Chuck Feeney: The billionaire who wasn’t Conor O’Clery remembers the Irish-American philanthropist who gave away more than $8 billion in his lifetime to education, healthcare, ageing and civil society W hen my biography of Chuck Feeney The Billionaire Who Wasn’t , was published in 2006, Bertie Ahern, agreed to launch it in the Ussher Library in Trinity. The then-taoiseach joked that he had a personal reason to honour the Irish American philanthropist. Ten years earlier, he had been strong-armed by Chuck to jointly fund a major educational initiative in Ireland, but he got all the credit from grateful academics because Feeney insisted on remaining anonymous. The publication of the biography then meant that Chuck’s anonymity was fully blown. Several people at the launch expressed astonishment that he had allowed this to happen and asked me how he had come to agree. The process began four years earlier in New York where I was based for the Irish Times . A friend had introduced me to Chuck Feeney. I was told he was a wealthy businessman, but he didn’t act like one. He wore a cheap plastic watch and off-the-peg clothes and walked everywhere rather than ride in a limousine. He began inviting me to lunch, never in a fancy Manhattan restaurant but in PJ Clarke’s Irish bar on 3rd Avenue, where it was always chicken hotpot and a glass of cheap white wine. I reckoned he liked to keep informed about Irish and American politics and sought my company because I could bring him up to date on both counts. Later I came to realise something else was going on. Over time he disclosed to me that he had made a fortune in the duty-free business and had become a major secret philanthropist. I asked would he give me a formal interview. To my surprise he agreed.
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