Chuck Feeney, Ireland's Secret Hero

Posted by Niall O'Dowd at 5/16/2009 10:54 AM EDT

I'm just back from Dublin where I met with Chuck Feeney, the American billionaire who has given all his money away, much of it to Ireland.

I also had the chance to view the wonderful RTE program about his life and his incredible role in Ireland. It is called 'Secret Billionaire' and it contains extraordinary footage of Feeney from his childhood years, right up to the present.

It is based on Conor O'Clery's best selling book on the same topic. It is clear from viewing the film that Feeney is the greatest living Irishman --and one of the greatest living Americans too.

It has really only struck home in Ireland since the documentary aired just what an incredible contribution he has made to the country and to peace in Northern Ireland. Much to his chagrin he told me, he is now being recognized in the streets,and worse of all was recently upgraded on an Aer Lingus flight when the staff realized who he was. For a man famous for his personal frugality and need for anonymity that was a singular moment.

The breadth of his contribution to Ireland is astonishing. He more than any one individual is responsible for creating the educational revolution that fueled the Celtic Tiger boom of the past decade.He also played a massive role in the Irish peace process and continues to help cement the end of The Troubles by pouring tens of millions into vital cross community projects.

As the documentary makes clear he singlehandedly transformed third level education there, personally funding the development of the University of Limerick from scratch and also underwriting most of the growth of Dublin City University. His foundation, Atlantic Philantrophies has poured more than $1 billion into higher education there, at every step forcing the Irish government to match their grant giving and transforming higher education in the process

No less a person than former Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern states clearly in the documentary that without Feeney the educational revolution that underpinned the Celtic Tiger could never have been accomplished.

In Northern Ireland he played a critical role as the documentary shows. He was a key figure in securing the involvement of President Bill Clinton in the process, which transformed the drive for peace. He stepped up with his own money when Sinn Fein desperately needed an office in Washington to assure their own hard men that the peace process was working. It was a vital intervention.

You can count on the finger of one hand the number of billionaires who would have originally agreed to meet Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, then widely considered a terrrorist, in a safe house in Dublin at the height of The Troubles like Feeney did.

He did it because he wanted to understand the Republican viewpoint and felt it could help. I was at that meeting and will always remember that encounter between two of the most extraordinary men I have ever met.

The pages of history are written from such encounters and the more time passes, the greater the role a man like Chuck Feeney will be seen to have played in the transformation of Ireland.
Not that he wants that credit. I met him and his charming wife Helga in their cosy apartment not far from the city center this week. We sipped tea and watched Al-Jazzera where a special
program on the abuse of human rights in Burma was showing.

I could see the light of battle in Chuck Feeney's eyes as he watched the injustices unfold. He's a crusader for hope and justice in a world without much of either right now. Ireland has been so lucky to have known him.

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