Former US ambassador and ‘Steelers’ owner Dan Rooney dies aged 84

Barack Obama’s first ambassador to Ireland was a co-founder of the Ireland Funds

Dan Rooney used his standing as the owner of the popular Steelers to help Mr Obama win over key blue-collar areas of Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia during his 2008 presidential election victory. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Dan Rooney used his standing as the owner of the popular Steelers to help Mr Obama win over key blue-collar areas of Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia during his 2008 presidential election victory. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

 

The former US ambassador to Ireland Dan Rooney, a co-founder of the Ireland Funds charity group, has died at the age of 84.

Mr Rooney, a long-time owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers American football team, was best known in Ireland as President Barack Obama’s first ambassador to Ireland, taking up the job shortly before his 77th birthday.

After endorsing Mr Obama to be president during the 2008 campaign, the businessman, a lifelong Republican, was appointed to serve as the US envoy to the Democratic president from 2009 to 2012.

Mr Rooney used his standing as the owner of the popular Steelers to help Mr Obama win over key blue-collar areas of Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia during his 2008 presidential election victory.

In 1976 Mr Rooney and Irish businessman Sir Anthony O’Reilly, then a senior executive at food group Heinz, established the Ireland Funds in Pittsburgh to raise money aimed at promoting peace and reconciliation in Ireland from Irish Americans who wanted to help Northern Ireland during the Troubles.

The charity helped draw money away from the republican movement which was raising funds at the time through Noraid in the US.

The Ireland Funds, which marked its 40th anniversary last year, has raised more than $550 million (€519 million) in 12 countries for more than 3,000 non-profit groups in Ireland and elsewhere.

Mr Obama said: “Dan Rooney was a great friend of mine, but more importantly, he was a great friend to the people of Pittsburgh, a model citizen, and someone who represented the United States with dignity and grace on the world stage. I knew he’d do a wonderful job when I named him as our United States Ambassador to Ireland, but naturally, he surpassed my high expectations, and I know the people of Ireland think fondly of him today.

“And I know the people of Pittsburgh, who loved him not only for the Super Bowl championships he brought as the owner of the Steelers, but for his generosity of spirit, mourn his passing today. Michelle and I offer our condolences to the Rooney family, some of the most gracious and thoughtful people we know - even as we celebrate the life of Dan Rooney: a championship-caliber good man.”

President Michael D Higgins said: “Deeply committed to Ireland and the Irish people, he was always conscious of his Irish roots,” he said.

“He was a major contributor to the Ireland Funds. Thanks to his contributions and those of others many projects promoting peace and reconciliation in Ireland were initiated, leaving a real and tangible legacy.

“All of those who met him were quick to realise his love for his native Pittsburgh and for the game of American Football. Followers of that sport will also remember him for the ‘Rooney Rule’, and his efforts at promoting greater inclusion and diversity within the sport.”

The “Rooney Rule” decreed that teams with openings for head-coaching jobs must interview at least one minority candidate in a bid to improve the sport’s diversity at management level. It followed lobbying by Mr Rooney across the NFL.

New York hotelier John Fitzpatrick, chairman of the Ireland Funds America, described Mr Rooney as “an utter gentleman and utterly selfless.”

“The work of the Ireland Funds is his legacy and Ireland is a better place because of him. Thousands have benefitted from his care and concern,” he said.

“He was a lion of a man and one of the most gentle and generous people one could ever meet,” said Kieran McLoughlin, chief executive of the Ireland Funds.

“Together with his co-founder Tony O’Reilly, Dan was the soul and sage of this organization. He did so much for so many so willingly.”

Mr Rooney along with his father Art Rooney Snr transformed the Pittsburgh Steelers into one of the most successful and powerful franchises in the American NFL, winning six Super Bowls, the most of any team in the league.

A proud Irish-American, Mr Rooney’s grandfather emigrated from Newry, Co Down to Montreal, Ohio and Pittsburgh where the late ambassador was born.

During his time serving in Dublin, he hosted annual American football games for the Fourth of July celebrations at the US ambassador’s residence, Deerfield, opposite Áras an Uachtaráin in the Phoenix Park.