Sunday 25 September 2016

Colossus O'Keeffe lived every minute to full and his legacy will be immense

John Shirley

Published 23/01/2013 | 06:00

A great sadness flooded over me on hearing that former Farmers Journal editor Paddy O'Keeffe had passed away. Somehow we thought of him as being indestructible.

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Not only did Paddy give me my first job (which continued for 35 years); I met my wife when she was his personal assistant.

To be in the employment of Paddy O'Keeffe brought one into the heart and engine room of Irish agriculture.

People made their careers by hitching themselves close to the coat-tails of this Irish farming colossus.

The terms 'mover and shaker' and 'networker' could have been invented to describe him. He was still in his twenties when he took over the editorship of the struggling Farmers Journal, which was limping along with sales of 2,000 every fortnight.

From this seat of influence, Mr O'Keeffe either instigated or had a hand in nearly every positive Irish farming development over the next six decades.

In the early days it was the establishment of the FBD insurance co-op, the IFA, the Agricultural Trust, the Agricultural Institute, the Irish Farm Centre, Irish Meat Packers, Irish Grassland Association, Nuffield Scholarships, and the Blackwater Discussion Group.

More recently, it was the development of the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation, Animal Health Ireland and the continued growth in reach of the Agricultural Trust.

In between he chaired, or was on the board of, national bodies such as the Bord na gCapall, RTÉ, both FBD co-op and the Plc, and others. How could one person have such influence?

I put it down to his passion for farming and knowledge, his dynamic energy, his computer-like brain and his networking skills.

Always open to new ideas, he travelled early and widely, identified successful templates in foreign fields and replicated these in Ireland.

Paddy quickly espoused any technology which could boost profit or make life easier for Irish farmers. He had a particular belief in the power of genetics. This could come in superior grass varieties, in higher yielding wheat or fodder beet, or cow bloodlines more suited to the Irish environment. He was a pioneer in testing foreign genetics and plants in an Irish environment.

Paddy also admired individual talent and flair in people.

His priority was the creation of wealth for Ireland, not its distribution. Socialism was not esteemed. A leading Fine Gaeler is reported to have described Mr O'Keeffe's politics as to the right of Genghis Khan.

At the humanist memorial event held for Paddy in the Corrin Centre in Fermoy, it was said in his hunting days that if his horse was not prepared to jump a certain obstacle, Paddy would dismount and mount another horse that would jump it.

This trait was mirrored in life. Paddy was well prepared to switch horses if he thought that his first choice had veered in the wrong direction. There were times when he drove colleagues to distraction.

Grassland council members spoke of often getting through most of a meeting's agenda only for O'Keeffe to arrive late and change the lot. On reflection they would have to concede that the changes were invariably for the better.

If Paddy O'Keeffe wasn't on your side, life in Irish agriculture could be challenging. I had experience of this when working in the AI sector with the National Cattle Breeding Centre (NCBC).

When it looked as if the ICBF wanted to take over the functions of AI, sire selection, milk recording data processing, the AI bodies got little hearing from Paddy O'Keeffe. At the same time, ICBF was getting the kudos for the development of genomics even though it was pioneered by NCBC. But fair dues to him, Paddy did come down to Enfield one year to address our annual NCBC conference.

His networking skills were legendary both in Ireland and across the globe.

His razor-sharp wit and great sense of fun attracted people. Everywhere he travelled he formed lasting links with top scientists and top achievers in agriculture and harnessed this to benefit Irish farmers. In 1972 he led a group of over 40 from Ireland to study milk, sheep and beef farming in New Zealand for over a month. On the journey home, as the group were about an hour out from New Zealand, the plane had to turn back due to a bomb scare. It turned out to be a hoax, but it was put down to O'Keeffe condemning the IRA while he toured New Zealand.

Apart from hunting Paddy O'Keeffe had no interest in sport. Michael Walshe, the early head of Moorepark and passionate GAA fan, was also a great friend of O'Keeffe. Michael often joked that this lack of interest in Irish sport was his only flaw.

During my time working for Paddy, one of the many aspects I admired were his family values and adherence to his marriage vows, a trait that was not universal in the circles he mixed in. Paddy could party with the best late into the night.

The difference was that he was up early and alert next morning while other mortals wobbled. Like Maggie Thatcher, he didn't need a lot of sleep.

Every minute was lived to the full.

I recall him, watch in hand, timing himself to the last moment in the office before racing to catch that train or plane. While Paddy's mortal life has sadly ended, his legacy in Irish farming will last an awful lot longer.

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