Thursday 22 February 2018

'A lion of a man' who exceeded Obama's high expectations as ambassador to Ireland

Dan Rooney at the July 4 celebrations at the US Embassy in the Phoenix Park in 2012 Photo: Damien Eagers
Dan Rooney at the July 4 celebrations at the US Embassy in the Phoenix Park in 2012 Photo: Damien Eagers

When Dan Rooney was asked to be US Ambassador to Ireland in 2009 he had never lived outside Pittsburgh.

At the age of 76 the billionaire packed up his life and moved to the Phoenix Park for a three-year stint that would see him become a household name.

Hugging Michelle Obama upon the Obamas’ arrival at Dublin Airport in 2011. Photo: Damien Eagers
Hugging Michelle Obama upon the Obamas’ arrival at Dublin Airport in 2011. Photo: Damien Eagers

His selection by Barack Obama was personal. Mr Obama described Mr Rooney as "a great friend" who "the people of Ireland will benefit greatly from".

Then secretary of state Hillary Clinton took herself from her sick bed to officiate at his swearing in ceremony because she "could not be more delighted than to make official what is going to be so well received in Ireland and means so much to Americans".

It wasn't just his Irish blood that qualified Mr Rooney for the transfer across the Atlantic; it was over four decades of work for the The Ireland Fund which he set up along with Sir Anthony O'Reilly.

He helped raise millions of dollars for the educational and philanthropic organisation.

Mr Rooney getting the award for Peace, Reconciliation and Development from President Michael D Higgins in 2013. Photo: Mac Innes
Mr Rooney getting the award for Peace, Reconciliation and Development from President Michael D Higgins in 2013. Photo: Mac Innes

The fund's president Kieran McLoughlin last night described Mr Rooney as "a lion of man and one of the most gentle and generous people one could ever meet".

Read More: The Rooneys and Maras: the Irish-American royalty of NFL

Mr Rooney's grandfather left Newry, Co Down, at the age of 12 and travelled along with his great-grandfather to Montreal before moving down to Ohio and eventually settling in Pittsburgh.

Despite embracing the American lifestyle, their Irish heritage was preserved through the generations.

Hillary Clinton with Mr Rooney, his wife Patricia and their granddaughter Photo: Getty
Hillary Clinton with Mr Rooney, his wife Patricia and their granddaughter Photo: Getty

He set simple "outreach" targets when he moved here, like visiting all 32 counties. "I had a goal to see as much of Ireland and talk to everybody," he said afterwards.

Along the way he brought Mr Obama for pints in Moneygall and showed Ms Clinton a night on the town in Dublin.

A highlight of his tenure was the return of American Football to Ireland when Notre Dame and Navy played a sold-out game in the Aviva Stadium in 2012.

His delight at that game should have come as no surprise. While tributes from the world of politics have flooded in over the past 24 hours, it's clear that his impact on the game of football was greater.

The 'New York Times' said yesterday that he "helped shape the modern National Football League".

He was born into the Pittsburgh Steelers, rising from the rank of water boy to boss man.

In 1933, a year before Dan was born, his father Art bought the team. Over eight decades he saw them rise and fall before becoming one of the league's most successful franchises. They have won six Super Bowl titles.

But while championship wins fuelled the empire, it was Mr Rooney's impact on the game itself that his family should be most proud of.

He wasn't a bombastic, microphone grabbing chairman. Mr Rooney fought behind the scenes for the little guy.

He hired the league's first black executive and helped force what became known as the 'Rooney Rule', whereby teams must interview at least one minority candidate for a head coach position.

In 2000 he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

After news of his passing at the age of 84 broke on Thursday night, Mr Obama said he knew the "championship-calibre good man" would do a wonderful job as ambassador, "but naturally, he surpassed my highest expectations, and I know the people of Ireland think fondly of him today".

Taoiseach Enda Kenny described him as "a personal friend" whose work "brought both the United States and Ireland closer together".

Dan Rooney is survived by his wife Patricia, seven of his nine children, 20 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

Ireland's Ambassador to the US Anne Anderson is expected to attend his funeral.

Irish Independent

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