William D Finlay
Charles Lysaght pays tribute to a colourful legal eagle with a passion for rural sports and art
I first met Bill Finlay, who died last Sunday in his 90th year, when I was a student of political economy and law at UCD around 1960. He was a stylish figure in an institution that seemed to spurn style, feeling that 'all that sort of nonsense' belonged in Trinity.
He arrived for lectures carrying a bowler hat, a dapper breezy figure with wavy hair combed back, always attired in a well-cut suit and even a flower in his buttonhole. He delivered his lectures off the cuff, entertaining his students with anecdotes from his practice and occasional references to shooting and fishing, which were his main relaxations.
He was then a rising senior counsel. In that he followed his father, Thomas Finlay, Cumann na nGael TD for the eight-seater Dublin county constituency, who had died in 1932 of typhoid contracted from seafood, when Bill was only 11. Like his inseparable but very different younger brother Tom, the future Chief Justice, Bill was educated at Xavier's, Clongowes, UCD and King's Inns, where he was Auditor of the Law Students Debating Society. He was called to the Bar in 1942.
The sympathy engendered by his father's tragic early death helped Bill to get a start at the Bar even in those lean times. Within three years he could afford to get engaged. By his skills with people as well as his acuteness of mind he quickly proved himself. He took silk in 1956.
As a barrister he engendered confidence, making solicitors and their clients feel that they were in safe hands. It mattered not that, as his practice burgeoned, it became difficult for him to cope promptly with the paperwork involved when, in his own phrase, he was turning things over in his mind. On the day he did not fail.
In UCD, where he became Dean of the Law Faculty, he convinced the authorities that a faculty of part-time professors was not good enough. In 1967 John Maurice Kelly was recruited from Oxford as full-time professor and succeeded Bill as dean. Out of this grew a thriving full-time faculty with its own law journal, the Irish Jurist.
In 1968 Don Carroll, the governor of the Bank of Ireland (and also a fishing enthusiast), persuaded Bill to leave the Bar to become chairman of a new merchant banking subsidiary. In 1977 Bill became governor, where he handled with his customary unflappability several fractious general meetings when the propriety of the bank's acquisition of a property adjoining its College Green headquarters was called into question. The appointment on Bill's watch in 1982 of fellow director Mark Hely-Hutchinson as chief executive turned around the bank's fortunes in Ireland.
In 1979 Bill was elected by the Trustees of the National Gallery as chairman. There was a delicate relationship with the government, which provided much of the funding.
It required all of Bill's diplomatic skills to avert a damaging confrontation when in 1988 Taoiseach Charles Haughey sought to trespass on the prerogative of the trustees in choosing a director.
A happier episode for Bill was the presentation in 1990 by the Jesuits to the gallery of Caravaggio's Taking of Christ, whose authenticity had just been established by one of its restorers. There was a personal link in that the painting was originally gifted to the Jesuits in the Twenties by Marie Lea-Wilson (nee Ryan), the widow of an assassinated police officer, as a gesture of gratitude for the guidance she received from Bill's beloved great-uncle, Fr Tom Finlay.
Bill remained chairman until 1996, his tactful handling of the government paying dividends with funding for a new Millennium wing. His close relationship with fellow trustee Sir Alfred Beit helped to secure his generous benefaction to the nation of Russborough and priceless paintings for the nation. Bill became chairman of the Beit foundation after Sir Alfred's death in 1994.
Bill and Verette (to whom he was married for over 60 years) spent as much time as they could at their enchanting fishing lodge at Erris in Mayo, where they entertained graciously. There, Bill indulged his love of country sports and enthusiasm for wildlife.
Back in Dublin, he was until a few years ago to be seen with Verette walking along the Merrion and Sandymount Strand missing nothing as he observed the endless variety of migrating birds that congregate there -- as president of the Irish wildlife conservancy he had been their long-term champion. For all his frailty he remained his old charming jaunty self, interested and positive, at ease with the world.
Bill is survived by his wife, Verette, two sons and four daughters.