‘His Gifts to This Island Have Been Extraordinary’

Mary Robinson
MARY ROBINSON, Former President of the Republic of Ireland, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (1997–2002), President and Chair of the Mary Robinson Foundation on Climate Justice

Chuck Feeney has done remarkable things for Ireland, North and South: transforming the higher education system, deepening respect for human rights, investing in programmes on ageing, palliative care and children services, and moving the peace process forward to anchor a more stable society on our island.

Chuck is Atlantic and Atlantic is Chuck, and his relationship to the Irish people is personal. I feel fortunate that he took an abiding interest in Ireland, and marvel at the extent, variety and the longevity of it. His gifts to this island have been extraordinary.

He raised the game of the universities collectively by enabling capacity dedicated to research in state-of-the-art facilities. But his perspective was not a narrowly academic one. It was about making university campuses better places.

University of Limerick campus from the air. Atlantic helped grow the University of Limerick's campus from 11 buildings to more than 40.
University of Limerick campus from the air. Atlantic helped grow the University of Limerick’s campus from 11 buildings to more than 40.

His own experience in education—he was the first in his family to attend university—convinced him of the transformative effect of education for both the individual and society. One of the fundamental themes that comes through in Atlantic programmes is that the advances of society are nourished by education. Atlantic has made extraordinary investments both within and outside the walls of educational institutions around the globe and nowhere more so than on the island of Ireland. Chuck’s faith in our potential to participate in the knowledge society and to compete in the knowledge economy has been invaluable. Of equal significance has been Chuck’s benign pressure on the governments of Ireland, North and South, to make parallel investments in education.

As Bill Gates noted in his introduction to this book, Chuck claims he was inspired by the vision of another remarkable philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, who advocated the need for a policy which, as he put it in his essay “Wealth,” would “work powerfully to induce the rich man to attend to the administration of wealth during his life, which is the end that society should always have in view, as being by far most fruitful for the people.” Taken all together, the beneficial effects of Chuck’s dedication to our intellectual potential are countless, impossible to measure.

 A woman in the gift shop at the Old Library at Trinity College Dublin. Chuck Feeney encouraged Trinity to reconfigure the facility, which houses the Book of Kells, to be self-sustaining.
A woman in the gift shop at the Old Library at Trinity College Dublin.

His beneficence is legendary, but we should not forget the keen business mind that fueled his significant success. At Trinity College Dublin, we have a bookstore that features the Book of Kells on display. With his retail instincts, Chuck took one look at the store’s layout and said it was all wrong. Move the cash registers to catch people on the way in, let them circulate, see the Book of Kells and catch them again on the way out, he said. He gets full credit for designing the shop for maximum foot traffic and trade. You have to admire a billionaire philanthropist with an eye for everyday commerce.

Samuel Johnson once said, “Let him who desires to see others happy make haste to give while his can be enjoyed, and remember that every moment of delay takes away something of the value of the benefaction.” That is the unshakeable principle behind Chuck’s philosophy of Giving While Living. “I had one idea that never changed in my mind. Use your wealth to help people,” Chuck has said. He who has done so anonymously and unassumingly is an honest and true benefactor. For the good man is the one who makes the gift for the sake of giving and expects nothing in return. Chuck Feeney is such a man.

— MARY ROBINSON, President of the Republic of Ireland (1990–1997)
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (1997–2002) President and Chair of the Mary Robinson Foundation on Climate Justice