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This man's generosity has transformed the lives of millions throughout the world
and in Ireland. Yet very few people would recognize him or know what he has done.
Astonishing. I can't say I've ever encountered such an extraordinary
He certainly always wanted to play fair
but he wanted to play tough.
Odd. A conversation with Chuck Feeney
is unlike any other conversation you’ll have with anyone on Earth.
Paradoxical. When the history comes to be written, it will be shown that Chuck Feeney did have a significant
impact on Ireland.
He inspired us to think big.
Chuck Feeney, and you probably heard this from a
whole lot of other people, is a totally one-off.
Compassionate. He’ll know more about you in twenty minutes
than you’d ever know about him. Oh I think
I think the man is a saint.
This is the remarkable story of a man who had it all, but realized
it wasn’t enough.
Chuck Feeney has led an extraordinary life.
He became one of the wealthiest men on the planet
but throughout his life has chosen to remain outside the glare of the media
For over twenty five years his contribution to Ireland both
economically and politically has been monumental, yet
until recently
it went undocumented.
Now in his late seventies he's telling his story
in the hope that others will be inspired as he was.
It begins in the depression era of nineteen thirties America.
Charles Francis Feeney was born in nineteen thirty one
into a small Irish American community in New Jersey. This was the time of the
great depression and both his parents worked hard
to give their kids a good start in life.
I went to a school in an
Irish American neighborhood, and it was a
Catholic School
and we felt
we were
part of that community.
Chuck’s mother Madeline had a strong sense of doing right by the less fortunate.
She worked nights as a volunteer red cross nurse
and for her, there was no one quite like her only son.
He could do things with a straight face and he could get away with it because he was
“my Charles”
As far as my mother was concerned he could commit no sins. She was a good woman, clearly
and she would just consider it
as an obligation to help your neighbors.
When you live in a family
like that, that she was very
very concerned about our neighbors
I think that rubs off on you, you are concerned about people.
You had already been involved in a few money-making schemes, I mean you had an eye to making a buck.
Yeah, the typical things that kids do, mow the lawns,
do odd jobs for neighbors, I particularly recall a friend of mine whose name was Moose Foley
and I
partnered with him because he was the biggest guy in the class. When we’d go
out to shovel snow, I’d be the front man, I’d go to sign up the places we
had to shovel and I’d whistle for Moose, and he’d come over and
start shoveling and
I’d start selling again.
Moose Foley did most of the shoveling, I know that
because my father used to say to him you’re a real conniver, you’re always thinking.
After leaving school, he joined the Air Force and was stationed in Japan as a radio operator during the
Korean War.
One of the benefits of his military service as he well knew, was the
right to a free education afterwards.
“Veteran’s Administration Officers have been set up in every state, and it’s here the ex-soldier goes
if he wants to continue his education under the GI bill of rights.”
“You mean he can get any kind of education he wants?”
“Now you're getting the idea.”
Chuck Feeney, the kid from a blue-collar New Jersey town aimed high.
He applied, and was accepted into the respected ivy-league University of
The first in his family ever to go to college.
The grant from the GI bill didn't leave Chuck much extra
and it wasn't long before he started looking around
for money-making opportunities.
I saw this guy
coming around selling sandwiches
and I saw how the students
flocked down to buy a sandwich,
and so I said, I can do that, that's not difficult and so I
became a
self-made sandwich man.
It was at Cornell that he met a group of men who would later play vital roles
in his business life.
The most influential of all
was a young New Yorker studying law.
I thought he was selling sandwiches with too much bread
and too little peanut butter.
He was clearly an entrepreneur.
His Cornell experience was I think for him transformative
and he not only enjoyed the experience and the people, but
tremendously enjoyed the
and he always had this sense of gratitude
and therefore as part of his overall view that it's good to give back.
Following his graduation in hotel management
he traveled to France to continue his education,
a decision which would change his life forever.
Well, that’s
playing the hands that you’re dealt and
I wasn’t quite sure which cards
I would be dealt but
I was always thinking about ways
of making
a buck by working
myself as opposed to
working for somebody.
In nineteen fifty six
there were fifty ships of the US sixth fleet in the Mediterranean alone
each of the thirty thousand servicemen was entitled to buy liquor tax free
and Chuck was quick to spot a good business opportunity.
I was in a bar and I ran into an Englishman
who was just starting up a business of
selling liquor to the naval ships. He sent me down to Athens
I got down there and
they told me that the visit of the ships had been canceled.
Using my innate intelligence
I spotted a couple of hookers and
asked them if they knew when the ships were coming and they knew exactly
the day.
I stayed on for two weeks
and then I started my career selling
liquor to the ships.
Chuck the ex-GI and his partner had found the perfect business.
No set up capital and
cash up front.
We were buying something for five plus the transport cost
and selling it for almost fifteen
I looked at the market and said
if it's good for the military it must be good for the tourists
so we started doing the same thing selling them gallon packages of liquor
I said, if you can sell liquor,
why can't you sell perfume and so we sort of
expanded our range of products. As the sales to the tourists continued
Chuck realized that there was a new market opening up with the military.
And then we got so many requests for automobiles he said well we ought to get
into the automobile business and Germany was a natural because at that time there were
about two hundred and fifty thousand
military in Germany with dependents
and so that was when the business was started there in Frankfurt in the summer of
nineteen sixty four.
You had an immediate sense that there was almost ingenious with this fellow, just his focus
on life, his focus on the business
definitely what do they say, type A personality for sure.
Walked quickly, talked quickly, worked incessantly
things were looking up as the sale of cars, alcohol and perfumes continued but
Chuck and his team were in for a shock. Back in New York
they brought in an old college friend to advise them on a tax issue.
We did reorganize the businesses, and we reorganized them so that the
tax risk
was eliminated.
The bad news is that they weren’t making money
but they didn't know it.
Well when I arrived in New York it was clearly
a mess.
It couldn’t be described any other way.
There was no accounting systems
It took
not very long
to conclude that
the liabilities exceeded the assets by approximately
one million six hundred thousand dollars.
We got involved in businesses too quickly,
before we knew it we
were subject to
cutthroat competition. If you
fail honestly you
don’t go to jail, if you fail dishonestly you do go to jail.
Cash flow was tremendous
and people paid very early for the costs so everybody looked at this
money in the bank as profit, as it were.
There were no expense controls of any sort, people spent money as they saw fit
it resulted
in an enormous deficit
we were very lucky if we just got it out of debt and closed it down
and moved on to something else.
The business was in serious trouble
and the new team of Chuck Feeney
Alan Parker
Bob Miller
and Tony Pillaro
had no choice but to pay their debts and move on
but an opportunity was just around the corner
which was soon to make them one of the most successful business partnerships in
the world.
The concept of the airport duty free shops was not new. In fact,
the very first duty free shop was opened in Shannon in nineteen forty
but in the early sixties international travel was still confined to the
privileged few and large profits from duty free sales were unimagined.
Concessions to run the shops were granted by each government
to the highest bidder.
A friend of ours wrote to us to tell about a
shop that was going to open up at the Honolulu International Airport and
there would be the
concession to sell
any kind of duty free merchandise you wanted.
We bid about a hundred and twenty five thousand
guaranteed over five years
and in no time at all we were doing a giant amount of business.
Chuck was always the most optimistic because he was a visionary
he could see what was going to happen
I was just looking at the figures and adding them up, I could see them growing
but Chuck clearly was the visionary.
With the Olympic games of nineteen sixty four
the Japanese government was keen to present a more liberal image the world.
Japanese citizens were allowed to travel abroad in greater numbers
and the most popular destination was Honolulu in Hawaii.
Chuck’s instincts are sensational
and his competitiveness and tenacity are amazing.
He's also completely
so whenever there was an opportunity to make a change, big or small, to improve the
Chuck would often see it. As we explored
the Japanese market we realized that they were keen to buy bargains and we
sell a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label at that stage for about seven dollars a
bottle, it cost them in Japan
thirty five dollars a bottle, so
it was a bargain.
So you had this frenzy, the same was true of perfume, the same was true of cigarettes, they
were buying for ten percent of what they could buy them for in Japan
and in many cases you couldn’t even find the product in Japan.
It was very obvious then that this was a business that had great potential
and I think the one thing that should be
indicated about Chuck
is that he had the foresight and he had the vision. The best descriptive word for that is
because you know
if you want to pick an emerging market
pick one that people
want, need, and get value from
and all of things that we did qualified.
One of the rules that the business adopted early on and
for which I was appointed the policeman
actually anonymity
and at least in Chuck’s case was a desire to stay out of the
limelight the more you advertise your success and bragged about it the more
likely it is that you were going to attract both jealousy and competition.
With the incoming seven forty sevens, it just changed the business dramatically
the lid literally blew off. Some of the first years I was
there I think we're doing like
ten million dollars a year at the airport
and the downtown store during its heyday would do a million dollars a day
it was just mind-boggling, we were just trying to make
a buck
and that seemed like a good way to make a buck.
It was an exciting time, every day it was like getting up for the kickoff because it
was always something very dramatic
and very exciting about it.
We drank a lot of champagne, we drank a lot of everything but
when you worked hard, you worked hard and when we played, we played hard as well.
What was the bonus for you at that stage? Was it the business or the making money, or both? I guess it was the
success of business
we started with nothing and now look what we've got.
The money began to grow pretty quickly and I would say by the early seventies
the profits were rolling up very quickly by that time it was more than a
single duty-free shop, they had bid elsewhere,
and they were the largest duty-free retailer
in the world.
I think by the late
they had
five or six thousand employees, the volume by that time was
three billion dollars a year or so
and because of the structure that had been put in place
virtually all of those profits were
I grew up
with my parents having these parties and having a grand ol’ time,
we were the house where people came,
and had barbecues and had parties and
people always came with their kids, it was always kids and adults parties.
I enjoyed what I
did, I enjoyed particularly the
people that I worked with
I was always thinking that
I don't need another million dollars.
But as the profits rolled in and the four partners reveled in their
multi-million-dollar lifestyles
Chuck began to realize the effects that great wealth could have, not only on
but also on his family.
My dad was kicking us in the butt since we were fourteen, get out the door, do this
yourself, figure it out.
He was pushing us to be
active and sporty
and tough.
I felt that they should have
the opportunity to see how money is earned
they knew there was a difference between what you make and what you’re given.
More than anything
he wanted us to have goals and passions
and he thought well,
how could they have this, they’re born with everything already.
People have to fight and strive
so he made sure we did.
I remember having a conversation with Chuck and quoting to him
which I can only do approximately the
statement that
the Reverend Gates made to
John D Rockefeller in which
he said to Rockefeller, “Your wealth is rolling up, rolling up
and if you don't do something about it it will crush you and crush your family.”
And Chuck kind of got that.
He is uncomfortable with
displays of wealth
and lavishness
and I think that grew over time.
I think there were times when he enjoyed entertaining people
at some of the houses that
the family then owned
so I think there were things about it that he enjoyed
but the growth of the
eventually outweighed the pleasure of being able to entertain and bring people together.
There's a halfway mark where
we were living a certain life,
my dad was
fun at a party
then I think things got a little bit more serious with the amount of money
and also an awareness,
when you travel and see
how people suffer really
you know it's not just an idea.
I think life is a learning process and you read books, you read stories, you empathize with
I’d always empathized with people who
have it tough in life and the world is full of people who
don't get enough to eat.
By nineteen eighty I started to think where is all this leading, what am I going to do with
like many of the
wealthy people today
they have the money but
wouldn’t be able to spend it if they started to
spend it.
It was the early eighties, and the decade of greed was well underway.
While much of the world was consumed with making money
Chuck Feeney decided he was going to do something completely different.
It was the start of a journey which was to change his life
and the lives of many around him.
I think because of his upbringing, a blue collar New Jersey guy
a guy in college who had to sell sandwiches to get through school
is that when he started making
these tremendous amounts of money
he was almost embarrassed by it.
He worked so hard to get there
and once he did I think he found, I know he didn’t like these fancy dinners, and
and he didn’t want to go
places that
they were invited to,
he was very low key.
Chuck doesn't own a car
doesn't own a house
has one pair of shoes
and a fifteen dollar watch.
I would be unhappy with myself if I was wasting money
on anything and that includes living
and so I
what I
want from life and move on.
He’s happy going out to dinner and if he can get a good bottle of wine
he's happy with that and
sometimes even a better bottle of wine
it's just that his personal style is not self-indulgent or lavish.
I’m a guy who has
said that
I could be happy
with a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich.
ecause he’d always insisted on remaining anonymous very few people had any
idea just how much Feeney was worth, not even his family.
By now his fortune was estimated at around a billion dollars
and although no one knew
he was secretly developing a radical plan to give everything away.
Oh I think it was clear throughout that there would be a moment when virtually all
of the assets would be used for charitable purposes
we were never perfectly clear what virtually all meant
because Chuck didn’t want to impoverish his family but it was clear increasingly
clear that he didn't want very much for himself.
Did you not at any stage wonder yourself, am I going nuts, am I doing the
right thing here?
I suppose you always question
business decisions and this was in effect a type of business decision.
I warned him, a good lawyer is supposed to warn clients about risks and I said
you can’t change your mind on this, once this is done, if the money is
transferred, if the assets are transferred they’re gone
and if you change your mind three days later you can't get them back and if you think
you've made a mistake you can’t get them back and if things go awry you can't get
them back it's irrevocable.
Are you sure you want to do this?
There was no going back.
No going back once we decided.
I think he actually was impatient with that because he’d made up his mind and thought it was
fine, he said, yeah, let’s get on with it.
Chuck Feeney, the man who had worked his whole life to build a business empire
was about to change everything
with the stroke of a pen.
In November nineteen eighty two
having made a relatively modest provision for his family, he signed
over his entire fortune
to his new foundation
The Atlantic Philanthropies.
I got a phone call one day
from him and he said I have a big announcement, and he said
I just wanted you to know that
I've given everything away
and I said you mean every penny
and he said I’ve given it all away to a foundation
and I said
Oh, well that’s good if that’s what you want to do!
I mean I'm really proud
of my dad I think he's just really an extraordinary man
I mean honestly, who does this?
I was surprised
I will admit, but
I knew that he didn’t do it without having given a lot of thought to it and the Irish expression
“there's no pockets in shrouds,”
well I think he just came to that realization said, OK, I'm going to change
what I'm doing. Well I guess it gets down to
a realization that
it doesn't
add anything to your life
as they say,
it may make life a bit more
comfortable for you but
I’m not uncomfortable today.
From now on
all of Chuck Feeney’s multi-million dollar profits from the duty-free business would be
paid directly
into Atlantic Philanthropies.
His next destination
was a small
poor, underdeveloped country
on the edge of Europe.
I’m kind of a plastic paddy. An Irish-American is a person whose origins are Irish
and my grandmother was from Fermanagh
I guess
I qualify as an Irish-American because I’ve been involved in
a number of things that were
to do with Ireland
in my adult years.
When Feeney arrived in Ireland in the early nineteen eighties the country was
in the grip of a desperate recession.
Unemployment and immigration were at record levels
there was little investment in industry our education
things were bleak.
He had begun routinely spending time in Ireland and doing what he always does, he
goes to someplace
and he walks around and he sniffs around and he talks to people and it’s this entrepreneurial
seeking mode.
Feeney had had firsthand experience of the benefits of education
and he quickly spotted a real need in Ireland.
Irish education had not kept pace
and I
just had the experience in my life of
realizing that it's with educated people that you can achieve more
and so we wanted to reinforce the
the structures of the universities.
One of the cities in Ireland in most need of investment in third level education
was Limerick.
The people of Limerick had been campaigning for a university for years.
Ed Walsh, the young head of Limerick’s existing National Institute
had big ambitions to convert it from a small campus
into a top-level university.
The odds
were stacked against him.
The thing about Chuck Feeney is that he likes the underdog
and Limerick was the underdog. First of all, Limerick is physically a little bit separate
from other places
and the institution was a new institution which was bucking the trend,
Ed Walsh was introducing new thinking into a rather stultified higher
education system in Ireland and was not welcomed for that.
Those are the sort of people that Chuck Feeney likes.
A very unassuming man on a first encounter
just because he dressed so badly
and was so self-effacing
a very ordinary kind of guy he could have stepped off a tractor in
County Clare
and when he came into my office in Limerick, most Americans would have a quick
encounter and someone would take them away
and see the building,
this man had read and he was profoundly knowledgeable
about Ireland and it’s predicament and
the trouble and the potential
so something clicked.
We did a lot of bricks and mortar at the very beginning because some of the
things that we wanted to do for example here in Ireland
were going to require buildings
at universities, student accommodation
libraries and that sort of stuff
Chuck says, look, you’ve got one chance to do something extremely well
the country does not have a purpose
designed concert hall
why don't we bring in the best designer we can, I know one in New York
he flew in
and we’ll design a world class concert hall that Ireland can be proud of and the
university can be proud of
by the way you can design it in such a way
that it will meet the needs of students and conferrings and everything else
so this was the first major project.
The anonymity which had been crucial to the success of his business
became an obsession with Feeney.
As the buildings went up
maintaining the veil of secrecy became the condition of any grants the
foundation made.
The joke used to be in the
trade that
was synonymous with anonymous.
He explained to me
that if we revealed who was providing the funding
it would cease.
It was very strange trying to explain to
faculty and staff here where the money was coming from,
was I involved in the drugs businesses something like that,
because these magnificent buildings were rising out of the ground
and we couldn't explain really who was doing it.
In nineteen eighty nine Limerick finally got its university
and as the campus grew
so too did jobs and opportunities in the city and beyond.
No matter where you look on campus
you can find Chuck Feeney’s mark.
The thing he liked about the university program was that there were buildings, there was
bricks and mortar, you could kick them, you could touch them, you could feel them
they were there.
Those who knew him before said that he’d been transformed, he was much happier
and he was really enjoying life
the more he gave the more he enjoyed it it was quite amazing.
The effect of Feeney’s donations to Limerick and other universities was
slowly transforming the country
but these investments would be dwarfed by the sheer scale of the next phase of
the project
meanwhile events in his home country of Fermanagh
were drawing him into the complex world of Northern Irish politics.
Well I think the terminal event was certainly the bombing in Enniskillen.
It just seemed so gross and
there were just people who unfortunately
happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
It struck me that this is not a good Irish
thing, we're not that kind of people that
want to make people disappear from the Earth because of
their views.
I met Chuck one night at P_J Clarke’s
sat him down and said
I was considering putting together a group
to go to Northern Ireland to become involved and try and bring an American
dimension to solving the Irish issue and Chuck instantly said yes, I want to do it
which was remarkable given who he was and given the
fact that this was really kind of a fool's errand in many people’s eyes.
At the time there was no solution in sight to the violence in Northern
Sinn Fein was censored under section thirty one
and had become political pariahs
but there was a feeling that if the party could be brought into the political
it could help
move the peace process forward.
At that time I sort of
felt that the business of
bringing a solution to the problem was
as good a business as you could get into.
In early ninety three
O’Dowd suggested that Chuck Feeney should meet the head of Sinn Fein
Gerry Adams.
Well the first time I met him
was at a safe house
in Dublin and
he struck the right away as being open, straightforward
and I thought that this is the kind of person
who can talk to both sides.
What Chuck brought to it was
a confidence, or a trust, or an
that we were genuinely trying to
do something to get
the whole process
together which would build a bridge out of conflict.
Feeney joined O’Dowd and a group of well respected businessmen
who were planning a landmark trip to Northern Ireland.
We had
conducted negotiations
with the Clinton White House before we left because we had
become involved with the Clinton people
and we said look we're going to go over there
and while we’re there there will be a cease-fire for the IRA, it will be unannounced,
it will be for ten days
and it will send a signal that
the Republican movement want to
move this issue forward.
“The U_S delegation arrived for their meeting to a frenzy of media attention.
The American group of businessmen and trade unionists then got down to
three hours of talks.”
He had a very incisive sense
of people and
I could see how he was remarkably successful in business
and he was a great man to kind of size-up a situation. As he was in his financial business
as he was in trying to make sure things were done in a fair deal
he was as sharp as any razor
and when you said something to him, as complicated as Northern Ireland was
he understood what you were saying. Chuck Feeney works in a very intuitive way he doesn't have a very
structured approach to things
he goes by gut and by feel and in particular he's always very concerned to
get a sense of the people he's dealing with and particularly the leader of the
organization that he might be looking at.
Feeney the anonymous billionaire was now at the center of a major world news
He felt that real progress could only be made if the delegation met
representatives of all sides.
We talked with paramilitaries and some
of the stuff was that they were concerned
the war that the Republicans had carried out had
been funded by Irish America, and for the
move forward the Americans were going to play a big role
in terms of the whole peace process, how Northern Ireland was
designed, developed and all the rest of it, so we needed to actually talk to Irish America
to find out where they stood on all of this.
From my point of view, I think
that that part of the process was very easy because Irish America were open to
hearing what was going on
and they were very open, they actually
I suppose in many ways
helped loyalism move on.
The visit was a success
but the next challenge was to try to convince a hostile U_S State Department
that it should support a radical proposal.
Well we had a very basic plan that we would go back to the White House and we would explain that
our visit
had coincided with a ten-day IRA cease-fire it showed that the good will
on the part of the Republican movement was there
and that now the White House needed to make a gesture.
We believed after
discussing it at the
Congressional level with
some of the
representatives that there was support out there for
a way to get people together and that
culminated in the visa
for Gerry Adams which
seems perfectly logical today but they
didn't think so at the time.
How difficult was it for your group to persuade Clinton to
give Adams that visa in the face of pretty stiff opposition from the British?
I think in fairness Bill Clinton
he thought it through himself and
and thought that talking
a better answer than killing. It was around this time that Feeney made a controversial
to fund the establishment of a Sinn Fein office in Washington.
My rationale was straightforward
I wanted to see an end to the problem and
the idea of having an office
where people
could meet and
see each other
seemed to be right.
There were a lot of people counseling him not to get involved, I know for a fact that
many people in his own organization
called him
and I had a few calls myself from people in his organization who
were frantically saying, what the hell are you doing?
I wish he had not decided to give it money
that I think was not a good idea
and Chuck disagrees on that
but it was his money, it was certainly never the foundation’s money, that's an
important issue
the foundation never did and never would
give money to a political cause.
The concern at the time was that the IRA were not
fully committed to the cease-fire and in fact broke the cease-fire
during that time. Were you not concerned that your money was going to go
to the wrong place?
I suppose there was a concern but as they say knowing the people and
seeing them on a regular basis reinforced the belief that the
and Sinn Fein we're looking for
a solution.
Do you feel that there was any lasting damage done to your good name?
Not that I know of.
Just over a year after Chuck Feeney and his delegation visited Belfast
another famous American would follow.
It was to be an historic turning point if the President of the United States could
walk down the Falls Road
surely anything was possible.
“As he went into McErlean’s bakery the crowds
had already broken through the barriers providing a real security headache for the Secret Service.”
I think one of the most glorious moments for us was President Clinton
coming to Ireland for the first time to Belfast
and I also think one of the greatest things for Ireland
was this incredible situation where the President of the United States was walking up the
Falls Road walking down the Shankill Road
which a couple of years previous to that could never even have been considered.
I think that Chuck and
others like him
and he's the one that strikes me most vividly
as wanting to return the favor in some way
the place that his people couldn’t live in
that he has been part of the energy of making it a better place
for the people who do live here.
Clinton’s nineteen ninety five visit to Belfast
is now widely recognized as one of the key to turning points in the history of
Northern politics.
Chuck was such a huge part of that
I would go so far as to say I don’t think it would’ve happened without him.
I think he was central to the American
role and the American role was central to the process.
Aside from Feeney’s personal involvement,
Atlantic Philanthropies continues to invest millions in projects in Northern
Ireland on all sides of the political divide.
Chuck, I suppose in many ways through Atlantic Philanthropies
put his money where his mouth is
and it put money in struggling loyalist communities
and he
hasn’t asked
are you a Republican, are you a Loyalist, are you a Jew
are you a Muslim, he hasn’t asked that
what he has done, is he says
these people need a leg up
and I’ve got money that can help do that, and that’s what he’s done.
“Throughout the morning at his hotel the Taoiseach met a number of chief executives
representing health care, electronics and the service sector of the
telecommunications industry. Twenty of
these companies are already in Ireland fifteen others are looking for a base to
service their company’s European operations.”
In the nineteen nineties Ireland with its low corporation tax and ready
was beginning to attract more and more multinational business. What the country
didn't have was the educational infrastructure required
to sustain the economic upturn.
Ireland ranked very poorly in the international tables
in terms of expenditure and research and development
and here we were
presenting ourselves as a future major knowledge economy and we weren't
spending money on the knowledge.
The reality was
That in nineteen ninety seven
the government made an announcement that they would make one million available to
meet the equipment needs of all of the Irish universities
so that was nonsense.
After the success in Limerick
Feeney was thinking big. He knew that a colossal investment in education would
create a generation of highly skilled graduates, and that they would attract big name
employers and create opportunities for others. There were people out there who rationalized that
helping universities
helping the economy, is helping yourself, is helping your neighbors.
But in order to fund the plans on the scale that he envisaged
he needed more money, a lot more money
so in nineteen ninety seven he sold Atlantic’s share in D_F_S
as a result almost overnight
the foundation was flooded
with over one point six billion dollars.
Chuck can’t stand having money around, he just likes to see it spent
so he said to me one day in the summer of nineteen ninety seven, he said look
I really like these building projects we've been doing with these
universities but they're not moving fast enough and I’d really like to up the tempo.
Funding from the government
didn’t have that much of structure to it, we were the first ones that came
along and said
if you put up the money
let's do a three-year five-year plan and
you put up your money we’ll put up our money and we’ll move it forward.
In the early years when he knew that the capital program
wouldn’t be able to do that he didn't put on that pressure
we he then realized in ninety seven, ninety eight, ninety nine that things
were better for the country he then put the pressure on
to make sure that the states lived up to what he believed was his personal standard.
A breakfast meeting was arranged between the higher education authority
and officials from the Department of Education. Over breakfast John said
if we put up seventy five million pounds for research funding would you
match it? We’ll put
seventy five million pounds on the table
but you've got to come up with a matching seventy five million, and
they kind of almost fell off their chairs.
There was a moment's hesitation, so I said
I think we could write a paper on how we might spend this.
Atlantic’s revolutionary funding plan was presented to the Department of
Their reaction to any proposal is to say no
and that was the reaction that we instantly met.
The resistance was that
if you took this money that was bringing the capital program for
third level education to certain level, therefore what would happened next
What held the country back for years we just didn't have the money for capital
we always had to
put our money into day to day issues
but he had a broader view of things and a correct view of things.
So we started working on the political channel
and we started playing all the sort of, blackmail and violence that one uses
in these intense inter-departmental debates so Atlantic played their part as well
they sprung an ultimatum
they said unless it’s fixed by such and such a date, which was a Saturday morning, we’re off.
But in terms of making a decision they dragged their feet, and you had
to put them on a clock.
Yeah I guess so
but that's the way it
it works out sometimes.
We had quite frankly, I can say it now we had the academic debate within
government and within the department who said this hasn’t got value
and I believe it was a bit of a stupid argument
that you were going to turn away
the best gift horse that you’d ever get.
After weeks of hard negotiations it was finally agreed that if Atlantic put
up seventy five million pounds
the Irish government would match it.
The Program for Research in Third Level Institutions or P_R_T_L_I was born.
“These funds represent a major advance for the country's research community
and the representatives looked pleased at today's announcement in Dublin.” It will
mean that we’ll be in a position to attract the best staff to our universities and our institutes of
in the research areas
which will improve quality, it will mean very significant capital investment in terms of new buildings
and new equipment.
And this transformed the nature of higher education and the nature of
Ireland’s attempt to attract foreign direct investment
so the multinationals, the Intels, and the Microsofts, and the Hewlett Packards could be
that they could move upwards and put sophisticated research
and development into Ireland.
Chuck was behind what triggered this whole thing
and I doubt that the Department of Education would have put
a euro upon a euro to do this were it not for Chuck’s initiative.
What I think he did for many of us who came in touch with him
was that he
inspired us to think big. If we aspire to being a leading knowledge-based economy and society in the world
we needed to behave like one. This was typical of how Chuck worked, there was the
visionary part which was probably more important than the funding but he followed
through with funding
to help others turn a good vision into reality.
This he did with government, this he did with Ireland.
The idea was, we showed them the light.
To date,
Atlantic has invested one point two billion dollars in Ireland alone
over seven hundred and fifty million of that
has gone into third level education
and the resulting new population of highly qualified post-graduates
was undoubtedly a key driver of the Celtic tiger economy.
As with all his grants
there was no publicity
no names on buildings
only a desire to promote opportunity through education
all the more necessary
in troubled economic times.
Ireland is subject to
good times and bad times and
tougher times are coming
and that just requires
more support.
“The Irish public have often proven their interest in seeing wrongdoing in
corporate and political life being exposed
up to now tribunals set up by the state have been the way it's done
but now a private group is about to begin its investigations too
with retired judge Fergis Flood at the head of its board.”
Feeney's involvement in Irish politics continued
when in two thousand and five
Atlantic funded the establishment of a Center for Public Inquiry
an independent watchdog charged with uncovering corruption in public life.
Well the concept of citizen watchdog organizations is kind of
unexceptional in a country like the United States in many other countries as well
in what you would say are mature Democratic societies. I think
the idea of the Center was to
government accountable
for things that happened
because they call the shots.
The person they hired to head up the center seemed a logical choice
Frank Connolly was an established journalist whose work on corruption had contributed
to the establishment of the Flood and Morris Tribunals.
We had a fellow, Frank Connelly
who I think was recognized as this one of the very good
here in Ireland.
I think quite frankly this was seen as a strange group
to be
watching ourselves
and I suppose
if in Paris
an organization funded by a group of Irish people was set up to start
investigating them,
what would the French think?
You felt you were entitled to fund such an operation in Ireland and you felt it was worthwhile.
if the Center
was ever able to carry out the
goals that we had set out than it would have been worthwhile.
I think it was mentioned that we were planning to target individuals in our
investigations which of course is absolutely absurd, we have never suggested any
such thing, we never did any such thing what we said we were going to do is
examine matters of public importance.
This was the Center’s first report and many more they say are on the way
on a range of controversies.
In the beginning the Center produced two well-received reports on planning
problems in Trim
and on the Corrib gas controversy
but soon there were allegations emerging
that seriously threatened to undermine the independence of the Center.
Frank Connolly, brother of Niall Connelly one of the so-called “Colombia three” was
alleged to have traveled to Colombia on a false passport.
The Taoiseach
met with Feeney.
I and Mike McDowell
asked a question, what was this really about
we weren’t attacking or lecturing him because he wasn’t that kind of a person,
he could do whatever he wanted with his money
but I think we gave him
at an honest assessment of the view in Leinster House
and no more than that
“Undoubtedly The Center for Public Inquiry aspires to be an organ of public
but equally it is one which in subversive hands has
the capacity to gravely undermine the authority of the state.”
The way we saw it in Leinster House was that they were going to investigate decisions
that were made and planned and undertaken.
Well we see that the
courts are the places you should do that
not ad hoc committees.
Citing the interests of national security
Minister for Justice Michael McDowell
released the documents to the Irish newspapers
claiming to prove that Connelly had traveled to Colombia.
“All I have done
is to give to the Irish Independent
at its request a copy of the forgery
so that people in this country
can determine where the truth lies.” Even though the D_P_P found no evidence against him,
pressure intensified on Connelly to
say where he had been at the time in question.
Did you ask him where he was for those couple of weeks?
Probably, if not myself I said
found out where Frank was for those couple of weeks.
You got no answer to that.
He didn’t answer that.
It then became
a matter of credibility for the organization, that was a very painful and
difficult episode
that I think upset Chuck Feeney a lot.
We hadn’t researched back far enough
and we were surprised by
what we discovered and
then we
tried to carry the can for that because
what you don’t discover is your fault too.
Are you in a position now or do you think you would be in a position ever to say
where you were at the time and finally end all that speculation
I don't think it's my position I’ve already said to you that
the investigation for what it was
is finished so it's nonsense in my view that for me to be trying
to explain things based on an investigation that was never justified in the first
If Chuck Feeney had
stood up at any stage and articulated what he
wanted this for
people would have accepted that, he never did that
my view is that is
he never had researched this through.
In a way could it be said that he was
railroaded out, not by you
but perhaps by
the government or individuals within the government?
Well, that certainly is an assessment someone could make.
Elements in power
not only that but including the former Taoiseach I think
didn’t like the idea of where this was going to go and where it potentially could go, and if you
look back now at what's happened in the last couple of years we’ve discovered
corruption on a scale none of us ever envisaged would emerge or even existed at the time
and I think that's partly the tragedy of all of this.
Atlantic withdrew its funding
and the center was closed in December two thousand and five.
The sad thing about this is that
because the watchdog organization was setback as a result of what happened
and it could be some years I think before it can be revived.
Chuck Feeney’s philosophy of giving while living
is central to everything he does.
His belief that it's better to give money away now has changed the lives of
and his work isn't over yet.
Feeney, an extremely shy man recently made the difficult decision to sacrifice his
and cooperate on a biography with Conor O’Clery, he did
it because he wants his message of giving while living to inspire others
my sense is that he's getting to a stage in his life now where
as I think all of us do when we get a little bit older you ask yourself what is
the meaning of your life been and what have you been able to contribute. I sense that the most important
thing for him now is to spread the gospel of giving while living and
to influence more people who have
to give it away and to give it away wisely.
We are
a spend-down foundation which means that we are going to
over the next nine years or thereabouts
spend down the assets of the
foundation which would be in excess of three
billion dollars. In order to meet the deadline of spending our
endowment out of existence
by two thousand and sixteen we have to give away a million dollars every day of the
year three hundred and sixty five days a year.
There’s logic in
making things happen now
if now
there are things out there that are necessary
nowadays Chuck Feeney still travels to see the work that Atlantic Philanthropies
supports in seven countries around the world, in
projects on aging,
children and youth, population health
and reconciliation and human rights.
I'm not here to tell anybody
what they should do with their money, if you make your money you do what you want with
but I think there is an obligation certainly for the
“haves” to reach out and to look and see what they can do.
Any money that people give to
any good cause as long as it's well-managed is worthwhile.
I just hope that
people will sort of try it you'll like it.
Today with the same relentless drive and attention to detail that made him one of the
world's richest men
Chuck Feeney
is now giving away the last of his billions.
I wouldn't put him happy in the sense of content,
I would say he's happy with what he's been able to do and wishes there would be more
and he's probably just as restless and consumed with trying to make it better now
as he was in nineteen sixty two.
He wants to be
in the center of things. He wants to be where the action is and if he has to
get on an airplane and fly to five different airports he’ll go. My husband said to him
one time, why don’t you just have a conference call
instead of spending a day and a half in the airport to get wherever.
I think my dad would wish he could live ‘til he’s a hundred and sixty, if not more, to keep
involved and
he tells me how pissed he is that he’s not going to be able to see how things turn out here or
He wants to keep going.
He’ll never retire.
I doubt it. He couldn't, he can’t.
Maybe the Lord’s word
is the
decider on that.
The poor are always with us
you know, you’ll never run out of people you can help.
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Secret Billionaire: The Chuck Feeney Story

5099 Folder Collection
Zion Lin published on January 18, 2014
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