Those We Lost

Clockwise from top left: Harold Agnew, Phil Chevron, Tom Clancy, Ralph Dungan, Thomas Foley, and Donal O'Brien

By Irish America Staff
December / January 2014

Harold M. Agnew (1921 – 2013)

In late September, the last major living figure of the Manhattan Project died at the age of 92. Harold M. Agnew was 20 years old when he was assigned to work with Enrico Fermi, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, in his atomic research at the University of Chicago in early 1942. He was 21 when the team of researchers caused a chain reaction of splitting uranium atoms in a campus squash court, and the reality of nuclear power was confirmed.

The only son of a Scots-Irish stonecutter in Denver, Colorado, Agnew was born in 1921 and majored in chemistry at Denver University. By 1943, he had been transferred to Los Alamos National Laboratory. Though Agnew wasn’t responsible for any major breakthroughs, he was a meticulous and gifted technical researcher who contributed to the final design of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

On August 6, 1945, Agnew was on the B-29 bomber Enola Gay as it flew over Hiroshima and dropped the first bomb, taking measurements and recording the mushroom cloud that caused 80,000 immediate deaths. According to the New York Times, “he was the only person to witness the whole undertaking, from reactor to weapon to Hiroshima.”

When the war ended, Agnew earned a master’s degree from the University of Chicago and returned to Los Alamos in 1949 to work on weapons development. Throughout the 1960s, he acted as an advisor to the allied commander of Europe and was instrumental in implementing safety codes and protective procedures to control nuclear arsenals. He became director of Los Alamos in 1970 and advised Presidents Carter, Reagan, and Bush. In 1991 he participated in the first meeting between Soviet and American nuclear developers to determine what to do with the superpowers’ nuclear stockpiles. Agnew is survived by his daughter Nancy, his son John, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. – A.F.

Phil Chevron (1957 – 2013)

Philip Chevron, writer and guitarist for The Pogues, passed away on October 8 in Dublin. He was 56 years old. Chevron had been battling head and neck cancer since 2007, but had been in remission up until last year.

Chevron was born in Dublin on June 17, 1957; his name originally was Philip Ryan. Before joining The Pogues in 1984, the role he is most known for, Chevron was a member of the Irish punk band the Radiators From Space. He is credited with writing several of their songs, one of which, “Television Screen,” was the first punk single in the world to reach the top 20.

Chevron was regarded as one of the most influential figures in Irish punk music. The Pogues, who are based out of London, gained success through a fusion of traditional Irish music, rock and punk on albums such as Rum Sodomy & the Lash and If I Should Fall from Grace With God.

Widely known for his guitar playing, Chevron was also a notable lyricist and wrote several of the group’s songs, including one of its best-known, “Thousands Are Sailing,” a ballad about Irish emigration with the memorable lines: “The island is silent now / But the ghosts still haunt the waves.” After breaking up in ’96 The Pogues reunited in 2001 and have remained together since. Chevron made his last public appearance at Dublin’s Olympia Theater in August. He is survived by his mother, sister and his band, who expressed their sorrow on their website: “He was unique. We’ll miss him terribly. Dublin town, and the world, just got smaller.” – M.M.

Tom Clancy (1947 – 2013)

The military espionage writer Tom Clancy died early October at the age of 66 in his hometown of Baltimore. With over 100 million copies of his books in print, 19 novels, a dozen books of non-fiction, several spin-off novel series, a number of video games inspired by his books, and four films based on his work, Clancy may have been the most prolific genre writer of his generation.

Born in 1947, Clancy eschewed the classics of children’s literature for books, journals, studies, and manuals written for military personnel. His goal of enlisting was foiled by his nearsightedness, and he became an insurance salesman in rural Maryland. When he submitted his first manuscript to the Naval Institute Press in Annapolis, editor Deborah Grosvenor knew she had to have it, recommended changes, and paid Clancy $5,000. The book was The Hunt for Red October, and after Ronald Reagan called it “my kind of yarn,” it became a massive best-seller and introduced Clancy’s most famous character, Jack Ryan, to the world.

Though Clancy was a passionate Irish American, he came under fire for his disparaging portrayal of the Irish in his 1988 novel Patriot Games, the title of which comes from an Irish ballad about the Border Campaign in Northern Ireland. In the novel, a fictional Ulster Liberation Army operative attempts to assassinate Jack Ryan and reduce American support for the IRA.

“He had this innate storytelling ability, and his characters had this very witty dialogue. The gift of the Irish, or whatever it was – the man could tell a story,” Ms. Grosvenor told the New York Times after his death. Clancy is survived by his second wife, their daughter, and his four children from his first marriage. – A.F.

Ralph Dungan (1923 – 2013)

Ralph Dungan, former Kennedy aide, ambassador to Chile, and New Jersey higher education chancellor, died at his home in Barbados in early October due to complications from surgery. He was 90.

Dungan had a long and varied career in government. He was a member of President Kennedy’s inner circle, specializing in Latin American affairs. Dungan, alongside Lawrence O’Brien, Kenneth O’Donnell, Richard Donahue, and Kevin Powers, made up what was commonly referred to as Kennedy’s “Irish Mafia.” Interestingly, Kennedy’s ancestors had emigrated from Dunganstown, in Co. Wexford, Ireland. After Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, Dungan transitioned to President Johnson’s cabinet, later becoming ambassador to Chile.

In 1967 he was appointed New Jersey’s first chancellor for higher education, a post he held for over ten years, often battling with university presidents, teachers, staff, and even getting egged by students in 1976. Dungan was initially brought in to improve the state’s higher education system, which was suffering from record low enrollment. While his ideas were not popular, they proved beneficial in tripling enrollment and keeping students in state. After his chancellorship concluded, he was made executive director of the Inter-American Development Bank by President Jimmy Carter.

Ralph Dungan was born in 1923 in Philadelphia. His father, Ralph Sr., was a well-connected lawyer whose ancestors had come from Ireland. After serving in WWII in the US Navy, Dungan went on to graduate from St. Joseph’s University and from Princeton in 1952. In the 1950s he became a legislative assistant to then-Senator John Kennedy and moved on to his staff once Kennedy was elected president in 1960. He married Mary Rowley Dungan, who passed away in 1987. Dungan is survived by his second wife of 24 years, Judith Dungan, seven children, eight grandchildren, and one great granddaughter. – M.S.

Thomas Foley (1929 – 2013)

Former Speaker of the House of Representatives Tom Foley died mid-October after complications from a stroke. Foley was a moderate Democrat who gained a reputation for compromise and bipartisan efforts during his 30-year tenure as a Representative from a conservative Washington state district, but was eventually defeated in the Republican wave of victories in 1994. He was “a legend of the United States Congress,” President Obama said in a statement, whose “straightforward approach helped him find common ground with members of both parties.”

Born in Spokane, WA in 1929, Foley was the son of a county judge; his mother was a teacher and the daughter of some of the original homesteaders in the region. It was often remarked that Foley seemed out of place in the district as a burly yet cautious man, and The New Yorker once said he was “a major player almost in spite of himself.” But Foley was one of the most successful bipartisan Speakers in recent history. Elected in 1989, he managed to force President George H.W. Bush to renege on his “no new taxes” pledge by orchestrating tax increases for the 1990 deficit-reduction deal and, despite Democratic opposition, helped President Clinton in ratifying the North American Free Trade Agreement.

After his 1994 defeat, Foley served as chairman of President Clinton’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board until 1997, and then as Ambassador to Japan until 2001. In addition to his wife, Heather, Foley is survived by his sister Maureen. – A.F.

Donal O’Brien (1934 – 2013)

The conservationist movement lost a major icon in September with the passing of Donal O’Brien, due to complications from pneumonia. O’Brien’s career in the field stretched over twenty-five years, beginning as a member of National Audubon Society and later serving for fifteen years as its chairman. His broad tenure in the NAS saw the creation of over 43 new Audubon centers and the implementation of 2,700 Important Bird Areas programs. For his efforts, O’Brien was awarded the 51st Audubon medal in 2010. Audubon chairman B. Holt Thrasher said of O’Brien, “few Americans have contributed as much to conservation.”

O’Brien was born on May 6, 1934 in Manhattan to Irish parents. A graduate of Williams College and University of Virginia Law School, he joined the firm of Milbank, Tweed, Hadley, & McCloy in Manhattan, and later served as chief legal counsel to the Rockefeller family. O’Brien’s love of law was only matched by his love of the outdoors. He held numerous council positions, including chairman of the Connecticut Council on Environmental Equality, commissioner of the Connecticut State Board of Fisheries and Game, and former president of the International Council for Bird Preservation. Together with his wife, Katie, who survives him along with their four children, O’Brien organized annual “birdathon” drives that brought millions in fundraising for Audubon initiatives. – M.S.

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