Thursday 17 August 2017

'It's a hustle' - Loretta on a life dedicated to philanthropy

Trump moved Loretta Brennan Glucksman to prayer, writes Group Business Editor Dearbhail McDonald

American-Irish links: Loretta Brennan Glucksman Photo: David Conachy
American-Irish links: Loretta Brennan Glucksman Photo: David Conachy

In the early hours of November 9, 2016, Loretta Brennan Glucksman did something she had not done in more than 40 years. She prayed.

Hours earlier, reality TV star and businessman Donald J Trump was elected 45th President of the United States. Brennan Glucksman, the well -known philanthropist, fell asleep convinced that Hillary Clinton would become America's first female President.

Peace: Loretta with Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson Photo: John Harrison/Harrison Photography/PA Wire
Peace: Loretta with Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson Photo: John Harrison/Harrison Photography/PA Wire

Instead, she was woken by a deluge of text messages from Ireland imploring her why Trump - a "narcissist" whom she knows "quite well" - had triumphed. "It [praying] was such an instinctive action that it stunned me," says Brennan Glucksman, who has just received the Kennedy Lemass Medal for her "outstanding contribution" to US Irish relations.

"I don't pray, I don't go to church and I don't do any of those rituals that were once such a core part of my life," says the Catholic-born former daily communicant.

"I'm still praying. On my calmer days, I know our [US]institutions will prevail, but it's still so unsettling".

Few people are as immersed in the US-Ireland relationship as Brennan Glucksman, chairman of the Ireland Funds and widow of former Lehman Brothers chief executive and chairman Lewis (Lew) Glucksman.

The couple, along with Chuck Feeney, the billionaire founder of The Atlantic Philanthropies, transformed the art of fundraising in the 1980s when they brought American-style charity to Ireland, raising billions for peace, education and cultural causes in Ireland, north and south. More than €300m has been raised during her tenure as chair of the Ireland Funds, founded by Dan Rooney and Tony O'Reilly. And the 79-year-old from Pennsylvania shows no sign of slowing down.

"Philanthropy is not easy, it's a hustle," says the thrice-married great-grandmother who has won numerous accolades and has served on a legion of boards, including the IDA and her beloved University of Limerick. "You have to be able to say to someone, just give me this, you're not going to need that $1m," laughs Glucksman who wears her wealth lightly, sipping from a glass of tap water at Dublin's Merrion Hotel. "I don't think I ever considered it as my wealth, I still don't. To be able to share it with amazing causes on this island is just a privilege". Although Loretta Brennan is a fourth generation Irish American, it was Lew - a New York Jew who first discovered Ireland as a young naval officer - who led their life-long pilgrimage to Ireland. Seventeen years ago, Lew was diagnosed with cancer. Given six months to live, the couple decamped to their home in Cobh, County Cork, for Lew to die. Ireland gave him another six years. Although Lew Glucksman was the financier, he credited his wife with "knowing people and their hearts", insisting that this was the key to their philanthropy.

"It was such a good marriage because we fitted together like a puzzle piece," says Glucksman, who met Lew when she was a twice-divorced 45-year-old mother of three on "the blind date from hell".

That first date was a disaster, but Lew called her the next day and invited her to an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum. That evening, Lew bought Loretta a $1.50 Monet poster - one that still hangs on her bedroom wall.

Reflecting on her long love affair with Ireland, Brennan Glucksman says the greatest transformation is the attitude of Irish people. "They don't have that fear or terror of failure that they used to. They take risks. It's the feeling within Irish people that things are possible, that you don't have to keep your head down".

Brennan Glucksman hates the term "Celtic Tiger" and said the moniker made it harder to convince US donors to part with their money during the boom years. She is disappointed by the collapse of the Northern Ireland assembly and says the death of Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness was a major loss, beyond politics. "In my opinion Martin was a hero," she says, adding that she believes McGuinness had something to do with the 'Road to Damascus kind of conversion' the late Ian Paisley embarked on before his death. "I won't insult anyone who had different views of him because of his past... but I worked with Martin and I came to admire him as much as I admire Bill Clinton or any of the other world leaders that I worked with."

It is women, she believes, who will ensure the North never returns to violence and integrated education that will tear down the social and economic barriers in Northern Ireland.

A woman of deep faith, she broke ranks with the Catholic Church in the 1960s after a priest warned her she would go straight to hell if she took anything [ie contraceptives] to impede God's will. Brennan Glucksman, whose heart stopped during an emergency caesarean while giving birth to her daughter Kate, stopped going to Mass after the unholy row in the confession box. But she says the diminution of the Catholic Church here is "a social tragedy".

Brennan Glucksman, whose son Christopher is gay and married with a son, said the Marriage Equality Referendum was her proudest moment for Ireland. "I was so proud of the Irish people and of my demographic which pushed the vote over". Approaching 80 next year, Brennan Glucksman says she is blessed and still fascinated by the world - her daughter Kate chastises her like a teenager over her busy schedule.

She says it is the "breathtaking" love and support from her family, including Jack Cooney - her childhood sweetheart, first husband and father of her three adult children - as well as her love of Lew and Ireland that keeps her going each day.

Sunday Independent

Also in Business