Altruism wasn’t always a money-spinner for Ireland

There was little generosity in the early days of the Irish Free State

In recent years Ireland, North and South, has benefited from the generosity of many American benefactors. Journalist Conor O’Cleary has related the life story of one such exceptional figure, Chuck Feeney, in his biography The Billionaire Who Wasn’t (Public Affairs, €19.40) relating how Chuck Feeney “secretly made and gave away a fortune”.

Feeney was the original ‘secret millionaire’, and has been incredibly generous to Irish institutions, especially seats of higher learning over recent decades through his foundation Atlantic Philanthropies.

American banker Lewis Glucksman (who died at his Cork home in 2006) and his wife have also been generous with grants to such things as the Map Library in TCD, as well as to UCC, Limerick University and the National Gallery.

And of course many other donations have been channelled to communities all over the island through the American Fund for Ireland, with which the name of Tony O’Reilly was famously associated, in better days for both him and Ireland.

But such generosity is a comparatively new thing. Certainly there was little generosity in the early days of the Irish Free State, when the fledgling nation was struggling to overcome debts accrued during the War of Independence and even more during the Civil War – when great efforts were made by Republicans to wreck the infrastructure of the State by attacks on the railways, on institutions, and even newspapers. The Freeman’s Journal was driven into liquation because its editorials did not please the Army Council of the IRA.


Little money came from America’s Irish millionaires. De Valera commented at the time that such moneys that came to support the Irish revolution came as nickels and dimes from housemaids and labourers. The rich Irish saw the New Ireland as ‘trouble’. The ‘First Irish Families’ rarely gave to it. One of them, R. J. Cuddihy did, but when his mother found out about his gift, according to Stephen Birmingham in Real Lace: American’s Irish Rich (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), she was truly furious.

But then this antagonism was shared by the Presbyterian President Woodrow Wilson. It seems that the F.I.F., like the Vatican, in more recent times, considered Ireland “too poor” to invest in. Their motto “always go first” did not apply to the Poor Ould Sod.

There was the occasional millionaire who wanted to help. One of these was Mayo man Jack Carney who came from Ballina. He had had youthful ambitions to be a journalist, sending local sketches and news to the Freeman’s Journal. But one day, the local lads persuaded him that Captain Boycott, of Lough Mask Lodge, had been assassinated. He telegraphed this ‘news’ to Dublin and, as a result, became the subject of sustained jibes, after it appear in the Evening Telegraph.

“I couldn’t stand the mockery another day,” he later claimed. “I packed off for Queenstown, and took the first boat to New York – no bookings, no passports in those days.”

Now Carney had a mental quirk for calculation – a sort of special gift. He got into a stockbroking firm and began his rise to the top. He became the first Catholic stockbroker in New York, trading under the name Frank and Co.

In 1922, after the treaty established the Free State, he visited Dublin with the intention of lending some millions of dollars, interest-free, to the new government. 

But, as Seamus Fenton records in his memoirs It All Happened (Dublin: M. H. Gill and Son, 1948), Jack Carney was “far from pleased at the want of financial knowledge displayed by the subcommittee, with Michael O’Collins in the chair, that met him”.

Carney recalled that: “Want of knowledge alarmed me much less than did the want of consciousness on their part of their darkness, regarding the intricacies of finance.

“They would bow their heads in agreement with my statements, as if honouring me – statements of facts that the best New York financiers would take years to learn, and took me myself the great part of a lifetime.” (There is, I should add, no reference to this intended offer in Ronan Fanning’s magisterial history of the Department of Finance.)

A few years later, in dire financial straits, the Minister of Finance of the day, Ernest Blythe, cut the old age pension, an act for which the Free State was never forgiven.

The last word Jack Carney said in 1922 on parting with the much-lauded finance minister, Michael O’Collins, and his committee was: “You’ll never close your balance sheet, gentlemen, never.”

And, indeed, Ireland never has managed this: the national debt has merely got larger.