Shane Ross: ‘Kind to a fault, Feargal Quinn leaves a lovely legacy of friendship’
Feargal Quinn, who died last week, was a great businessman, senator – and human being, writes Shane Ross
About 15 years ago, I was in his house at one of the legendary parties. As usual, he was surrounded by Denise and other members of his family. He took me to one side: “Come here,” he said. “I want to show you what they gave me for Christmas.”
He took me into another room. Knowing that Feargal was hardly short of ordinary material possessions, I expected to see an exotic watch, or maybe even a voucher for a luxury foreign golf holiday.
I had wronged the man. He lifted a simple calendar from a nearby shelf. It was a special calendar with a special picture, for each month of the year. Today’s politicians, with woeful political vanity, prefer pictures of themselves with celebrities like Bono or world leaders, like Nancy Pelosi.
Not Feargal. His family had gone to a lot of trouble. They had probably not spent a fortune but they knew what would give Feargal the greatest joy. Photographs from the previous year – a picture a month – recorded happy family occasions.
Younger members of my own family have imitated Feargal’s idea for the last 14 Christmases. I told him of my shameless imitation. He was tickled pink.
That was the measure of the man. He had different values to other business magnates. He did not flaunt his wealth, giving much of it away.
He did not deride his own success but he sometimes seemed a bit puzzled by it. He would often relay highlights in his life with a perplexed look on his face, as if to ask: “How did the founder of a humble Dundalk grocery end up mixing it with captains and with kings?” He had an appealing innocence about his own career.
Feargal’s supersonic success can only be put down to one characteristic. He kept his feet firmly on the ground. He never lost the run of himself, grounded in his number one priority: his family.
He was consistently ahead of the posse in a competitive environment. Not just as a businessman. Not just as a senator. Not just as an entrepreneur, an author, a television presenter.
Wherever he turned, he succeeded. He was far from the ruthless, cost-cutting businessman. He made tough decisions but his secret was that he related to people.
Everyone trusted Feargal. His staff loved him. His customers felt they knew him personally. And many did. He kept in touch with both – as a listener, not a talker or a preacher, more often as a friend.
I got to know him as a friend and as a fellow Independent over an 18-year period in the Seanad. He was a cut above the rest of us.
He was aloof from party political jousting, while never condescending about the showboating involved in inter-party spats. He was pro-life but never intolerant of those of us who did not share his views on a series of referendums.
He refused to indulge in political stunts. He was fiercely independent, so it was a highlight of the Independent Alliance’s history when he agreed to be our first chairperson.
His commitment to the Seanad was total. He was not a newcomer or a latter-day convert to Seanad reform.
Even after he retired voluntarily, he led the movement for Seanad reform, not abolition, to a successful referendum.
He skilfully used his impeccable independence to propose many private members’ bills.
I never heard him express any ambition to reach the Dail.
Back in the 1990s, he was mooted as a possible candidate for the presidency. He is believed to have flirted with the idea but was often heard to mutter that “Denise would not hear of it”.
And Denise and the family were the deciding factor, the most important aspect of his dazzling life.
When I was asked for initial comment on Feargal’s sad death, I immediately responded that he was the “best president Ireland never had”.
Our present incumbent is without parallel but Feargal, too, would have been wonderful. He was unique. He was deservedly rich. He was generous (he received the 2019 ‘Philanthropist of the Year Award’).
He was humble. He was politically untainted over nearly 20 years in politics. He was entrepreneurial. He was much loved by all sectors of society because he was tolerant and humane.