassumingly. “The beneficial effects of Mr Feeney’s dedication to the achievements of our community are incredible,” Dr Robinson said.

She said Atlantic Philanthropies had made extraordinary investments both within and outside the walls of educational institutions, “and nowhere more so than on the island of Ireland”.

Mr Feeney had transformed Ireland’s higher education and research capacity by providing new and refurbished university buildings, she said. He had funded scholarships, libraries and student housing facilities, as well as collaborating with government in the creation of research initiatives.

Dr Robinson also noted that Mr Feeney had helped break down societal barriers by promoting integrated education in Northern Ireland. It was therefore fitting that all the universities in the Republic and Northern Ireland had come together to award him a doctorate of laws “as a mark of honour”.

Atlantic Philanthropies is to complete grant-making by the end of 2016 and cease operations in 2020.

The chairman of Science Foundation Ireland Patrick Fottrell said Mr Feeney had realised about 30 years ago that major investment was required in higher education and research to create a knowledge economy. “He invested generously and played a major part in our renaissance in higher education and research. Chuck Feeney is indeed the Renaissance man of Irish higher education,” Dr Fottrell said.

He said Mr Feeney had donated anonymously until about 11 years ago, and agreed to go public only in order to encourage other wealthy individuals to follow his “giving while living” example. Mr Feeney maintained a low-key lifestyle. “No buildings, no plaques, no endowments bear his name.”

Speaking after the ceremony, Taoiseach Enda Kenny said thousands of Irish students “owe so much to Chuck Feeney”, and described the philanthropist as “an extraordinary man who has made an extraordinary contribution to Ireland and particularly to third-level education”.

Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn also attended the event.

The degree was conferred jointly on behalf of their respective universities by senior representatives of Dublin City University; the National University of Ireland, Galway; the National University of Ireland, Maynooth; Queen’s University Belfast; Trinity College Dublin; University College Cork; University College Dublin; University of Limerick; and the University of Ulster.

NUI chancellor Maurice Manning described the event as a unique and historic occasion because it was the first time every university had come together to honour “a very special person”.

Modest philanthropist keeps it short and simple

CHUCK FEENEY responded with characteristic modesty to the praise heaped on him by the great and the good of Irish academia in Dublin Castle yesterday.

“I feel embarrassed, as rightly I should be, from all this attention but I want to say that I genuinely and sincerely appreciate your kind words, the accuracy of which will be proven over time,” he said.

The generous billionaire spoke briefly from the stage in response to university presidents and chancellors, many of whom had addressed the philanthropist in Latin during the conferring ceremony. “After such nice words about me, I have only one thing to say: my cup runneth over . . . thank you one and all for your kindness and generosity.”

Most of his remarks were focused on thanking his family, particularly his brother-in-law Jim Fitzpatrick for the care shown to his sister Arlene, who died recently.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny was among those struck by the simplicity of Mr Feeney’s short response. “It’s remarkable that all of the universities have come here to express their gratitude in person and to honour him, and to have him respond with a simple thank you and his expression of understanding for those who looked after his sister when she needed attention.”

The publicity-shy businessman continued to try to deflect attention from his efforts when speaking to reporters after the ceremony. Asked if he felt his aims and objectives had been achieved after years of philanthropic giving, he said: “Certainly the success of the Irish universities in competing elsewhere makes me realise that they’re getting good education. You’ve got a very fine group of academics that teach you.”

Had any individual project given him particular satisfaction? The University of Limerick had been transformed by new buildings and academic undertakings there had been successful, he said. He recommended other wealthy individuals follow his example of donating money to causes they considered worthy.

“My rationale is pretty simple. Given the chance to compare the satisfaction they get one way or the other, there’s no doubt that they’d rather do something good with it than nothing.”

He said he was the first person in his family to have gone to university. Born in the industrial city of Elizabeth, New Jersey to Irish-American parents Leo and Madaline, he was the only boy in a family of six. His ancestors came from Co Fermanagh. MARY MINIHAN