Charles Feeney was born to a working class family in New Jersey, USA in the early 1930’s. His father’s mother hailed from near Kinawley, in Co Fermanagh, from where she emigrated to the USA.
In the 1960’s he co-founded Duty Free Shoppers, which sold luxury goods ‘duty free’ in Honolulu and Hong Kong and which eventually became hugely successful, making the partners very wealthy. DFS was to become one of the largest liquor retailers in the world and in 1997, Feeney sold his interest to Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH).
In 1988, the Forbes Rich List ranked Feeney in the top 20 richest people, with estimated wealth of €1.3billion. But, in reality his wealth was much less as he had in 1982 transferred much of it – reportedly between $500 million and $800 million – to a charitable foundation, The Atlantic Foundation. Based in Bermuda to avoid disclosure requirements in the USA and to give Charles Feeney the anonymity he craved, The Atlantic Foundation was the first of The Atlantic Philanthropies. A very private and modest man, the story of Charles (Chuck) Feeney was not well known until the 1990s when in an interview with The New York Times he revealed that he was the benefactor of one of the top 5 philanthropic foundations in the world.
In 1987, the Enniskillen Bombing had a profound impact on Feeney. His grandmother having emigrated from the same county, meant he had family roots here and he became determined to try to effect change in Northern Ireland. He joined with other Irish Americans liaising between the White House and various parties in Northern Ireland to try to broker a peace agreement. He had as a particular and personal agenda the aim of encouraging the Republicans to join in mainstream politics and he personally funded the Sinn Fein Office in Washington D.C. for some years. (Atlantic Philanthropies is precluded from funding political parties.)
It was not until 2007 when Conor O’ Cleary, a well respected correspondent of The Irish Times, published a book : The Billionaire Who Wasn’t: How Chuck Feeney Secretly Made and Gave Away a Fortune, that the truth about Feeney became known. (Feeney had decided to cooperate with the author to promote ‘Giving While Living’ and inspire wealthy people to donate their wealth during their lifetime). Also in 1997 RTE, the Irish television service, aired a TV documentary, ‘The Secret Billionaire’ looking at the life of this extraordinary man.
Universities in Ireland, notably University of Limerick, Dublin City University and Trinity College, Dublin have benefited from donations from the fund of over $1billion. Many philanthropists will endow projects in return for recognition, but this has never been the case with Chuck Feeney who has shunned public recognition such as honorary degrees, and having buildings named in his honour. One of my favourite stories that exemplifies what Chuck Feeney is all about, relates to Queens University, in Belfast, who in 2007 were building a new library, costing £44 million. It was to have been called the Sir Anthony O’Reilly Library. Tony O’Reilly had contributed £4 million in return for ‘naming rights’. Chuck Feeney on the other hand had anonymously provided £10 million and it was his wish that this should not be made public. (Tony O’Reilly later withdrew his wish to have the library named after him in 1999!)
Charles ‘Chuck’ Feeney does not own on a house, he does not own a car and his $15 plastic watch is now famous! He lives modestly, having said that a man can only wear one pair of shoes at a time. He has never strayed far from the sense of community he was born into – one of helping his neighbour, and he has the ability to empathize with people less fortunate than himself who lead difficult lives and who may not have enough to eat. And so this week, the week of St Patrick’s Day, will see Charles ‘Chuck’ Feeney, extraordinary Irish American, inducted into the Irish America Hall of Fame. There is no doubt but that his benevolence has had a huge impact on life and society in Ireland, and continues to do so through funding for social issues from The Atlantic Philanthropies, including fighting ageism, of particular interest to this blogger.
The website of The Atlantic Philanthropies can be viewed here.
For more on the Irish American Hall of Fame click here.
To see more about Conor O’Cleary’s book on Charles Feeney, click here.