Tuesday 10 December 2019

Paddy O'Keeffe

Frances Ruane remembers the former editor of the 'Irish Farmers Journal', who was passionate about research

Paddy O'Keeffe, an icon in Irish agriculture across seven decades, died last Sunday in his 90th year. I had known him for 45 of them.

In the Sixties and early Seventies, he was a frequent visitor at our house. He and my father, an agricultural scientist at UCD, discussed endlessly the changes needed in the farming sector and what membership of the Common Market could bring. Paddy had a tremendous presence, and with his argumentative and impish disposition, he challenged and provoked the younger generation.

Born in May 1923 near Fermoy, Paddy was educated at the local CBS. He studied at UCD, graduating with a B Agr Sc in 1946. He worked briefly as an agricultural instructor in Louth and then for three years as an agricultural superintendent at the Portrane Hospital Farms.

In 1951, Paddy's career in agricultural journalism began at the top – as editor of the Irish Farmers Journal. He was editor for a remarkable 37 years, during which its weekly sales rose from 2,000 to 70,000. He continued to contribute a weekly column until his death.

Paddy played a key role in the modernisation of farming and the growth of agri-business in Ireland, particularly through the insights he brought on agriculture to Irish farmers through the Journal and his broadcasts on Radio Eireann. He was a leading figure in the Blackwater discussion group and engaged with dairy research at Moorepark and with grassland research worldwide. NUI awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1990 for his outstanding contribution to Irish agriculture.

In 1961, together with John Mooney, he established the Agricultural Trust which publishes the Journal and the Irish Field. He continued to chair the Trust until last week. Paddy was the driving force behind the Irish Farm Centre (built to house Macra na Feirme, IFA, IFAC and others), and behind the creation of the FBD insurance company, whose board he chaired for many years. He served also on An Foras Taluntais (as chair), the RTE Authority and Bord na gCapall.

Those who knew him will recall the strength of Paddy's views on most matters, regularly articulated in print and in person. I was not unique in disagreeing with him on many issues, but we all enjoyed the cut and thrust of debate. In his 80s, he frequently attended and contributed vociferously to the Dublin Economics Workshop Conferences in Kenmare.

He was passionate about the need for research evidence – and impatient for the facts! Generations of Irish researchers have directly benefited from his personal mentoring and his funding of their research, particularly through the FBD Trust.

Paddy and I shared an interest in how economic research could and should inform policy. While he did not like some of the ESRI's research findings, he respected the institute's role as an independent source of research grounded in empirical evidence. True to his commitment to research, he was instrumental in the ESRI's receiving funding from FBD Trust for research on competitiveness and innovation. I am forever in his debt.

He loved new and big ideas and surrounded himself with people who could make them happen. Where some people saw problems, Paddy saw possibilities and probabilities.

Paddy did things differently right to the end. In keeping with his dedication to research, he donated his body to science and arranged that his family, friends and colleagues would celebrate his life at the Cork Marts Complex, which is outside Fermoy. This we did last Wednesday, recalling major events in his life, hearing about more of his amazing escapades, and witnessing his family's deep affection for him.

His legacy will endure.

Frances Ruane is Director of the Economic and Social Research Institute

Big Story: Living, page 8

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