How philanthropist Chuck Feeney spent his billions on Irish society

As the work of Atlantic Philanthropies comes to an end, Ireland will have to reinvent its philosophy of giving, in cash and in kind, writes Ellie O’Byrne
How philanthropist Chuck Feeney spent his billions on Irish society

IT’S the season to celebrate the spirit of giving. MRI scans of the brain show that the “joy of giving” has a real biological basis: In a Harvard study linking charitable giving and happiness, researchers found that when we give, two parts of the brain connected to our dopamine reward circuitry — also stimulated by eating, orgasm, and the sight of our romantic partners — show activity.

For people lucky enough to have amassed a fortune, there’s the option of giving on a grand scale; philanthropy hit the headlines recently when Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, inspired by the birth of their daughter, signed up to The Giving Pledge, joining billionaires such as Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet in pledging to give away most of their fortunes.

Zuckerberg plans to donate $45 billion worth of his Facebook shares over the course of his lifetime.

Yet Chuck Feeney, an Irish-American born in New Jersey and described by Bill Gates as “a hero”, has been divesting himself of his fortune in philanthropic projects for the past 30 years.

The quiet giant of Irish philanthropy made his fortune in duty-free shopping and, in 1982, set up Atlantic Philanthropies. He visited Ireland in the late 1980s and decided to finance education; at the time, Irish third level institutions were suffering from chronic under- funding. The University of Limerick became a particular success story. In the late ’80s, Feeney’s funding, along with other partners such as Shannon Development, transformed the National Institute for Higher Education in Limerick, with a student body of 735, into a university serving 11,000 students.

Atlantic has distributed $6.2 billion in capital investments in Vietnam, Cuba, the US, Northern Ireland, South Africa, Australia, and the Republic of Ireland. Feeney’s philanthropy was anonymous until a court case in the ’90s threatened to disclose the disposal of his fortune and he decided to pre-empt it by going public.

Now aged 84, Feeney has said that his philosophy of ‘giving while living’ allows him to enjoy seeing the benefits of his largesse in his own lifetime, but Atlantic Philanthropies is a foundation with a limited life span, and will make its final grants in 2016. For many beneficiaries, the well is running dry and there are concerns about where future funding will come from.

Eilis Murray is the executive director of Philanthropy Ireland, the association of independent philanthropic organisations in Ireland. The association’s members range from private individuals to corporations, grant-making trusts and foundations. Philanthropy Ireland is working to fill the gap that will be left by Atlantic Philanthropies.

“Along with the One Foundation, which was another large limited-life foundation that finished up this year, you have two very significant funders exiting the stage, and that will create a huge gap in the coming years,” Ms Murray said.

“I don’t think we’re going to see another Chuck Feeney here in the short term, so we have to look to other solutions involving government, corporates and private donors to fill the gap.”

To do so will require building on Ireland’s under-developed culture of philanthropy. In the US, self-made millionaires set up foundations to better the communities they came from, while the UK’s history of inheritance led to a culture of charitable trusts. Is it simply that Ireland didn’t have a ready supply of people with surplus to spend until recently?

“It’s true that there are historical reasons why Ireland is underdeveloped,” Ms Murray said. “But even if you look to Europe for comparisons, we have 35 active grant-making trusts and foundations in Ireland, and by EU standards we should have 800. It’s very much the remit of our organisation to lead out on creating a philanthropic culture in Ireland.”

Does Philanthropy Ireland see a seasonal increase in offers from private individuals at this time of year?

“Yes, the nature of the time of year is that people start thinking of those less fortunate than themselves,” Ms Murray said. “But from the point of view of philanthropy, the giving must be strategic and targeted; we would like to see that seasonal peak evened out, but even if they start thinking about it at this time of year, a strategy can be put in place.”

A main challenge for Philanthropy Ireland is to get across the message that philanthropy is not only for millionaires, and Ms Murray said that people often forget that they can also donate time or expertise to foundations whose causes they support.

“One of the messages I always try to get across is that philanthropy is for everybody,” she said.

“There isn’t a cut-off point; everyone can to give according to their means. Those who give always tell us that they actually get more out of the experience than they put in; people get an enormous sense of personal contribution from their giving, not only of money but out of investments of time as well.”

But the real motivator behind philanthropic gestures has to be an engagement with a particular cause, and the power of philanthropy to bring about social change can’t be underestimated.

Since 2004, Atlantic Philanthropies has funded LGBT organisations in Ireland under their “reconciliation and human rights” branch.

Their support of the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN), Marriage Equality and the Transgender Equality Network Ireland (TENI) has been instrumental in Ireland’s Yes vote in the same-sex marriage referendum.

“A huge advantage that philanthropic funding has is that it can take risks that maybe government can’t,” Ms Murray said. “Atlantic took risks in sectors of society like the LGBT community and created a space for government to come in behind the issue once it had been established, without risking public funding.”

Atlantic Philanthropies will have spent $7.5bn by the time its work finishes at the end of 2016. In its final year, it will focus on care of the elderly, services for children, reconciliation, and human rights.

Of the €1.1 billion Atlantic Philanthropies has invested in the Republic of Ireland, €563.7 million has been in buildings, IT upgrades and land acquisition, mostly in educational institutes, heritage and healthcare.

Amnesty International Ireland Headquarters, €1m

A 1,115 square metre Dublin headquarters for the human rights organisation, with space for Amnesty to generate their own rental income.

Glenstal Abbey Library, €1.9m

A new 120,000-volume library at the Benedictine Monastery with one of Ireland’s largest private collections of antiquarian books from the 15th-19th centuries.

Milford Community Care Centre €2.4m

Atlantic funded an additional floor in this Limerick health care centre that provides in-patient palliative care and day-care services.

Ballymun Horse and Animal Centre, €200,000

A community initiative, Ballymun Animal Caring Association is an equestrian centre outside of Meakstown providing support to locals with horses.

Young Knocknaheeney (part of Knocknaheeney Youth Project), €1.8m in 50-50 partnership with the Government

An area-based childhood programme serving Cork’s Northside.

The Jeanie Johnston, €300,000

Young people from both sides of the divide in Northern Ireland constructed this replica emigrant ship and floating museum that is now a popular Dublin tourist attraction.

NUIG — €39.7m

National Centre for Biomedical Engineering Science, €9.8m

The Orbsen building brings together 300 researchers in regenerative medicine, stem cells, cancer biology and biomaterials.

The Ryan Institute, €6m

A state-of-the-art home for the University’s marine sciences programme, focusing on environmental, marine and energy research.

The Engineering Building, €5m

The dedicated building won the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland’s 2012 Public Choice Award for its cutting-edge design, including a unique ventilation system called a “climate façade”.

The Institute for Lifecourse and society building, €4.5m

Houses the Child and Family Research Centre, the Disability Law and Policy Centre and the Irish Centre for Social Gerontology

J E Cairnes Graduate School of Business, €4.5m

Provides a space for undergraduate and post- graduate education programmes in Business and related subjects.

Moore Institute for Research in the Humanities and Social Studies, Galway, €1.5m

NUIG describes this centre as an international research community of upwards of 30 early-stage researchers concerned with the full range of humanities disciplines, and on the interconnection between creativity and innovation.

The University Sports Centre, Galway, €8.5m

This provided students and staff with a range of top sporting facilities including a climbing wall, squash courts, and swimming pool.


Tyndall National Institute, €20.5m

One of the country’s largest science and technology research centres, housing 460 researchers; breakthroughs have included micro-needles for medical use and, most recently, developing “radiation-hard” transistors for the European Space Agency.

O’Rahilly Building, University College Cork, €2.5m

According to UCC, the building is a major addition to the quantum of academic space in the college and is arguably the most significant addition to the College building stock in recent years. The investment was to support building construction to “consolidate and expand UCC’s undergraduate and graduate business and language programmes”.

Biosciences Institute, Cork, €5.7m

This is considered the research arm of the School of Life Sciences in University College Cork. The university describes it as “a central pillar of the national agenda for science and technology” and “a portal to and from UCC to the external scientific community”.

The Environmental Research Institute, €5.9m

This 33,000 square foot building offers environmental researchers custom laboratories, pilot trial space and environmental control rooms. It has more than 300 researchers drawn from across a diversity of scientific and engineering disciplines in UCC. At any one time the Institute has up to 70 research projects under way.

UCC campus expansion, €5m

This investment enabled the purchase of three land parcels which were much needed to enable the campus to expand for new research and educational buildings.

The Mardyke Sports Arena, €7.7m

An indoor sports centre with outdoor all-weather pitches, the Mardyke Arena incudes climbing walls, swimming pool and fitness suites accessible to UCC students.

Western Gateway building €6.4m

UCC’s largest building, housing the schools of Mathematical Sciences, Microelectronics, Pharmacology and Physiology and a cancer research unit.

Marymount hospice, €10m of €55m

Cork’s 44-bed hospital and hospice, which provides end-of-life and specialist palliative care as well as residential care for the elderly and an education centre.

Boole Library, €13.5m

Arts, humanities, law and official publications are housed in the Boole Library, which also has 70 group study areas and 755 reader spaces

DUBLIN CITY UNIVERSITY — €112.8m, 1990-2006

The Helix, €22.2m

One of Ireland’s premiere mixed-use venues including a concert hall, theatre, studio theatre and exhibition area.

Sports Pavilion, €5.5m

The development of St Clare’s sports grounds added an outdoor pavilion and indoor sports facilities to DCU’s campus sports grounds.

Lonsdale Sciences Building, €6.1m

DCU’s 9,290sq m Faculty of Science and Health is a core research area for DCU.

DCU Invent, €1.9m

An incubator space for start-ups in technology, engineering and life sciences with connections to industry giants like Pfizer, IBM and Microsoft.

National Institute for Cellular Biotechnology, €1.3m

An institute which focuses on developing applications to diagnose and treat cancers, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease.

John and Aileen O’Reilly Library, Dublin City University, €6.5m of €22m

This is considered one of the most advanced library buildings in Europe and was the first in Ireland to put electronic information on an equal footing with the printed book.

Research Institute for Networks and Communications Engineering, DCU, €5.6m

An institute in the University’s Stokes Building for postgraduate research programmes. According to DCU, the aim of the research is the development of Information and Communication technologies (ICT) for the global information society.

The Hub Student Centre, DCU, €2.5m

This was to give the growing student body social meeting and catering facilities in a centre at the heart of the campus.

The 1838 Building, DCU, €2.3m

This common room and dining facility for staff was built to increase interaction thereby helping to foster greater interdepartmental activity.

McNulty School of Computing, DCU, €1.4m

This was built to enable DCU to teach and research information technology at a time when the country still had established its IT credentials.


Ussher Library, €9.1m

An eight-story library housing over 720,000 books and manuscripts, the building is an energy-efficient design which absorbs and recycles heat generated in the building.

Trinity Hall housing units, €19m

Accommodation for 850 TCD students in Rathmines.

Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience, €13.5m

The Lloyd institute is home to research in psychology, physiology, biochemistry, engineering, psychiatry and genetics.

Sports Centre, €8.9m

The expanded sports facility has indoor soccer, climbing walls, a 25m pool and society rooms for student use.

Trinity Centre for High Performance Computing, €9.9m

Large-scale super-computing capabilities in a centre whose programme links computer science with physical and biological sciences.

The Sami Nasr Institute for Advanced Materials, Trinity, €6m

This state-of-the art building brought together the fields of physics, chemistry and elements of electrical and electronic engineering under one roof to the benefit of advanced materials science.

Pharmacy Panoz Building, Trinity, €1.3m

This investment enabled the university to expand its School of Pharmacy and is understood to have increased output of graduates by 50% annually.

East End Development —School of Pharmacy and School of Genetics, €2.5m

This general science teaching and research building at the rear of the campus led to new institutes for specialised research

Arts Building, TCD, €2.5m

This enabled the university to alleviate the overcrowding in its Arts department with a new building, close to the main campus.

Dunlop Oriel House, €2.3m

This building, which was built in 1872, is made up of three buildings which are joined into one. It was purchased and refurbished to house the National Telecommunications Research Centre and the educational programme, Bridge 21.


Conway Institute of Biomolecular and Biomedical Research, €12.4m

A research institute focusing on the causes of diabetes, vascu lar diseases, cancer and neurodegeneration.

Veterinary Sciences Centre, €7.6m

Ireland’s only centre for veterinary education, with research facilities as well as a hospital treating over 6,000 animals per year.

Centre for Synthesis and Chemical Biology, €6.9m

A collaborative centre for the chemical sciences involving UCD, TCD, and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.

Earth Institute, €2.1m

30 dedicated laboratories, focused on sustainable development research.

The Geary Institute, €1.7m

A centre of excellence in microeconomics and quantitative and behavioural social sciences.


Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, €11.8m

Provides undergraduate and postgraduate courses in the arts; research in musicology and choreography integrated with live performances.

Foundation Building, €12.5m

The University Concert Hall has state-of-the-art sound, lighting and acoustic systems, gallery spaces and a 1,000-seater auditorium.

University Arena, €8m

The first Olympic-sized swimming pool in Ireland, in a multi-purpose dedicated sports facility.

The Glucksman Library, €5.1m

In partnership with philanthropists Lewis and Loretta Brennan Glucksman, Atlantic Philanthropies replaced the facilities they helped to expand in 1993 by adding 190 additional study spaces.

Engineering Research Building, €6.9m

This 4,000sq m building includes the Interaction Design Centre, a human- computer interaction research facility.

Plassey House, €32.3m

Campus housing for 2,500 students.

Bernal Project, Limerick, €21.9m of €52m

UL says this expands research capacity in applied sciences and engineering through the provision of state-of-the art laboratory facilities together with the creation of new professorship positions to build a multi-disciplinary team of world-leading scientists and engineers at the university.

Materials and Surface Science Institute, Limerick, €6.2m

This is a centre of excellence which generates fundamental research on topics of industrial significance in the fields of surface science and materials.

Common Room, Limerick, €3.4m

This investment provided function rooms for students to socialise in a new expanded student centre as well as refurbishing the premises which was already there.


River Student Apartments, Maynooth, €16.4m

This improved the campus experience and collegiality by providing rooms for 650 students in several nearby facilities meeting their study and socialising needs.

Bioscience and Electronic Engineering Building, Maynooth, €4.6 m of €13m

This development provided well-equipped research, postgraduate and undergraduate laboratories and offices for researchers investigating applied medical technologies.

National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis, Maynooth, €1.1m

NIRSA describes itself as a collaborative partnership between scholars from a number of social science disciplines, located in four partner institutions: Maynooth University; Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick; Institute of Technology, Sligo and Queen’s University Belfast. It undertakes fundamental, applied and comparative research on spatial processes and their effects on social and economic development in Ireland.

Mercers Institute for Successful Ageing, St James’s Hospital, Dublin, €19.9m

This state-of-the-art facility promotes healthy and successful ageing as well as raising standards and expectations for the care of older people. It provides a hub of clinical services, research, training and education, with a special focus on the creative lives of older people and its relationship to successful ageing.

Molecular Medicines Ireland, Dublin, €10.8m

According to its website this was established by NUI Galway, the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, UCC, UCD and TCD and their associated academic hospitals, as a research partnership to accelerate the translation of biomedical research into improved diagnostics and therapies for patients.

The Nestling Project and Great Northern Haven Apartments, Dundalk, €3.6m

A centre to develop community models for independent living for older people.

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