20 Great Interviews:
Donald Keough

Niall O'Dowd, Publisher
October / November 2005

Donald Keough’s love of Ireland and all things Irish led to his involvement in fostering Ireland’s economy. He led several groups of American businessmen, including Warren Buffett, on economic missions to the country over the years.

In 1993, Keough retired as president and COO of The Coca-Cola Company, and that same year he and his wife, Marilyn, endowed a chair of Irish Studies at Notre Dame. In 1998, the Keough Notre Dame Center of Irish Studies was officially opened in Dublin.

A graduate of Creighton University and a navy veteran, Keough is currently chairman of Allen & Company. He serves on a number of boards including the Coca-Cola Company. And he has been awarded honorary doctorates from Trinity College, Dublin and is a recipient of the Laetare Medal, the highest award that can be bestowed by the home of the Fighting Irish. He has also been honored with the American Irish Historical Society’s medal and was Irish America’s Irish American of the Year in 1993.

Keough, the son of a cattleman, grew up in Dubuque, Iowa during the Depression.

How would you assess the importance of what is happening in Northern Ireland to Irish-Americans?

Peace is taking that cloud of anxiety off the whole island. I think that you are going to see its benefits written large for future generations. It is just unthinkable to me that this peace process could end in failure.

I hope that we can get a sort of common voice among all of the various groups that are interested in Ireland And let’s not be shy about it, we want to bring this place. North and South, into the next century with enormous dignity We want Ireland to be a place where young Irish men and women who want to help build that nation, have a place to work.

In many ways people would now view you as the Irish chieftain over here. When you got interested in Ireland, a lot of people got interested, and this has had a huge impact.

I am no chieftain but I have made Ireland a principal activity of my life. and that’s involved many people I touch I get enthusi astic about things I care about and I care deeply about Ireland, and maybe that has allowed other people to begin to feel that way too.

Many leading Irish-Americans now look to you as their teacher, their guide on Ireland. What would you like to teach them in the future?

Well, I always like to share what I have in my head with people I care about and I care about a lot of people. And I learn something every day, and at the end of each year I say to myself, what did I learn this year, how have I grown?

It’s a privilege for me to be a small voice in all of this. Suddenly an Irish door has been opened in America, and across the country people with Irish in their blood have become not just more aware of it, but more interested in and prouder of it.

My generation were really the first generation of the post-famine Irish to have the luxuiry to lift our heads up, take a breath and say, “I want to know more about that place where we came from.”

I think the next generation — my children — are going to be even more interested and more curious and more sensitive to that little island that has produced over 70 million people around the world ♦

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