Father of the modern Irish fishing industry
Brendan O’Kelly: an inspirational public servant, pioneering businessman and Irish Olympian
Brendan O’Kelly, who has died at the age of 89 on October 24th, was an inspirational public servant, pioneering businessman, an Irish Olympian, and the acknowledged father of the modern Irish fishing industry.
A man who never courted headlines, he made several when he was sent home from Brussels by the State’s negotiating team for EU accession in November 1971, after he tried to highlight risks posed to the Irish fishing industry by common access for European fleets to Irish waters.
Born in Dublin’s southside on June 10th, 1928, O’Kelly attended the O’Connell’s Secondary School in north Richmond Street and used to run from home in Blackrock into class as training – chasing the Dalkey tram into the city centre. While studying commerce at University College Dublin, he played both soccer and Gaelic football, but had to wear disguises if playing both sports on the same day due to the ban on participation in “foreign games”.
As a team member of Bohemians Football Club, he was selected for the 1948 Olympic Games in London and scored Ireland’s goal. O’Kelly secured a trial for Wolverhampton Wanderers, but his father was keen for him to focus on his university studies.
On graduation, he worked with Lever Brothers and it was here that he met his wife, Una. He subsequently moved to David Brown Tractors, where he became managing director of the English company in the Republic and Northern Ireland.
During his tenure, he started the Young Farmer of the Year contest, and he initiated a similar scheme for young fishermen shortly after taking up the post of executive chairman of Bord Iascaigh Mhara (BIM) in 1963. In a conversation with John F Kennedy during the US president’s visit to Ireland, he learned about an advanced marketing course and leadership in Harvard Business School – and signed up to take it. He was able to combine the course’s advance marketing skills with his business acumen to an industry which he regarded as having much potential .
The young skippers he encouraged were to become some of the leading catchers in Europe, and former fishermen’s leader Joey Murrin, who remained a friend throughout his life, says the multimillion euro Killybegs pelagic (mackerel/herring) fleet owes much of its success to O’Kelly’s influence. At the time, the Department of Agriculture, which held the fisheries brief, “didn’t want to hear about development or larger boats, and were far more focused on agriculture”, Murrin says, and “only for O’Kelly the Dutch would still be catching most of the EU mackerel quota”.
Arthur Reynolds, founding editor of the Irish Skipper, recalls how O’Kelly recognised that fishermen, and not their TDs, should be interviewed for BIM vessel loans, and he would “put the politicians outside the door” during interviews.
After his tenure ended with BIM, he worked on a consultancy basis on fisheries and economic development with the UN in New York, in Tasmania, Venezuela and the Middle East, and also drew up a template for the State’s first department of marine, which was established by f Charles J Haughey. He served on the board of Spanish fishing conglomerate Pescanova’s Irish wing, Eiranova, which had established a base in the west Cork port of Castletownbere.
He worked with Oliver Freaney, who he knew from his time in O’Connell’s School, at his Dublin accountancy firm before its merger with Smith and Williamson. Businessman Denis O’Brien, who first met him through his father when in his early thirties, asked him to join the board of Radio 2000 which bid unsuccessfully for an independent radio license in 1988. When a licence was secured by 98fm in 1989, he served on that board. O’Brien says he was such a good director that he asked him to join the board of Esat Telecom.
O’Brien, who knew O’Kelly as “BOK”, says he was “very quiet and unassuming”, had an outlook “ten years ahead of everyone”, was “phenomenal in a crisis” and a close and trusted friend. “There were few things in business he hadn’t experienced or seen,” O’Brien says.
Brendan O’Kelly is survived by his wife Una, daughter Carol and extended family.