IRISH billionaire Thomas J. Flatley, a Massachusetts real estate icon and philanthropist, died on Saturday, May 17 at the age of 76. Flatley, who emigrated to the U.S. from Kiltimagh, Co. Mayo in 1950, had been suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease for the past year. Flatley grew up on a 25-acre farm with his family in Mayo. His parents, John and Maggie Flatley hoped someday their son would take over the running of the farm. However, Flatley's fate was much bigger. He emigrated to New York City at 18 after realizing he was entitled to American citizenship because his father fought in the U.S. Army during World War I. Flatley arrived in New York in 1950 with $32 in his back pocket. His first job was at a German deli in the Bronx. Following in his father's footsteps, Flatley enlisted in the army a few months later. After serving two years - some of it in Korea - Flatley moved to Massachusetts. In 2000, he told the Boston Irish Reporter he chose Boston over New York because it was "small and manageable. You could have your own identity here." During his tenure in the army, Flatley attended night school. There he acquired several trades including plumbing, electrical work, gas and oil. He also received several licenses entitling him to operate in the construction industry.After dedicating a number of years to the air conditioning and plumbing business, Flatley eventually found his comfort zone - real estate. In 1958, at the age of 26, he became the founding president of the Flatley Company, which he based in Braintree. He developed his first two apartment buildings, setting the stage for much bigger and more prosperous projects in the future. Both buildings, one in Quincy and one in Randolph, had 33 apartments in total. These would turn out to be some of the smallest projects Flatley would ever undertake. Moving from residential to commercial development, Flatley soon became a staple in the construction industry. He specialized in short, flat buildings staying away from the skyscrapers that at the time were taking Boston by storm. By the 1980s, the entrepreneur had 4,800 people in his employment. Flatley was responsible for developing numerous businesses including shopping centers, offices and apartment complexes, industrial parks and various healthcare facilities and hotels. It was in Braintree, that Flatley constructed the Sheraton Tara Hotel, one of many hotels he designed to resemble an old Irish castle. Flatley featured on Forbes magazine's list of wealthiest entrepreneurs on several occasions, most recently in 2006 where he was ranked joint 279th on the list of 400 wealthiest people in the world with an estimated worth of $1.3 billion. In 2000 he was named one of Irish America magazine's Irish Americans of the Century. Flatley, however is best known and will always be fondly remembered for his extraordinary charitable works. He was a founding member and huge benefactor to the American Ireland Fund over the years. He was influential in the establishment of the Morrison and Donnelly visas in the late 1980's. He often gave huge donations to various Irish charities, including GOAL, an Irish organization dedicated to working with the poor in over 50 countries. Flatley created his own benevolent foundation, which last year stood at $200 million. Organizations to benefit from Flatley's good fortune in the U.S. include Boston College, where he served as a trustee, New England Shelter for the Homeless and the Salvation Army to name but a few. In the mid 1990s, Flatley raised $2 million to build Boston city's Irish Famine Memorial and the Famine Institute to commemorate the Great Irish famine's 150th anniversary. During its dedication in June 1998, Flatley paid respect to the Irish immigrants who died from hunger and disease during the potato famine. "People have to be dancing in heaven," he said.Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Brian Cowen, who said he was "saddened" to hear of Flatley's death, described the Mayo man as "a wonderful leader and friend to many in the Irish community in Boston."Cowen said in a statement that Flatley was "an inspiration to countless Irish emigrants who followed this same route and who demonstrated similar courage and perseverance in the face of adversity and hardship."Cowen paid particular tribute to Flatley for his work on the Irish Economic Advisory Board. "As the Irish economy developed over recent years, we were fortunate to be able to reach out to very successful business people such as Tom Flatley to guide and advise us in the further development of those links for the mutual benefit of both Ireland and America," he said. A private funeral Mass will be held for Flatley on Wednesday, May 21 at St. Agatha's Church in Milton. Flatley will be buried at Milton Cemetery that afternoon. Flatley is survived by his wife, Charlotte, five children, and 18 grandchildren.
Historic film of old Ireland from 1934 (VIDEO)