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Members of Sixmilebridge Historical Society, Paddy Higgins, Vincent Delaney, Michael Mc Namara, President and Tim Crowe, chairman, with the statue of Dr. Brendan O Regan which was recently unveiled in Sixmilebridge. Photograph by John Kelly

The forgotten man of Irish history

ONE of the great Claremen of all time is the ‘forgotten man’ of Irish history, in the eyes of some. Tim Crowe of the Sixmilebridge Historical Society holds the view that Brendan O’Regan has nothing like the recognition that he deserves, despite having a list of achievements as long as your arm, and having had a seismic influence on the economy of Clare and the surrounding counties.
His impact was massive and is wildly underestimated, according to Tim.
“In his own way, O’Regan achieved as much as De Valera did, as Lemass did, O’Connell, Parnell, Collins. This guy invented Duty Free, brought Foreign Direct Investment industries, built the town of Shannon, the College of Hotel Management, Bunratty Castle and Folk Park, was central to getting McDonough to buy Dromoland and turn it into a five star, he was chairman of Bord Fáilte for 15 years,” he said.
“When the Troubles started, he brought Catholics and Protestants together through Co-operation North, which is now Co-operation Ireland.”
Of late, the Sixmilebridge Historical Society has been trying to raise awareness about the impact of one of the village’s own, and the first step was putting up a statue to him locally.
Tim got the ball rolling after hearing the words of another visionary, as he said mass.
“I was inspired by Father Harry Bohan about three years ago at 11 o’clock mass in the Bridge,2 he said. “He was talking about O’Regan and what he had done for the Mid West.
“I said ‘it’s about time we acknowledged this guy’. I put it to the Historical Society in Sixmilebridge that we should consider it, and we partnered with Shannon Chamber who helped to organise the sponsorship, and the main sponsor was Mick Guinee of Ei Electronics.”
Another event was held earlier this year. “We started off with the statue that was unveiled last year and we then decided to have a conference of the CEOs of Shannon business, we invited them to lunch and there was a hedge school conference after it on Brendan’s achievements and his contribution to the Mid West and to Ireland in general. We had speakers from Mary I and Trinity.There were about 80 people at it in the Shannon Hotel College which he founded in 1951. It was chaired by Tommy Graham, the editor of History Ireland.”
Among the speakers were former diplomat Sean Donlon, Brian O’Connell (who penned a biography of O’Regan, O’Regan’s son Andrew and two historians, Una Bromell and Professor Frank Barry.
The group were also pleased that O’Regan was honoured in Dubai, showing how far reaching his influence was. ” We approached Dubai Duty Free to honour Brendan there. As it turned out the International Hotel in Dubai were opening an O’Regan bar and restaurant. They bought a bronze bust of Brendan as the centrepiece of the opening. It was opened by the UAE ambassador to Ireland, Minister Patrick O’Donovan, the founder of Dubai Duty Free Colm McLoughlin and the manager of the International Hotel, Eugene Barry.”
Most people get their understanding of history while at school, and Tim is a former history teacher himself.
He understands the importance of making young people in O’Regan’s own area aware of the legacy he left, and work has been done to make sure young people get that understanding.
“We wanted to inform the young people of the Mid West of what Brendan achieved so we started a pilot programme with ten schools from Shannon, Newmarket, Cratloe, Sixmilebridge and Kilmurry,” he said.
“We asked them to teach the sixth class a module of eight pages on O’Regan’s life.
“Following on from that we asked them to send a team of four students to a quiz in Sixmilebridge national school based on that module of eight pages. We photographed each team with their teacher at the statue and we presented that photo to the school along with a framed photo outlining O’Regan’s achievements, which is now up in all of those schools.”
There was a very high standard at the quiz.
“Three of the ten schools got 20 out of 20 and one got 19. It just shows that they really put a lot of effort into educating the sixth class students. In the shoot out St John’s National School from Cratloe won,2 he said.
“Next year hopefully 25 or 30 sixth classes in Clare will be aware of O’Regan and after that when you talk to a first or second year student about O’Regan they will know about him.
“We presented framed photos of O’Regan to the two secondary schools in Shannon and they are up, so when students go in as first years they will see him on the wall.”
When O’Regan was a young lad himself there were already signs that he could make things happen, according to Tim.
“He went to Blackrock College as a first year. He was a guy from Sixmilebridge going up to Blackrock College, which was at the heart of school’s rugby,” he said.
“The President of the College at the time was John Charles McQuaid, who helped De Valera to write the Constitution of 37. Didn’t O’Regan approach him to introduce hurling to Blackrock College and in the five years that he was there Blackrock College won the Leinster junior and senior college titles; in one of the finals St Kieran’s of Kilkenny by a point. O’Regan was on both teams and he was selected for the Leinster schools team to play against Munster.
“Here you had a 13 year old youngster able to persuade McQuaid to introduce hurling to that bastion of Irish school’s rugby. It just shows you the powers of persuasion he had at 13, the vision he had and the ideas he could come up with.”
Youthful potential was realised as he played a massive role in developing what could have been a far more disadvantaged area in the west of Ireland.
“When the second world war ended Shannon was very important because every plane from America to Europe had to stop in Shannon. But with the improvement in aviation they were going to be able to fly direct and Shannon was going to be a wasteland. But this guy said no, we won’t accept that, so he introduced the Duty Free, the first in the world, then a Foreign Direct Investment estate. Lemass was very supportive of him. He brought the planes that were flying over into Shannon, and as a result you have the industrial estate and you have places like Newmarket, Sixmilebridge, Ennis, Limerick that have benefited. It created employment and stopped emigration,” he said.
Yet that legacy isn’t one that many people, even within Clare, are that aware of. “O’Connell got Emancipation, Parnell got Home Rule, De Valera and Collins were instrumental in getting independence, Lemass had his achievements,” said Tim.
“O’Regan is right up there too but no one has heard of him. We heard of TK Whitaker, but O’Regan did for the Mid West what TK Whitaker did for the Dublin region.”
Why does he feel the achievements of O’Regan have been neglected?
“In 1973 Ireland joined the EEC and that became the focal point, all the money that came from that, then we hit the Celtic Tiger, and we kind of lost the run of ourselves and forgot about our past and who helped us to get there,” said Tim.
“I think he went under the radar because of EU membership and the Celtic Tiger, for a long period we were more concerned about what we could get rather than who helped us to create our lifestyle. That’s my only explanation for it.”
Tim grew up aware of O’Regan’s accomplishments, unlike many others.
“As a history teacher I was conscious of his absence from the history books. I couldn’t understand that. It was only when I got involved with the Historical Society that I began to realise we could do something about it,” he said.
“Most people under 50 would never have heard of O’Regan. The guy who’s head of history in secondary education hadn’t heard of him, but he came down to the Conference and he was blown away. There was nothing in the history books, so where would he have learned it?”
Tim feels that improving recognition of O’Regan is important and is pleased with how it has been going. “We are very determined to elevate him, and it is happening.”

Owen Ryan

Owen Ryan has been a journalist with the Clare Champion since 2007, having previously worked for a number of other regional titles in Limerick, Galway and Cork.

About Owen Ryan

Owen Ryan has been a journalist with the Clare Champion since 2007, having previously worked for a number of other regional titles in Limerick, Galway and Cork.

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