Wednesday 24 January 2018

Obituary: Liam Healy

Emer O'Kelly pays tribute to the man who was her beloved friend as well as the CEO at Independent Newspapers

Superb host: Liam Healy in a portrait that had pride of place at his home after his retirement
Superb host: Liam Healy in a portrait that had pride of place at his home after his retirement

Emer O'Kelly

Liam Healy was a most quietly and naturally sophisticated man. And like most good qualities, his sophistication sprang from an innately generous and utterly decent nature.

I always suspected that he was probably a cross between a tiger and a demon in the board room, where from 1991 until 2000 he was Chief Executive Officer of Independent Newspapers PLC, a position that kept him circumnavigating the globe at least once a month.

You didn't achieve that position or survive such a punishing routine without iron in your business core life. And he was still doing it past his seventieth birthday.

But personally, Liam was what is commonly known as a pussy-cat, unassuming and always soft-spoken. He was a patient and attentive friend, never too busy to enjoy company, and perennially on the look-out for quiet opportunities for generosity. A number of years ago I dropped him a note, not wanting to take up his valuable work time, asking if we could have coffee, as I had something I wanted to run past him. I wanted to find out if there could be a form of corporate recognition for someone without whom a major cultural institution in our country might well have gone under. Liam's reply was not to find time to have coffee, but to ring me up and invite me to lunch at restaurant Patrick Guilbaud. "Only the best for you," he said solemnly.

He also waved an immediate magic wand and got the recognition for the person in question, always denying afterwards he had anything to do with it.

His family adored him, and his three children, particularly his daughters Orla and Ciara, could (and frequently did) wind him round their little fingers.

His wife Eithne occasionally told a story (and I hope she will forgive me for sharing it) of the occasion when one daughter (unnamed here!) was brought to the dentist, and threw a small girl tantrum which neither the dentist, his nurse, nor her mother could control. It was still in full flight when her father entered, looked round, gathered her up and cooed "It's all right, darling, Daddy's here now." Calm was instantly restored as both dentist and nurse looked on knowingly, her mother ruefully.

He was also unfailingly supportive of Eithne in all her myriad undertakings on behalf of the arts, from membership of the Arts Council, through Chairmanship of the Board of the Abbey Theatre and of the Dublin Theatre festival.

Liam was a superb host, again quietly and attentively. A lifelong teetotaller, he took the trouble to read up on wine, and nothing other than a vintage perfectly matched to what we were eating was ever served at the Healy table. I once asked him if it got boring as the evening went on and most people became merry enough to start spouting a certain amount of rubbish. "Not a bit," he said, with that roguishly solemn twinkle. "Quite interesting, actually."

His and Eithne's commodious house in Foxrock was always a joy to be invited to, and after Liam became ill and Eithne decided it was time to down-size with family long flown the nest, she did say nostalgically "We had good times in that house." Not just the Healys: many people had good times in that house, basking in the warmth of unpretentious kindness.

A west of Ireland man, Liam Healy was born in 1929, and went to school at St Nathy's in Ballaghaderreen, after which he became articled to a Chartered Accountancy practice, Kinnear and Co., qualifying in 1956. He also qualified in the Advanced Management Programme at Harvard Business School in Boston, and I remain inordinately proud of the fact that he told me I was absolutely right in nailing a particular semi-state corporation's failures in management as being due to none of its senior managers having management as their "trade".

Liam joined Independent Newspapers in 1963 from Roadstone (CRH) and became Finance Director in 1971, following up 10 years later as Managing Director International. He was also a fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants. After he completed his period as CEO of Independent Newspapers PLC in 2000, he was the corporation's non-executive Deputy Chairman.

He was deeply religious, but never judgemental, and while his faith was not shaken by the scandals in the Catholic Church of which he was such a committed member, they came close to breaking his heart, in themselves, and particularly because the victims were children.

Liam's final years must have been as devastating to him as they were to those who loved him, but although Parkinson's disease ravaged his body, it could not touch his dignified soul, and flashes of frustrated temper were as bad as it got as his mobility and strength became steadily more impaired.

As recently as last Christmas he was well enough to hold court from his wheelchair with all his old enthusiasm at a carol-singing party at home in Donnybrook; Liam loved carols, and Eithne had arranged a programme of all his favourites, with a memorial booklet for each of the guests.

Liam Healy is survived by his wife Eithne, who attended him devotedly through the years of his illness, by his daughters Orla and Ciara and his son Eoin, and by Ciara's husband Mike, Eoin's wife Margretta, and by six adored and adoring grandchildren.

Sunday Independent

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