Feeney: What’s in a name?

Perhaps most outstanding person to bear name is renowned philanthropist Chuck Feeney. Shauna O’Halloran reports.


Variants: Ó Fidhne, Ó Fighne

Born in 1931 in New Jersey, Charles (Chuck) Feeney was raised in working class area of Elizabeth during Great Depression. He went on to make billions of dollars as one of founders of Duty Free Shopping (DFS). Yet he lives a modest life with none of luxuries associated with enormous wealth, due to fact that he has donated most of his earnings to The Atlantic Philanthropies – a collective of foundations set up by Feeney himself.

Born to son of an Irish emigrant from County Fermanagh, Chuck Feeney holds dual Irish-American citizenship, and as a young man served four years in United States Air Force before pursuing his business career. In 1960, he founded DFS with Robert Miller, with revolutionary idea of selling food and other goods to personnel on U.S. fleets abroad, without tax. By 1966, DFS had become a global retail giant, earning millions for both its founders and its retail partners all over world, as well as introducing idea of duty free shopping to travel industry.

While Forbes magazine estimated Feeney’s wealth to be some $1.3 billion by 1988, truth was he was worth less than $5 million, having signed over his stake in DFS to a charitable foundation years previously. Feeney had anonymously set up The Atlantic Philanthropies in Bermuda to deliberately avoid disclosure rules surrounding U.S. foundations. In mid-1990s, DFS was to be sold to luxury goods giant, Louis Vuitton Moet-Hennessy group. The sale would put value of foundation at $3.5 billion, but Feeney’s business partner initially rejected sale. But when sale did go through, Feeney kept $26 million aside to distribute amongst 2,400 of its longest serving staff.

Despite his wealth, Feeney has always flown economy, does not own a house or a car and has said that he prefers to distribute his fortune to others while he is still alive. By 2010, The Atlantic Philanthropies was worth $2.2 billion, and had already given out $5.4billion in grants.

As well as his philanthropy, Feeney also took a humanitarian interest in Northern Ireland peace process, and made a large donation via his foundation to Irish American Partnership, as well as becoming a key member of Americans for a New Irish Agenda and began aiding Irish universities, most notable University of Limerick. In 2002, Atlantic Philanthropies stated that it intended to spend its endowment within next 15 years, highlighting Feeney’s philosophy as outlined in his letter to The Giving Pledge founders Bill Gates and Warren Buffett: “I cannot think of a more personally rewarding and appropriate use of wealth than to give while one is living – to personally devote oneself to meaningful efforts to improve human condition. More importantly, today’s needs are so great and varied that intelligent philanthropic support and positive interventions can have greater value and impact today than if they are delayed when needs are greater.”

In Ireland today, many Feeneys are concentrated in counties Sligo and Mayo; name comes from Fiannaidhe, meaning ‘soldier’. The families are thought to have originated from a Connaught clan called Ui Fiachrac, and there are two town names in County Roscommon called Ballyfeeney, an Anglicized version of Baile Feeney, or home of Feeneys.

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