Denis O’Brien is Ireland’s equivalent of Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish emigrant who made billions and gave it all away in the final decades of his life.
Though he roamed and prospered far and wide, Carnegie never forgot the millions in need in his own country or anywhere else he operated.
O’Brien has made his billions through his telephone company Digicel which has provided cell phone service to millions of the world's poor.
He has also given back in the countless millions to those countries where he has prospered.
His next assignment will be Burma, he says, or Myanmar if you prefer. It is a country with a population of 63 million, where only two million have cell phones, which has recently opened up to outsiders.
Writing in Time Magazine recently, Bill Clinton rated O’Brien’s work in making financial transactions possible by cell phone as the single most important development in 2012 in helping the poor worldwide.
He has personally given $16.5 million to Haiti in an attempt to help get that country back on its feet.
Of course O’Brien earns a handsome buck, but he gives back. His work on behalf of the destitute in Haiti and elsewhere has won him international acclaim. He is a huge backer of Concern, the Third World agency that has inspired a new generation of Irish to volunteer in the Third World.
That is why I was immensely proud to honor him yesterday in New York before a packed audience at the Irish America Magazine Annual Business 100 in New York.
We had never honored a non-American before with our premier business award but both editor Patricia Harty and I felt O’Brien deserved to be the first
Good men like O’Brien are rare as hen’s teeth and like all good men he has drawn ferocious critics as well -- mostly in Ireland.
That is not unusual. "Great hatred, little room" as Yeats wrote and O’Brien’s success began in the Wild West era of capitalism in Ireland when there were few established rules.
O’Brien was perfect for that era, a buccaneer capitalist with no special family ties to the notorious insider world of Irish business.
He emerged with the country’s first cell phone license and turned it into pure gold and some have never forgiven him for upsetting the cozy coterie.
How he got it still exercises some of the chatterati in Ireland.
I think it is time Irish America took a stance on this good and decent man and gave him the respect and acknowledgement he deserves as the pre-eminent Irish businessman and philanthropist of his era.
He is a man who has done enormous good on behalf of so many and will continue to do so. He has raised the Irish banner high and proud wherever he lands in the world. He has reached out to Irish America and is a major supporter of immigration reform.
That is the extraordinary legacy, even if he is sometimes a prophet unheard in his own land.
Over here we hear him – loud and clear. Our message is clear too -- Irish patriots working for the betterment of Ireland, Irish America, and the world, are always welcome.
Because that has always been the way. He is this generation’s Chuck Feeney doing good by doing his best and the packed venue yesterday rising to give him a standing ovation after his remarks recognizes that above all.
Ain’t that America folks.
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