December January 2004 Issue – Irish America Irish America Magazine Mon, 22 Jul 2019 14:31:17 +0000 en-US hourly 1 82361074 One Life to Give Mon, 01 Dec 2003 14:59:19 +0000 Read more..]]> Chuck Feeney has just put into practice something he had been considering for many years. He has decided that all the vast wealth he accumulated in his lifetime should be given away while he is still alive. The graying, well preserved 72-year-old New Jersey native persuaded the board of Atlantic Philanthropies, which he created two decades ago, to convert its $4 billion in assets into cash, disperse it to good causes over the next 12 to 15 years, and shut up shop. It is better, he reckons, to concentrate its vast resources on the problems of today, and leave it to the next generation of philanthropists to address the issues of the future. He hopes his example of giving now to make a meaningful impact will encourage other philanthropists to increase their charitable giving while alive. He is convinced that it is the right thing to do. He intends that “Giving While Living” should be his legacy.

For this reason, Chuck Feeney broke a life-long practice of avoiding the media and agreed for the first time to talk about his rise from modest beginnings to billionaire status as the founder of Duty Free Shops (DFS) and about his decision to give it all away.

Feeney comes across as someone who really wants little more than to end his life as the ordinary guy who left Elizabeth, New Jersey to become a GI after the Second World War. He has accumulated more wealth than any other Irish American of his generation, but you won’t see him at the receptions or the black tie functions that mark the social life of corporate Irish America. “I’m just not the kind of guy who gets any kick out of attending these mutual admiration society dinners,” he told me. “I’m not an event person. There’s too much focus on limousines, or buying property in the Hamptons.” But he is interested in talking to the heart surgeons at a hospital he has funded in Vietnam, or sitting in a library he has helped build in Limerick and watching students reading books, or talking politics in a Third Avenue bar.

He totally rejects the trappings of the wealthy lifestyle. No one has ever seen him in pinstripes. He was sporting an openneck checked shirt and off-the-peg blazer when I interviewed him for the Irish Times in his foundation’s midtown Manhattan office. He had $9 reading glasses and was wearing a $15 plastic Casio watch. “If I can get a watch for $15 with a five-year battery that keeps perfect time, what am I doing messing around with a Rolex?” he said, his blue eyes looking amused, when I asked him why he didn’t buy a more expensive watch. He doesn’t own a house or a car. He flies economy class, even on his frequent long intercontinental flights. When he needs a car he rents the smallest two-door model. In New York no one would point him out in the street. He uses taxis and the subway, or walks, a courteous, nondescript man carrying documents in a plastic bag. He declines most invitations to formal affairs. He doesn’t like being called “reclusive,” as he often is in newspapers. “I describe myself as different,” he said.

Journalist Jim Dwyer once wrote in a Daily News column that when the world’s biggest giver did make a rare exception to attend Irish America’s Business 100 lunch at New York’s `21′ Club in 1997, he walked a dozen blocks without being recognized, and “looked a bit miserable” at speaking in public. Feeney, concluded Dwyer, was what Donald Trump would be if he lived his entire existence backward.

One of Feeney’s daughters told Dwyer of a family gathering at the same venue some years before. “They asked `Who are you?’ He said, `Chuck Feeney.’ They said, `Oh, of course, Mr. Feeney,'” and brought them to the table for Chub Feeney, former president of the National League.

Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, who also attended the Irish America event, wrote, “I have never met a billionaire who is shy and retiring, who doesn’t own a house, a car, a Rolex, who likes to take the subway and fly economy, who goes to the supermarket and worries about the price of carrots, who gives away most of his money because as he puts it `You can only wear one pair of shoes at a time.'”

Charles J. Feeney was brought up in a working-class neighborhood in Elizabeth, New Jersey, the son of an insurance underwriter and a nurse. His father’s mother came from near Kinawley, Co. Fermanagh, a link with Ireland of which he was always conscious. Instead of waiting for military call-up he “jumped the line” at 17 and, like many other young men of the time, enlisted for postwar service in occupied Japan and Korea. On discharge, he got a 36-month GI scholarship — the starting point for many Irish American rags-to-riches success stories — and went to study hotel administration at Cornell, the Ivy League university in Ithaca, New York.

At Cornell he first displayed his talents for making a buck. The monthly scholarship checks for $110 barely covered tuition, so he sold baskets of sandwiches made up by a classmate who is now a distinguished professor. “They used to say I didn’t need to look for a job after college because I was making too much money making sandwiches,” Feeney said. He loves to tell a journalist the story of entering a quiz for a course on money and banking at Cornell. “I got my paper back with a note from the professor stating: `You have a flair for writing but no knowledge of the subject matter. Try journalism.'”

On graduating in 1956, Feeney found himself with four months’ scholarship money left and applied for a political science course at a couple of French universities. When he presented himself at the 14th-century University of Grenoble, a puzzled dean of admissions said: “This is the first time, Mr. Feeney, I have received a request for admission to the University of Strasbourg.” Feeney replied quickly: “If I wanted to go to Strasbourg I wouldn’t be here,” and was admitted. After Grenoble, Feeney ran a camp for children from the U.S. fleet in southern France for a while before meeting up with a fellow Cornell alumnus, Robert Miller, in Barcelona. “I said to him I thought there was a good opportunity to make a buck selling to the fleet,” he said. They found a niche retailing perfume, tape recorders and transistor radios.

In 1960, the partners opened a duty-free shop in Honolulu and another in Hong Kong. The concept of duty-free shopping had been pioneered successfully by Brendan O’Reagan at Shannon airport. Feeney and Miller called their venture Duty Free Shoppers (DFS). However, they overextended and had to bring in two junior partners, a British accountant and an American lawyer, to put together a rescue package. The company took off when the Japanese lifted travel restrictions on its citizens in 1966. Feeney correctly foresaw a pent-up demand for foreign consumer goods, especially liquor. Over the years DFS opened dozens of duty-free shops across the world. Feeney learned Japanese and did deals with tour guides to divert travel groups through their outlets. “We caught a wave,” he said. DFS became a global retail empire, a moneymaking machine that made its partners super rich. In 1988, Forbes magazine included Feeney in the top 20 of its 400 richest people list, estimating his worth at $1.3 billion.

But Feeney did not belong on the list. In 1982, he had secretly and irrevocably transferred his entire 38.75 percent interest in DFS to a charitable foundation, keeping less than $5 million for himself. The decision to give his wealth away was not sudden, he said. “I did not want money to consume my life.” The decision to create a foundation came after Feeney made his first major bequest of $700,000 to Cornell University in 1981, and was besieged with requests. He turned to a legal friend, Harvey Philip Dale, a brilliant New York law professor, who advised him on setting up a mechanism to handle future donations. The foundation — in reality a number of separate foundations collectively known as The Atlantic Philanthropies — was registered in Bermuda to avoid disclosure requirements. To maintain secrecy, the organization did not bear his name — almost unheard of in the world of philanthropy. Feeney declined even to take personal tax deductions on his giving.

“I just felt I didn’t see the need for blowing a horn,” he said when asked why he wanted to stay anonymous. “Part of the consideration was I was married and had five kids. We lived in France at the time. I wanted to make sure that the kids didn’t have security issues.” Anonymity also allowed him to walk down the street in any city and not be recognized. The downside was that “when anybody said anything inaccurate you couldn’t go back and correct them.” He set up separate foundations for his children to meet their needs. “All my kids have grown up quite normally,” he says. “Today they have all they need in life.”

After setting up Atlantic Philanthropies, Feeney devoted his energies to running the global businesses of its holding company, General Atlantic Group Ltd., which included hotels, spas, fitness clubs, shops and property. A set of rules was established to maintain secrecy about Atlantic Philanthropies grants. Unsolicited approaches for donations were not accepted. Grants were paid by cashier’s check to hide the source. Often recipients had no idea where the money came from. Feeney, who loves a practical joke, made fun of his own obsession with confidentiality. Once, after Dale lectured trustees in Bermuda about the need for anonymity, he returned to the room to find Feeney and the rest wearing outsize spectacles with big noses and moustaches. The shroud of secrecy extended to everything and everybody concerned with his charitable foundations. To ensure anonymity on occasions when he was an honored guest at an event, Feeney would insist on bringing his own photographer — who would snap away with no film in the camera. Many good causes that benefited from his multi-million-dollar grants never knew the name of the anonymous donor.

Feeney’s anonymity as a philanthropist came to an end accidentally when in the mid-1990s he decided it was time to get out of DFS. He wanted a better cash flow and he believed — correctly as it turned out — that the duty-free business was going into decline. (Feeney uses the analogy of “church and state” to separate giving and business in Atlantic Philanthropies, and he wanted more liquid assets for the “church” side of things.) The company that makes Moet &Chandon Champagne bought DFS, over his partner Robert Miller’s vehement objections. The founding partnership ended in acrimony. The 1997 sale left Feeney’s charity worth $3.5 billion. But the legal wrangling meant that Atlantic Philanthropies would be exposed. Feeney decided that the truth should be managed by breaking the story themselves to The New York Times.

On January 22, 1997 Feeney lifted a payphone in San Francisco airport and broke the story to two reporters, David Cay Johnston, a Pulitzer Prize-winning tax writer, and Judith Miller. As jets whined in the background he disclosed to them that he was the anonymous giver who had set the world of philanthropy buzzing for years. The story astonished friends of Harvey Dale at NYU, who never knew until they read the paper next day that Feeney had secretly been the president of one of the world’s top private philanthropies, which had already secretly disbursed $610 million. Robert Millar too was stunned to learn his partner had given his wealth away. He never knew. Miller had gone in the opposite direction and adopted an extravagant lifestyle. He once held a sumptuous three-day party in Hong Kong with hot-air balloons and an imported disc jockey from Paris. He and his glamorous Ecuadorian wife, Chantal, bought up properties all over the world, including a grouse moor in Yorkshire, and his daughter married Crown Prince Pavlos of Greece.

Today Feeney’s foundation is worth about $3.6 billion. Under its new focus, Atlantic Philanthropies is ending its endowments to universities and focusing on health, aging, disadvantaged children and youth, and reconciliation and human rights, primarily in the U.S., the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Great Britain, South Africa, Vietnam, and Bermuda.

The world of philanthropy was jolted when Atlantic Philanthropies announced last year that it would spend down its endowment and go out of business. Feeney’s promotion of bold problem solving rather than self-perpetuation was a challenge to the tight-fisted rich, and to foundations that dole out very little every year.

“Wealth brings responsibilities,” said Feeney in his clipped New Jersey accent. “People have to determine themselves whether they feel an obligation to use some of their wealth to improve life for their fellow human beings rather than create problems for future generations.” He said he has a reluctance to say to people, “Gees, you’ve got a lot of money, you should do something about that!” One senses however that he feels very strongly about the fact that the richest one percent in America give only two percent of their wealth to charity, and many of the new rich in Ireland have proved remarkably tight-fisted when it comes to philanthropy. “Money is more worth-while to the people in need when things are tough rather than when things are good,” said Feeney. “If I have ten dollars in my pocket and I do something with it today, it’s already producing ten dollars’ worth of good, as opposed to writing a bill at five percent per year.” People with vast wealth should also start giving early in life, he declared. “Everyone knows when they’re born but nobody knows when they die. If you want to give it away, think about giving it away while you are alive because you’ll get a lot more satisfaction than if you wait until you’re dead.” Besides, he said, “It’s a lot more fun. Giving gave me a lot of pleasure.”

A close observer of the wealthy, Steve Forbes, who compiles the 400 rich list in Forbes magazine, agrees with Feeney. Some foundations lose their moorings, he told me, and their bureaucracies become more interested in perpetuating themselves than putting wealth to productive use. The one thing Forbes said he learned from compiling the rich list was that wealth was ephemeral; unlike bars of gold, it could be lost as quickly as gained. Better by far to use it productively while living, he said.

Much of the money Feeney has given away has gone to Ireland, both North and South. His interest in Ireland sprang from his background in the Irish neighborhoods of New Jersey, and was stimulated by his visits there in the 1970s to order whiskey for DFS. While in London one day in November 1987, he saw, horrified, the aftermath of the Enniskillen IRA bombing which killed 11 people. “This is ridiculous,” he thought. He began to wonder if he could help. He got some literature from the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and found a reference to the Irish American Partnership, an organization set up in Dublin by Fine Gael TD Paddy Harte to tap into the goodwill and wealth of Irish-Americans. Not long after the Enniskillen bombing he arranged a meeting with two of the organization’s board members, Liam Connellan and Sean Condon, in Ashford Castle, County Mayo. They thought Feeney had interesting ideas on Ireland lifting itself up, but it was all a bit vague, recalled John Healy, then running the partnership. When Healy later met Feeney in Dublin he told him if he wanted to help, the Irish American Partnership could do with money to establish an office in New York. He knew nothing at the time about Feeney’s foundation. “I know a place that might entertain a proposal for $250,000,” Feeney said casually. Healy, who is now CEO of the Atlantic Philanthropies, sent off the proposal and the money duly arrived.

That same day Healy took Feeney to lunch in the University Club in Dublin. There Healy introduced his guest to Ed Walsh, president of the National Institute of Higher Education in Limerick, sitting at an adjoining table. It was to be a serendipitous and historic encounter. To Walsh, he was just another American but “very concerned about helping.” Only when Feeney arrived in Limerick the following week, and then insisted on flying Walsh to Cornell in Ithaca, New York, and introducing him to Frank Rhodes, the doyen of U.S. university leaders, did Walsh realize that the mysterious Irish American was, as he put it, “no ordinary Joe Soap.” Feeney for his part found Ed Walsh just the sort of person he was looking for. “I recognized that here was a school on the uptake and a charismatic leader,” he said. “The two things came together in him.” The association with American universities, and the grants that began to flow from Atlantic Philanthropies, took Irish universities onto new terrain, said Walsh. “What was so astonishing was his wish to be ordinary,” he recalled about the benefactor of what is now Limerick University. “He’d walk around the campus in his raincoat and pop his head around the corner of a door. He has a very simple way of life. He cherishes fundamental values. He puts us all to shame. If Chuck Feeney was not a very successful businessman he would be a very successful Benedictine monk.”

Atlantic Philanthropies would eventually donate several hundred million dollars to finance university research, libraries and dormitories on both sides of the Border in Ireland, helping to transform and vitalize Irish third-level education within a decade. Through it all, in keeping with his desire for anonymity and his own sense of modesty, Feeney refused honorary degrees and insisted that his name would not appear on any building, unlike donors who buy “naming rights” to perpetuate their family name.

“I guess it’s a simplistic statement but the good that’s done lives on,” he says when I ask why. “I love to go to a library and see kids sitting there,” he says. “I sit there and pick up something to read. It’s nice to see the lights burning late and students studying.”

As he began investing the foundation’s resources in Irish universities, Feeney also began to get involved in promoting reconciliation in Ireland. It struck him that such acts as the Enniskillen bombing were extremely unworthy of Irish people. “I decided to look around to see who was doing anything to end it,” he says. He contacted Niall O’Dowd, publisher of Irish America, and the two began meeting regularly. “When the time came to start putting something together I was naturally the guy he contacted because I was in Ireland a lot at that time,” said Feeney, referring to the group of Irish Americans put together by O’Dowd to encourage a ceasefire in return for political support from America.

Feeney recalled how O’Dowd once took him to meet Gerry Adams in Belfast, where they went to the wrong “safe house” and a large man opened the door and asked suspiciously, “Are you peelers?” The pair beat a hasty retreat and were rescued by the Sinn Féin leader in his armor-plated taxi. Feeney said he talked to Adams and liked him. “He was very straightforward. It seemed to me this was a guy who in the right conditions would be interested in stopping the craziness that existed out there.”

Feeney, who has Irish and American citizenship, visited the North 11 times as a key member of the group that helped persuade the Clinton White House to reach out and encourage Republicans to end violence and take their chances at the negotiating table. “Clearly we weren’t players in the action,” said Feeney, who always managed to avoid being photographed with the group, except once when an Irish Times photographer climbed onto a railing outside Sinn Féin headquarters in Belfast and got a snapshot of the elusive philanthropist before he could slip away from the group into the background. “We were not dumb enough to think that we were the motivating force,” he said, “but clearly there was a time, a mood, to do something. And we were up there.”

One of the contributions Feeney made to the peace process, for which he admits he took “a lot of stick” in the media, was to fund the Sinn Féin office in Washington out of his own pocket to the tune of $720,000, or $20,000 a month, over three years. He dismissed reports that the funding ended because he became disillusioned with Sinn Féin. They were categorically not true, he said. The inaccuracies irritated him, though he admitted that this was part of the price of not talking to the press. “But the background is very simple. The goal was to establish a Washington office to put Sinn Féin on a respectable platform so they could say this is what Sinn Féin does. We’re not the IRA, that’s-another organization. Friends of Sinn Féin gave an undertaking that it would only be used for the purpose of running an office, and that’s the way it was done.” He also privately funded loyalists looking for a way out of the violence.

He maintains his deep interest in the Northern Ireland political process and doesn’t share the sense of betrayal felt by some Irish-Americans in the wake of 9/11 over anti-war attitudes in Ireland. “These people see the American side of things,” said Feeney. “I see the Irish side.” Rather he is deeply angry about the Bush administration’s alienation of the international community. Someone told him about being invited by President Bush to watch the horseracing movie Seabiscuit in the 50-seat White House cinema, and he said he couldn’t resist remarking: “Sounds like there’s room for a bunch of horses’ asses in there.”

Now divorced from his French wife after 31 years and married to his second wife, Helga, Feeney spends a lot of his time on the move. He writes his travel schedule in ballpoint in a spiral exercise book, blocking off weeks for different destinations. In the first half of next year he will be in San Francisco, New York, Bermuda, London, Vietnam, Australia and Germany. In all these places he has circles of friends and grateful admirers. He is always in the U.S. for Thanksgiving, which he spends with his younger sister in Spring Lake, on the New Jersey “Irish Riviera.” “The Thanksgiving holiday is the one I like the most, it’s not about consumption,” he said. But he doesn’t stay long. “I’d like to keep moving around, as long as I’m able.” I asked him where he regarded as home. “Home is where the heart is,” he said. “And where my books are. Everywhere I go I have my books: New York, San Francisco, London, Brisbane, Limerick.” He doesn’t like the idea of living in a mansion like other successful entrepreneurs. “I wouldn’t be comfortable in an 8,000-square-foot home,” he said. “You couldn’t find anybody in it.” He reads non-fiction voraciously. He is always passing articles of interest to friends. “If you see a magazine with pages torn out,” he told me, “that means I’ve been reading it.”

Through it all Feeney never cut himself off from his hometown. In 1998, he organized a 50th reunion in Castletroy Hotel, Limerick, for the class of 1948 of St. Mary’s High School of Elizabeth, New Jersey. He made sure everyone could afford to go, reported the local paper. He did it again this year but with fewer people, as age has taken its toll. By the time the 70th reunion takes place in 2018, Feeney intends to have gotten rid of the fortune that he made on duty-free shops, and to be back more or less where he started, which is how he wants it to be. However, the world he leaves behind will be a much better place. ♦

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First Word: Giving While Living Mon, 01 Dec 2003 14:58:06 +0000 Read more..]]> A friend, a teacher in Northern Ireland, who is forever puzzling over the intricacies of our race, recently asked me what I considered to be the essence of the Irish character. Clarence Darrow, the great American defense attorney, came to mind. Darrow who spent his life defending the poor and the downtrodden, liked to have Irish men on his juries because he believed that they, of all people, had compassion.

I like to think that Darrow’s opinion of the Irish is accurate. My friends over at Concern Worldwide, the Irish relief organization, say it is. Siobhán Walsh, who heads up Concern’s New York office, tells me that, per capita, the Irish in Ireland give more towards world hunger relief than any other country. That compassionate trait is also evident in Irish-Americans, Siobhán says.

And so in these days of corporate scandals we are happy to relate that there are many fine corporate leaders out there who do have a social conscience. Of course, they are all Irish or Irish-American! Or so we would like you to believe.

Seriously, though, a quick glance at those profiled in our Business 100 feature shows that there are many fine philanthropic efforts being carried out by the Irish in corporate America.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Tom Moran is the CEO of Mutual of America, but he is also the North American Chairman of Concern, and he is doing a fine job of ensuring that the organization has the funding to continue to bring relief to the poor and disadvantaged in troubled spots all over the world.

Raymond Gilmartin is chairman of Merck, a company which is donating millions in drugs to prevent river blindness in a program reaching 25 million people a year in more than 30 countries. (Read “Into Africa, Seeing and Believing,” page 16.)

Brian Connolly is president of Avon, the cosmetics company that annually gives millions towards breast cancer research. And James Irwin, Chairman of IMPAC, supports writing programs in Connecticut and Mexico, and is responsible for the richest literary prize in the world — the IMPAC Award of 100,000 euros presented annually in Dublin. (See interview with Irwin on page 56.)

And then, of course, there is Charles “Chuck” Feeney, who has taken philanthropy to a whole new level.

Feeney, who grew up in a working-class home in New Jersey during the Depression, made a fortune when he founded Duty Free Shops.

And he gave it all away. Quietly.

While other philanthropists have their names up in lights, Feeney gave on condition that he remain anonymous. Much of his fortune went to institutions in Ireland, where Feeney is the largest private supporter of higher education. The University of Limerick received in excess of $38 million, but didn’t have a clue who its benefactor was until the sale of Feeney’s business revealed the extent of his staggering contributions, made through the Atlantic Philanthropies organization.

After years of silence, we are honored that Mr. Feeney agreed to be interviewed by Conor O’Clery for this issue. And further that he allowed Peter Foley to take his photograph for our cover. (For years, magazines such as Time and Businessweek have solicited us for the only available photo of the philanthropist, which was taken at our Business 100 Awards back in 1997, when Feeney was our keynote speaker.)

Why Irish America, you may ask, when the world’s media is clamoring to interview Feeney? Because he is an Irishman. And proud of it. (And he has a friendship going back for years with our publisher, Niall O’Dowd.) Feeney’s grandparents emigrated from Ireland to the U.S. at a time when the Irish were experiencing much hardship. It was a time when they were the underdog, and often needed the services of Darrow and others. And now that the Irish have reached the pinnacle of success in America, it is heartening to see that, out of struggle and discrimination waged against our ancestors, a compassionate heart survived and was passed down to a generation who can afford to give a helping hand to others. ♦

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Peace Process Put on Hold Mon, 01 Dec 2003 14:57:58 +0000 Read more..]]> The hopes that were raised in the latest advances in the peace process were dashed as Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble criticized the transparency of IRA decommissioning and said he was “putting the process on hold.”

Trimble demanded a more explicit statement from the IRA on the number and type of arms it put beyond use. But the IRA and Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Féin, argued that many of the details of decommissioning were agreed to be kept confidential between the IRA and former head of the Canadian Army General John de Chastelain, who is overseeing the weapons destruction.

De Chastelain is heading up the IICD (Independent International Commission on Decommissioning) and he confirmed that he had witnessed the latest IRA decommissioning event. He said, “How much is it? It’s three events worth, it’s more than we had in the first two events and we are going to press for more. We can’t talk about the methods but [the IRA] renders arms permanently inaccessible or permanently unusable in accordance with our remit.”

De Chastelain gave a brief list of the sorts of arms involved, without giving an exact inventory. He said the terms of his engagement meant he would give the governments a detailed inventory of arms destroyed only when the process was complete. He did confirm that the destruction of the weapons took place on the island of Ireland and that it took a matter of hours for them to be retired.

But Trimble insisted that the IRA put in place a timescale for the decommissioning of the remainder of its arsenal. He argued that the IICD had failed to create confidence in the Unionist community, but not all members of Trimble’s party agreed with him. Outspoken Ulster Unionist MP David Burnside threw a spanner into the works when he said that the IRA’s decommissioning event under the eye of de Chastelain was a “significant event.” He said, “Obviously it was a substantial act of decommissioning. There is no doubt about that. We should recognize that. It is progress and it is movement in the right direction. (But) I want to know when is the end of decommissioning,” he said.

Before Trimble pulled the plug on the process, Adams had said that Sinn Féin’s position was one of absolute and total commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful means of resolving differences. He was committed to bringing an end to conflict on the island, “including physical force Republicanism.” The IRA released a statement saying that Adams accurately reflected their position. It read, “He also referred to the issue of weapons. The IRA leadership is committed to resolving this issue. In line with our stated position, we have authorized our representative to meet with the IICD with a view to proceeding with the implementation of a process to put arms beyond use at the earliest opportunity. We have also authorized a further act of putting arms beyond use. This will be verified under the agreed scheme.”

But after Trimble put things on hold, both British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern were left to discuss how to get things back on track when they met at Hillsborough Castle. The leaders had both been expecting the process to be moving forward and were hoping to sign a new deal when they arrived at the Castle, only to learn that Trimble had lambasted the decommissioning process and stalled talks.

Ahern warned that removing confidentiality on decommissioning was more likely to undermine rather than enhance the peace process. He said, “If the confidentiality which enables Gen de Chastelain to proceed with his task were lifted by the governments, it could have the effect of damaging the prospects of fully resolving the arms issue in the longer term.”

The latest breakdown of negotiations has also threatened Northern Ireland assembly elections, which are due to take place on November 26. The Assembly and cross-party executive have been suspended in Northern Ireland since last October after Ulster Unionists threatened to pull out their ministers in protest at fresh evidence of IRA activity. The most recent events could further prevent the return of devolved government. ♦

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Bono Portrait Unveiled Mon, 01 Dec 2003 14:56:05 +0000 Read more..]]> Bono looked admiringly at the soft white portrait painted by one of today’s greatest Irish painters, Louis le Brocquy, an artist whom Bono has admired since he was 13, at an unveiling at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin. The U2 frontman described le Brocquy as “one of the grandmasters of European painting.” The portrait, entitled Image of Bono, is the fifth in a series of commissions for the National Portrait Collection, which already includes pictures of Mary and Nicholas Robinson, Ronnie Delaney, Gay Byrne and TK Whitaker.

Bono said the painting looked “like a head full of ideas — an exploding head.” He also joked about the picture, and in typical self-deprecating fashion, announced, “I look like I am hungover.” In keeping with le Brocquy’s method, Bono did not sit for the painter but instead le Brocquy worked on the painting from photographs of the star.

An admirer of Bono, le Brocquy said, “In the past, I have painted an extensive series of interiorized head images of artists such as Samuel Beckett, Francis Bacon, WB Yeats and Seamus Heaney whom I see as extraordinary instances of human consciousness. In more recent years, I have made a number of similar studies of Bono, whose spirit and whose radiant energy I admire so much.”

Spectators have noticed that Bono’s trademark sunglasses are missing from the piece. In response to the omission, Bono responded that it left him “unable to be insincere. All my props are gone.” ♦

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Irish Nuns Launch Website Mon, 01 Dec 2003 14:55:03 +0000 Read more..]]> A group of Irish nuns in Galway are both continuing their secluded religious worship and reaching out to the online world. The Poor Clares, an order of Roman Catholic nuns founded by St. Clare of Assisi, have launched a website at The launch date corresponded to the 750th anniversary of the death of St. Clare.

In 1642, the Poor Clares sought refuge in County Galway after being turned out of Dublin. At the time it was illegal to gather together to worship and early in the century Henry VIII had ordered the dissolution of monasteries in Great Britain. Thus, the nuns headed west to a secluded part of Ireland. Their history both prior to and since settling in Galway has been rife with struggle. They first settled in their current monastery, Oilean Altanagh, otherwise known as Nun’s Island, in 1649 but were uprooted several times before they finally settled there permanently in 1825.

Visitors to the site can learn about the Poor Clares’ history and daily rituals. Some of the sisters give sincere and earnest answers to questions like, “Are you fulfilled?” The answer to that question was, “Love is its own justification.” Such statements are humbling and anyone visiting the site is bound to be struck by the Sisters’ dedication to their faith. While the Poor Clares post their mailing address for anyone interested in becoming a member, the site makes it clear that this commitment is only for the strongest of spirits. There are a series of trial periods for anyone interested in becoming a Poor Clare. Vows include one of chastity, poverty, obedience and enclosure. The nuns are completely devoted to a life of God within the confines of the nunnery.

While not many visitors are likely to contact the Poor Clares in order to become one, they are encouraged to ask questions of the nuns. Despite their secluded life, they are eager to answer questions from people who want to learn more about their religion and lifestyle. ♦

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Terrorists Plotted Against Kennedy and Hill Mon, 01 Dec 2003 14:54:44 +0000 Read more..]]> Irish Sunday Independent journalist Alan Murray unearthed a plot by loyalist terrorist Johnny “Mad Dog” Adair to assassinate Courtney Kennedy, daughter of Robert Kennedy and her husband Paul Hill when they were in north Belfast in 1994. Adair had planned to attack the couple with a rocket-propelled grenade while they were driving in their car. Hill and three others spent 15 years in jail in England, having been wrongly convicted of the pub bombing in Guildford, England that killed five and left over 100 injured. Hill was in Belfast attending the High Court trial to clear his name in the murder of the ex-soldier Brian Shaw.

Adair, considered to be a highly effective planner of terrorism, planned to fire the grenade at the limousine the couple was driving to the High Court while it slowed down at security ramps on Donegal Park Avenue, which would have made Kennedy and Hill an almost stationary target. The murders would have caused international outrage and garnered massive media attention for Adair and the Ulster Defence Association.

The violent plan was thwarted by the police, who raised the alarm when they saw Adair attempt to enter the High Court during Hill’s appeal, according to Murray. He told Irish America, “There were a number of rocket attacks at that time when they [Hill and Kennedy] were in Belfast. The attack did not go ahead because there were a lot of police watching Adair. The police had flooded into the area before it could take place.”

Murray phoned Adair, who is currently serving time in prison, to confirm the story as it had been described to him by sources from the UDA. Adair did not confirm or deny the plot, which the journalist took to be a kind of confirmation. Although other journalists had heard rumors about the terrorist plan previously, Murray was the first to collect enough sources and circumstantial evidence to have the story come to print.

Adair, who has been released from prison as part of the Good Friday Agreement, is serving time again for directing terrorism. However, he is currently applying for release. Paul Hill, speaking to Irish America, said, “All of these stories are surfacing now, not because they have a moral dilemma for what happened, but because they (other loyalists who are feuding amongst themselves) want to keep Adair in prison.”

Hill also pointed out that Bill Flynn, the American chairman of Mutual of America, had been traveling in the car with them, as was Bill Barry, onetime Kennedy bodyguard. Though they had a police escort to the courtroom each morning, Hill said that Barry, as a precaution, would not give the police the directions the driver was going to take beforehand, a move that possibly saved their lives. ♦

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Filmmakers Threaten to Leave Ireland Mon, 01 Dec 2003 14:53:08 +0000 Read more..]]> Recently Hollywood and the Irish government have come to blows over taxation. The debate is over the section 481 tax allowance, otherwise known as the film-tax incentive that has bolstered the film industry in Ireland by 18 percent over the last 10 years. The incentive is due to expire at the end of 2004, and though the film industry is placing pressure on the Department of Finance, it looks as though section 481 may soon be a relic of the past.

According to a recent report produced by Screen Producers Ireland (SPI), the Irish film and TV drama industry employs 4,300 people a year. SPI predicts that an end to the tax incentives that have helped build the industry would result in an 80 percent decrease in film production in Ireland.

But the Department of Finance claims that the these tax breaks have been abused by many of the wealthier class, who despite having little involvement in Irish arts and culture, use section 481 to garner huge breaks on their personal taxes.

Perhaps the Irish economy would suffer a greater loss by the absence of such incentives. The Irish film industry contributes Euro 107 million a year to GDP and attracts 136 million through inward investment.

In addition to acting as an economic incentive, many argue that the film tax-breaks have also made substantial contributions to Irish culture as a whole. Already there has been an increase in Irish-themed movies hitting Hollywood including Veronica Guerin. The tax-breaks are an opportunity for Ireland to export its culture to the rest of the world. According to Jim Sheridan, “The industry has made great achievements in the last decade and cannot be underestimated in relation to its contribution to Ireland both economically and culturally. Ireland now ranks in the top six preferred locations for film production in the world and this has been achieved by the industry positioning itself, building its experience and knowledge at every level and through the consistent support of various Irish governments.” ♦

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A Tribute to Courage Mon, 01 Dec 2003 14:51:47 +0000 Read more..]]> Thousands turned out in lower Manhattan on a rainy Sunday morning on September 28 to remember relatives and friends lost on September 11, and to retrace the final steps of Stephen Siller, a firefighter from Brooklyn.

Siller, of Squad 1 in Park Slope, was off-duty when he strapped on 60 pounds of gear and walked to Manhattan through the Battery Tunnel to West and Liberty Streets, where he was last seen.

Some 4,000 runners retraced the firefighter’s last steps, in the second annual Tunnel to Towers Run from Battery Park to Ground Zero and back.

Dan McKay, a 24-year-old firefighter from Hollywood, Florida, won the race. McKay, quoted in the New York Daily News, said, “This was something I had to be a part of.”

The $30 entrance fees went to the firefighter burn center and the Stephen Siller “Let Us Do Good For The Children’s Foundation,” which was set up for children who lost parents on September 11.

“I was almost crying through the tunnel,” said second-place finisher Ken Bonham from Brooklyn’s Ladder 106. “There were guys on the left holding flags, one for every guy we lost.”

Some of those marching behind bag-pipes from Battery Park said they hoped that officials would preserve the socalled footprints of the World Trade Center in the rebuilding.

“You can have the rest, just give us that,” said Florence Staub, 60, of the Bronx, whose 30-year-old son, Craig, died in the attacks.

For Siller’s 36-year-old widow, Sally, and his five children, the five-kilometer race is a way to remember Siller’s last act. “The kids can see that their father is a hero,” Mrs. Siller told the News. ♦

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Into Africa, Seeing and Believing Mon, 01 Dec 2003 14:51:20 +0000 Read more..]]> We’re juggling with numbers here. Every five seconds someone in the world loses his/her sight; a child goes blind every minute. That amounts to seven million cases a year. Add that to 45 million people already blind and another 135 million with limited vision. Patricia Hallahan, regional director with Sight Savers International, confesses she’s not very good at figures but calculates that four in five cases of blindness could be prevented or cured. Clearly her experience in East Africa puts some numbers at her fingertips.

“Knowing it’s reparable or avoidable is what makes me feel so energetic,” she says forcibly. “Because we’re not doing half enough about it!” You can tell that working with those in the dark has changed the Dubliner’s appreciation of light.

Born the eighth child in a family of nine, Patricia Hallahan’s Phibsboro upbringing on the city’s northside was normal but busy. After working for a year in the bank, she took up nursing, then qualified in midwifery and extended herself further by taking up Social Sciences at UCD where she gained an interest in overseas development. When she saw a Concern notice seeking volunteers in Bangladesh in 1982 Hallahan didn’t hesitate.

“I was going to get that bug out of my system and come back to my `real’ life here — and here I am 21 years later!” she laughs, as though surprised at the thought. “It was all hands on deck for everybody,” she reflects, recalling when floods hit in 1988. “There are times you think about in your life when things just clicked. I think back to that time when we had a small team with limited resources.

“Bangladesh certainly had a huge influence on me. It was a very good experience. A very difficult environment but I learned a lot. What strikes me about the people I meet in such difficult circumstances is the power people have to overcome diversity. It’s that human ability to thrive or overcome circumstances that are sometimes unimaginably difficult. At an individual level the indomitability of the human spirit is amazing.”

In between lifting flood victims to safety she met Peter Benson, a welder and teacher from England who was working in Bangladesh with the Volunteer Service Overseas. They got married and after a spell working abroad returned to Trócaire’s head office in Dublin. Six years later Hallahan was offered a posting to East Africa. Whatever impulse existed before, boarding the plane this time was less straightforward. The couple had two young children — Róisín and Tadhg — and the Africa job was long-term.

“It’s the challenge, I suppose,” says Hallahan. “I mean there’s so much work to be done at home but for me it’s just about being close to where things are happening. It was also an opportunity for the children to experience a different life, exposure to different societies and cultures.”

Bags packed, the family adventure resumed, bound as a foursome for Nairobi. Two years later she was approached by Sight Savers International to take over as regional director for its East, Central and Southern Africa operation. On temporary leave from Trócaire, the answer was again, yes.

Her remit includes Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia and South Africa, treating 945,000 patients from a general population of 65 million. Sight Savers — originally set up in 1950 by blind patron John Wilson as the British Empire Society for the Blind — deals exclusively with sight-related issues. The vast majority of the world’s 45 million sightless are in the developing world, with nine million in India alone. It is estimated that the global figure will rise to over 70 million within two decades, which is why the World Health Organization is coordinating Vision 2020, a multi-agency program aimed at eliminating avoidable blindness by the year 2020.

To most people `avoidable blindness’ is a strange concept, but untreated cataracts are the biggest single problem in the developing world. A simple 20-minute procedure to insert an Intra-Ocular Lens (IOL) can restore lost vision. Local anaesthetic is sufficient for adults, and the lens is far preferable to wearing glasses, which are expensive, breakable and difficult to replace. Each IOL procedure costs about $30 and last year Sight Savers performed 176,086 cataract operations worldwide.

“I find this type of work very satisfying,” says Hallahan. “I came from a general nursing background, and this is a very focused area where it’s easier to measure impact. The way I see it, these are human rights issues and I’ve had the experience of taking the bandages off patients — it’s really exciting when, for instance, a woman sees her grandchildren for the first time.”

Sight Savers is also heavily involved in distributing Mectizan, a drug which can prevent onchocerciasis (river blindness). The disease is caused by a bite from black (or simulium) fly, a species which inhabits areas around fast-flowing rivers. The bite plants thousands of tiny parasites which cause intense itching and travel through the human body towards the eye, eventually causing irreversible blindness. In the delta towns and villages of West Africa widespread blindness is not uncommon — in fact the former Northern Gold Coast was known locally as `Country of the Blind.’

One Mectizan tablet a year is enough to kill the parasite. “Small input, big output,” explains the Nairobi-based director. In an epidemic crying out for optimism, one of the most startling developments is the ongoing contribution made by Merck &Co., a U.S. pharmaceutical company.

Merck produces Mectizan and in 1987 the company undertook to donate it free of charge for as long as necessary. Last year alone Sight Savers distributed 8.8 million Mectizan tablets across ten African countries.

“Sometimes in development we tend to see things as all good or all bad,” feels the Dubliner. “River blindness is a huge problem, and for us to get the drug free makes a huge difference. Merck deserve credit for this.”

Other procedures carried out by mobile units — such as treating trachoma — are more difficult, and despite the miracle-working aura of restoring sight, not all blindness is treatable. “There’s a lot of fear about working with the eye and there’s a lot of superstition about health care in general,” she feels. “There’s also a lot of discrimination against people with disabilities — and sight disabilities in particular.

“We work in a region where HIV and malaria are the top two priorities. Blindness is probably about fifth or sixth on the list. I thought the eye was a small thing, but when you go into it there’s so much to learn,” adds Hallahan. “Especially the fact that 80 percent of blindness is preventable.” ♦

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Heaney Donates Letters to Emory Mon, 01 Dec 2003 14:49:12 +0000 Read more..]]> Seamus Heaney, Ireland’s Nobel Prize-winning poet, is donating his papers and letters to Emory University in Atlanta. While Heaney’s manuscripts will stay in Ireland, his letters and papers will further enrich Emory’s impressive collection of Irish papers. Emory currently holds the correspondence, as well as manuscripts, of poets Michael Longley, James Simmons, Ciaran Carson and Derek Mahon, all from Belfast, all friends of Heaney. The group met as students at Queens University in their early 20s and have remained friends. “It is a tremendous coup for the university to have all this body of work in one place for student study,” James Flannery, Emory’s professor of performing arts and drama, told Irish America.

Emory already has the papers of W.B. Yeats, including the poet’s letters to Maud Gonne, muse and object of his affection. Flannery is also the director of the Yeats Foundation and the founder of the Yeats Festival, which ran from 1989 to 1993 at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. He cited Heaney’s relationship with retiring Emory president and Joyce scholar, William Chace, as the principal reason for Heaney’s largess. The two first met in the mid 1970s when Chace was a professor at Berkeley and Heaney was an assistant professor. Chace’s mentor at that time, Thomas Flanagan, also a professor at Berkeley, introduced Heaney to Chace. (Flanagan, recently deceased, went on to write some the best historical novels on Irish history, including Tenants of Time and Year of the French.)

Ron Schuchaid, Yeats scholar and former director of the Yeats Summer School, who teaches a course in contemporary Irish poetry, is another reason for Heaney’s willingness to part with his correspondence. Schuchaid invited, at one time or another, all the Belfast writers mentioned above to Emory. And in 1980, he asked Heaney to deliver the first Richard Ellman lecture (Ellman was a visiting professor at Emory when he died and the University and Schuchaid established a biannual Ellman lecture). Heaney’s intriguing lecture (available on the web) entitled “The Sense of Place,” explored whether that country of the mind takes its tone unconsciously from a shared oral inherited culture, or from a consciously savored literary culture, or from both.

In other Heaney news, the poet has collaborated with Liam O’Flynn, the acclaimed uilleann piper, to produce an album of poetry and music.

Available from Claddagh Records, the album is a treasure. Not just a number of poems and tunes thrown together, the two artists achieve a coherent piece of work that is graceful and skillfully performed. Heaney is a wonderful reader of some of his best loved poems, and the album includes some of his early works such as “Digging” and “Bogland.” An added bonus is Ciaran Carson’s elegant album cover notes. ♦

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