RIP Billy Vincent

Billy Vincent, who just died at the age of 93, was one of the most extraordinary characters I have ever known.

Back in the day when my world was young, about 1979 to be exact, I had the bright idea to start my first newspaper in San Francisco.

Myself and a partner, Tom McDonagh, had about $1,000 dollars and by the second edition we were broke.
I realized I had to raise money and fast. One of my unlikely friends at the time was A.W. Vincent.

Billy, as he was universally known, was an Anglo Irish gentleman who has somehow been transported to San Francisco where he lived in a palatial mansion in Pacific Heights. His mother, Maud Bourn was a San Francisco native.

Despite the clipped Oxford accent and the former British Army background – he was a highly decorated soldier in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers who saw major action in World War II — he was Irish in the best sense.

His family, the Bourn Vincents, owned Muckross House in Killarney and had given the 11,000 acre estate to the Irish state where it remains one of the jewels of the Irish state-owned park system.

He became a very successful businessman in California after the war and by the time I knew him he had begun major philanthropic work for Ireland through the American Irish Foundation, which later merged with the American Ireland Fund.

So, to Billy Vincent I went seeking money for my new newspaper venture.

He referred to everyone by their surnames, as in, “O’Dowd, what on earth do you want me to do, invest in some dubious Irish newspaper?”

‘Yes,’  I told him. He harrumphed, which is the only way I can describe his reaction.

But he did invest, and not only him, but he rounded up some rich colleagues and gave me enough to survive and eventually prosper.

He refused to take the money back. “O’Dowd old chap, don’t bother me --just make sure your newspaper works.”

We became fast friends. I often attended his private parties, always for worthy causes or visiting Irish dignitaries at his mansion. He’d usually call beforehand and tell me, “Now O’Dowd, don’t appear in some scruffy old jacket,” (I was going through my long hair and hippie phase) and, “scrub up, old chap.”

I spent time with him in Muckross, his beloved Killarney home where he was clearly at his most comfortable. His pride in his Kerry roots was evident to all. He took me on a ramble through the grounds, pointing out the family landmarks, which were generations old.

We discussed Northern Ireland at length and he displayed a keen instinct and sense of the need for American help to solve the problem. He played a huge role in the success of the American Ireland Fund, especially on the West Coast, and in later years when he moved to Monaco he helped establish its successful branch there. Kieran McLoughlin CEO of the Funds told me he met Billy during his final days and his thoughts as always were of Ireland. “An incredible gentleman,” was his heartfelt verdict.

We drifted apart when he moved to Monaco and I to New York. But I will never forget him, as patriotic and decent an Irishman as you would ever meet.

The Irish Times obituary said it well; Vincent, they said, was, “Known for a cranky directness with which he pricked pomposity and exposed humbug, he also was possessed of warmth and compassion.”

I can personally attest to that when he decided to help a neophyte Irish publisher with no dollars but only a dream.

May he rest in peace and condolences to his lovely wife Elisabeth and children and grandchildren.