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Obituary: Alex Findlater

Genial scion of a family of Dublin merchants who was known to friends as 'the Grocer'


Alex Findlater (second right) gets ready for Bloomsday back in 1999

Alex Findlater (second right) gets ready for Bloomsday back in 1999

Alex Findlater (second right) gets ready for Bloomsday back in 1999

Alex Findlater, who has died aged 81, was one of the last survivors of the largely Protestant merchant elite who held sway in the business life of Dublin for years after independence.

A short, genial, beaming man, affable to all-comers, and known affectionately to familiars as "the Grocer", he cherished his place in modern Ireland while being proud to chronicle the vanished Dublin of his forebears.

The family were Scottish Presbyterians related to Robert Burns, who established themselves in business in Dublin in the early 19th Century. They had endowed the city's principal kirk, Findlater's Church on Parnell Square. They had a chain of grocery shops and other interests while also being to the fore in Unionist politics.

Although the Findlaters and their kind perhaps viewed the exit of southern Ireland from the United Kingdom in 1922 as economic madness, they were still holding on, coping with the fall-out from the protectionist policies of the de Valera government, when Alex, christened William Alexander, was born in a Dublin nursing home on September 25, 1937.

Inheriting sporting prowess from both parents - his mother was a hockey international - he enjoyed school at Repton, where he was in the hockey team. He became a prefect but, ever kindly, contrived never to beat younger boys in his charge.

In 1955 he joined the flood of boys from English public schools who went to postwar Trinity College Dublin, did little work and made a splash enjoying themselves to the limit, and often beyond.

Described as a clever forager on the hockey field, Findlater was a forward in the college team and earned a place playing for Leinster province.

The fun stopped abruptly in 1962 when Findlater's father died, aged 56, and young 'Mr Alex' had to take leadership of an old-fashioned indebted business threatened by new self-service shops. Losses accumulated and in 1968 cautious advisers, fearful for the family assets, persuaded him to sell up.

The money was good, but for a competitive young man it was a bittersweet experience. Determined to prove himself, he went to a leading business school in France.

Then, emboldened by his newly acquired expertise, he joined others in a promotion of Sammy Davis Jr for a week at Grosvenor House in London. The success of this was followed by a week of Marlene Dietrich.

"This time," he recalled ruefully, "we discovered that the downside of theatrical promotion can be pretty painful."

Returning to Dublin in 1974 he opened a wine shop in the Rathmines suburb where the family business had started. It was small change compared with what he had inherited and sold, but the business expanded as Dublin's new middle class learnt the pleasure of sipping vintages that were unknown to their porter- and whiskey-drinking or teetotal forebears.

Then, risking all, he borrowed money and bought premises with an old vault nearer the city centre. "Business should be fun," he told associates he brought on board. They were sometimes a tad nervous about what the impulsive man, who was their chairman, might do next. Findlater finally sold out for a handsome sum in 2001.

One newsworthy bit of fun he had inaugurated in the 1990s that goes on to this day was the annual Bloomsday Messenger Bike Rally. Mounted on one of his family firm's old delivery bicycles, Findlater would set out with a horde of other cyclists in Joycean messenger-boy garb across the city - his great-uncle Adam Findlater, he was able to claim, featured in Joyce's account of the original Bloomsday, June 16, 1904, in Ulysses.

In later life, family history became a consuming interest for Findlater. His 2001 book The Findlaters was appreciated by social historians and served as a counterview to the nationalist narrative that had passed as a comprehensive history of the country.

Asserting that those who had opposed Irish independence could still be entitled to honour in their native land, in 2016 he wrote a short book, 1916 Surrenders, about his maternal grandfather, Captain Henry de Courcy-Wheeler, who, as ADC to General Lowe, had taken the surrenders that terminated the Easter Week rebellion.

At the time the captain's daughter, Findlater's 107-year-old mother Dorothea, could still recall seeing Dublin in flames that week. She lived another year to become, it was said, the oldest person in Ireland.

A short-lived marriage in 1981 having been dissolved, in 2010 Findlater married Trish Fitzpatrick, an Irish artist. They settled in Connemara, where he fished and she painted in a flamboyant style.

Together they made a beautiful garden. Determined to live life to the full, he embarked with her on adventurous holidays to distant lands.

Alex Findlater died in Galway from head injuries suffered falling from a horse while on holiday in the Punjab. Trish survives him.

He died on May 30, 2019.