Thank you Chuck Feeney: Irish America’s great educational philanthropist

Chuck Feeney was more than a businessman: he was one of history’s great champions of education

Sitting in the timeworn chairs of Goldsmith Hall, I began a journey that would redefine my perception of education, thanks in no small part to an American philanthropist called Chuck Feeney. As I counted the number of students with me, I sat next to one of the people who would become one of my best friends. One, two, three, four… twelve. There were 12 other Trinity Access Programme (TAP) students joining me in Engineering. The few days we spent getting acquainted involved a seismic adjustment, but brimmed with camaraderie and a mutual understanding. The catalyst for my pride in TAP were the TAP representatives sitting at the front of the hall, excitedly telling us about their journeys from humble backgrounds to one of the great educational institutions of Europe. We learned how people from poorer postcodes in Dublin go to college at far lower rates, and how few supports are available to people from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

People like me aren’t meant to go to Trinity. My dad can’t physically work, and my family has struggled financially for my whole life. My fellow TAP students and I were misfits, and I took comfort in that. I made friends with people that were like me. At its core, the programme just feels like a group of friends who help one another when necessary. The connection between myself and fellow TAP students is different from my connection with other students. It is intrinsic, rather than acquired.

One of my strongest memories from that period is of a TAP ambassador telling us how his mother cried  tears of joy upon hearing that he had been accepted into Trinity. He was the first of his family to go to college. Being accepted into a third-level institution is one of the biggest validations one will receive in life, and is a promise of a better future. Initiatives like TAP and the generosity of the financial donors who support worse-off students is a beacon of hope in our lives. This is why we should honour American philanthropist Chuck Feeney. Feeney’s generosity towards educational causes in Ireland has had a great effect on people like me. The founder of the Duty Free Shoppers (DFS) Group has donated over $1 billion to educational causes in Ireland over the course of his life. Although he wasn’t directly involved with TAP,  I feel like he fostered a culture of inclusion and opportunity in Irish education upon which the initiative builds. For this, every third level student in Ireland should be grateful.

My first encounter with the work of Chuck Feeney was during Science Week 2013. Our family attended a psychology lecture at Hugh Lynch’s Pub in Tullamore. It was the first lecture I’d ever been to, and probably the best. Later that same week, we attended a separate lecture in the old Tullamore DEW distillery by the Grand Canal. Among the old-fashioned aesthetic lighting and the hypermodern science, I felt for the first time the spark for science which has helped lead me to where I am today. Everything felt so futuristic. It was as if I was accessing a parallel sci-fi universe, previously unknown. After the lectures, my dad explained to me how the mysterious figure of Feeney was helping to fund education in Ireland through donating millions and millions to educational and societal causes. He seemed to suggest that Mr. Feeney was funding the Science Week events but whether this was true, I’m not sure. 

Born into a working-class background in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Chuck Feeney founded the Duty Free Shoppers (DFS) Group in 1960 after serving  in the US Air Force and studying at Cornell University. In 1984, he secretly transferred all his funds to his charitable organisation, Atlantic Philanthropies. Feeney donated over $100 million to Trinity, and significantly more to the University of Limerick. In total, he donated over $1 billion to educational causes in Ireland, his ancestral home. He made major financial contributions to education in Australia, Ireland, Vietnam, and the US. Up until Feeney’s identity was uncovered during the sale of the DFS Group to LVMH, all of his donations were made in complete anonymity. His goal was to give away his entire $8 billion fortune before his death, a strategy he called “giving while living”. 

If Donogh O’Malley, the Minister who introduced free secondary education in 1969, was the visionary that let us dream, Chuck Feeney was the luminary who let us achieve. My grandmother grew up in the Dublin tenements on School Street with little hope of progressing past primary education.  She toiled for years in a shop to give my mother more opportunities. My mother was able to complete secondary school and, thanks to the work of Chuck Feeney, TAP, and those who have championed educational opportunities, her children will be able to attain a third-level education. Ireland’s transformation from a nation with few educational opportunities to the fifth most educated country on Earth (at a tertiary education level) completely illustrates the unsung effects of Chuck Feeney and other visionaries. It’s poignant that Feeney’s passing on October 9 this year was met with barely a whimper from those he helped. This is, perhaps, exactly what he would have wanted.

Today, Ireland stands as a beacon for the transformative power of education, but it wasn’t always like this. Chuck Feeney was more than a businessman: he was one of history’s great champions of education. And so, I speak on behalf of all Irish third level students when I say this: thank you, Chuck. Whether you knew who he was at the start of this article or not, he has probably helped you a lot more than you realize. Atlantic Philanthropies ceased operations in 2020, after successfully giving away the entirety of its funds. Nowadays, almost nothing is named in Feeney’s honour, and he is more likely to be known as the man who moved from place to place, wore a $10 watch, and owned a second-hand Volvo than Chuck Feeney, the multi-billionaire. 

“I want the last check I write to bounce.” – Chuck Feeney