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Lifestyle

The Galwayman with the Midas touch – and a social conscience

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Interview with Mike Feerick republished from the Connacht Tribune of 20 May 2011

BY DENISE McNAMARA

HOWEVER he has managed it, Galway technology entrepreneur Mike Feerick has kept below the public radar for a long time. And that’s the way he would have kept it but for the doom and gloom.

Buoyed by the enthusiasm sparked by the Global Irish Economic Forum at Farmleigh organised by economist and broadcaster David McWilliams, Mike decided to progress his idea of ‘Ireland Reaching Out’.

As McWilliams explains on his blog: “This man had an extraordinary idea. Instead of waiting, he said, for Irish Americans and the like to come back to Ireland to trace their roots, how about we go the other way? How about we organise and enable, using the latest online communications and database tools and resources, local Irish communities at a townland, village and parish level to find out who was born in their area, where they went, and trace them and their descendants worldwide? That way, he suggested, we could systematically reunify our entire diaspora,

Creating ‘virtual communities’, expanding each local parish beyond its own physical boundaries and allowing them reach out across the world?”

Mike’s passion for the initiative – that is being piloted in south east Galway and culminating in a ‘Week of Welcomes’ starting on June 26 – has been brewing his whole life.

Over the course of two hours in his Parkmore office near the Galway racecourse, he recalls how his family ran a small country shop and a pub.

Business was always in his blood.

His parents, both originally from Ballinrobe, met in New York in the 50s and returned to live in Limerick City when Mike was four years old.

When he was eleven they moved to east Galway.

The six months he spent in a 24-pupil national school in Tiernascragh, north of Portumna, produced the happiest memories of his school days – there were just four in his class, and one of his classmates was his twin brother.

While still a student of Portumna Community School he showed himself to be a budding entrepreneur by organizing discos and dances.

He went on to do a business degree in the NIHE (now University of Limerick) where he ran several businesses on the side, including one selling tshirts promoting the college as Ireland’s technology university at a time when it was vying for university status.

He was President of the Business Society that opened the door to meetings with the then-College President Ed Walsh. It was at one of these that he first heard the name of Chuck Feeney, the university’s

billionaire patron, whose foundation, Atlantic Philanthropies, has spent more than $5 billion since 1982 on health and social projects around the

world, with plans to spend its remaining $4 billion endowment by 2017.

He applied to do an MBA (Masters in Business Administration) in Harvard, a course that costs $100,000 a year at an institution that accepts just 7 per cent of applicants. He was accepted and told they

would help with the exhorbitant fees. But at 23 he was deemed too young.

“They said to go off and do something interesting and we’ll keep an eye on you but [being accepted] opened the Harvard door. I wrote a letter to Chuck Feeney in New York – my grandmother was a Feeney – I said I was reasonably talented, I could do things and was keen to return to the west of Ireland and make a difference.

Almost immediately he heard back from the businessman who had made his fortune after co-founding the Duty Free Shoppers Group, which was sold for $1.63 billion.

He became an intern at General Atlantic Corporation, where he got experience in hotels, sports clubs and venture capitalism.

“He put me under his wing for 18 months. The idea was he would teach me everything he knew. He owned all the Hiltons in Texas so I would

spend two weeks making beds, then two weeks with the CEO. I had to figure out how many chamber maids were working, how many pillows

were being used. The next day I might have to work in a clothes shop. It was an amazing, life-changing experience.

He was a tremendous mentor for me over the years and shaped my thinking and made me think about how to use money to address social ills.”

It was through savings, a loan, a fellowship – there are a number of foundations that are dedicated to helping Harvard students of Irish descent – he financed his MBA.

During his two years he networked like mad – “some of my closest friends are from Harvard” – and was first introduced

to the internet.

“Immediately it said to me: this is going to allow me to live in the west of Ireland. When I was getting out I was offered a job with Goldman Sachs. I could have made millions… managing the wealth of private clients. I decided that wasn’t what I wanted to do. Working with Chuck definitely

gets you thinking money wasn’t the most important thing. There’s a social responsibility – if you feel able to do it.”

He hunted for a job nearer home that involved the internet.

He accepted the job of executive assistant to the chairman of the BMG music label, John Preston, where another budding music empresario

Simon Cowell was making a name for himself.

“I didn’t have an awful lot to do with Simon. I’d see him in meetings. My role there half the time was looking at mergers and acquisitions and the other half examining the impact on music of the internet. We came up with the strategy that artists would have to focus on live performances.”

He left to run an internet company for a Harvard classmate, Interactive Investor International, which was sold after a year making him “a bit of money”.

By 1997 it was time to move back to Ireland. He had met Eileen, an Irish American travel agent and sometime fiddler at a music session in the Sunny Hill pub in New York after sitting down beside her with his guitar. The couple married and after having their first child decided to move to Loughrea.

He acquired the Irish rights to Jfax, a US-based unified messaging system, then selling it to the Denis O’Brian’s company Esat.

“That was really handy. I had two hits really, really quick and it gave me a bit of capital”.

He set up a development centre for e-learning, which at one stage employed 50 people. It was later downsized to five people as it could not compete with India. It did however sow a seed in him that online education was where he wanted to be.

In the meantime he had set up another unified messaging company, this time called YAC, where 60 people were employed in Galway.

YAC allowed users to redirect calls and faxes around the world and enabled calls to be diverted to voicemail and sent as sound files to an e-mail inbox.

Mike clinched a $12m (€8.4m) round of funding, days before the market collapsed in 2000. He sold it to Nasdaq-listed J2 Global Communications

for an undisclosed sum.

By 2005 the cost of services to run an online business such as broadband had come down while the ability to raise money through advertising on a webpage had improved.

“It was a Eureka moment – I thought if I you could produce efficiently an online platform to allow all learning to be free it had all the social elements.”

And so Advance Learning Interactive Systems Online (Alison) was born. The company could potentially transform the business of education, worth $3 trillion worldwide, second only to healthcare.

This year Alison is offering 200 courses to students around the world on subjects such as the fundamentals of law and how to set up an online business.

So far they have signed up 600,000 students globally, making it the largest company of its kind in the world. There are 100,000 users in the Arab world.

“We have to laugh in the office when they say the ‘spring revolution’ came about as a result of Facebook and Twitter. Where did they learn about Facebook and Twitter, only through Alison. We are a player in education across the middle East,” he enthuses.

When asked about whether the courses are certified by various professional bodies, he points out that computer courses are to a microsoft standard and English courses are set by the British Council.

Online certification is provided for free.

“Is it accredited? No. We don’t want to be,” he insists.

“We’re more about really learning the stuff and giving people the skills instead of giving you the cert that says you have the qualification. When employing somebody you need to know if they really know what they are saying they know. We concentrate on people’s employability.”

The company’s biggest market is the UK, where it has 200,000 users and is installed in public libraries and used by trade unions. In America it has 100,000 users and the United States Department of Labour is using it in 18 states.

He believes Fás could save a fortune if they directed those on the dole to Alison instead of forking out for courses which cost €500 a head.

“We’ve approached the government with a proposal which I believe is being seriously considered. They could save tens of millions on IT training. That could release funds for more engaged teaching, such as funding for special needs teachers for students with ADHD.”

The business makes money through advertising and offering premium services. Each time Mike is asked a question that involves money he answers vaguely, as if talking about it is bad manners.

According to the Sunday Times, Mike and his business partners made an investment of €2 million to set up and it now generates about €1m a year through selling ads.

Ferrick has been made a fellow of Ashoka, a network of social entrepreneurs, and was one of 15 companies worldwide which last March received the support of the group to help it grow on a

global scale.

Next month over 500 volunteers will gear up to stage a series of events across 48 parishes in the south east of the county.

Visitors will stay in their native parishes, dine in local restaurants, attend local GAA matches and socialise in local pubs. The event is being covered by the New York Times.

While he insists that that numbers of returning emigrants and their ancestors may not be huge for the inaugural Ireland Reaching Out event, it is the start of something huge.

There are plans to roll out the model across the country and eventually create a database of the global Irish diaspora.

“The simple idea behind Ireland Reaching Out is economic. If we systematically go after the diaspora I think it can be phenomenally impactful for Ireland. It unleashes enormous energy in parishes if they

reconnect with their disaspora.

You have to give before you get. You have to give them a sense of belonging. In return they may invest in the community and they may look after your emigrants…”

Almost every second week Mike travels abroad to look after his business interests, which include some other internet companies.

He insists the country is not on its last legs.

“I’m not in agreement that we should be accepting that we should be accepting all the debt. But at the end of the day I’ll be accepting what Enda Kenny believes the country can take. Someone has to start thinking positively and articulately about the good things that are going on.

“There’s a lot of positive stories, a lot of companies like Alison doing really well overseas – 4% of our traffic on Alison is from Ireland – we have 15,000 learners in Yemen. We put out a call last January asking for volunteers to help market it worldwide last January. We got 4,000.”

It still gives him a thrill that he can run an international company from Galway.

“The amount of blessings I’ve got from the Middle East saying thank you Mr Alison. We are changing lives all over the world. That’s a lot of fun,” he grins.

“At the same time I can come home and play with the kids and go to a hurling match then go to a music session on the weekend.”

Country Living

A day when Tuam Races put paid to the innocence of a young punter

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The date was Friday, July 31, 1970, and the race was the Carling Black Label Maiden Plate with Lucky in Love, ridden by P. Sullivan just edging it from None Better with M. Kennedy on the saddle. The Tuam Races drew large crowds for their one big day of the year before the reins were pulled in 1973. Photo researched by Joe O’Shaughnessy.

Country Living with Francis Farragher

I couldn’t even remotely claim to have any knowledge of the gee-gees although here and there I’d have the odd little flutter on a horse, and of late, Pateen has been kind enough to me with a couple of good wins across the water. Pateen of course is called after Galway three-in-a-row start, Pat or ‘Pateen’ Donellan, with his original owner, the late Michael Corcoran of solid Dunmore stock.

My childhood memory of horses probably relates to that of many people of a certain generation where the horse – and indeed the donkey as well – were the mainstays of farming life and especially for ageing farmers who just had no interest whatsoever in the purchase of a second-hand or a rebuilt Massey Ferguson. (Ruanes of Athenry were the great specialists of the time in rebuilt Masseys).

We owned the most imperious of a black gelding, his only concession to colour contrast being a white face, and whose pulling power was lauded across the village. But he was never an animal to be taken for granted and especially during the later summer season when the quills or horse flies could provoke him into a sudden and sometimes violent enough tantrum. Only my father could handle him with a mixture of firmness and platitudes but our equine warrior still managed to overturn a load or two of oats or hay when negotiating dodgy gaps that bit too impatiently.

His ageing demise and subsequent sale coincided with my journey into teenage years and that loss of childhood innocence when the realisation strikes that life is transient, made all the more poignant by the fact that it coincided with the gradual decline of my father as he slipped into the 70s and the sunset years of life.

The Galway Races though were always special even if we didn’t venture into Ballybrit that much as a family, as invariably there was always hay to be saved, although a ‘concession’ would often be made in terms of calling into a neighbour’s house with a television to watch The Hurdle or The Plate.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.

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Connacht Tribune

Happy days for writer Micheál

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President Michael D Higgins with Micheál Ó Conghaile in Áras an Uachtarain earlier this month as the President congratulated him on his retirment from Cló Iar-Chonnacht after 35 years as a director.

Lifestyle  – In the 36 years since Micheál Ó Conghaile set up the publishing house Cló Iar-Chonnacht, it has given a platform to people writing in the Irish language, especially Gaeltacht writers, as well as championing Irish music and song. As the awardwinning author passes on the baton, he tells  BERNIE NÍ FHLATHARTA about his own work and plans.

A Conamara writer who is not only prolific in his personal creative output but who has also translated English plays into Irish, is currently putting the finishing touches to his translation of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days.

The play, which was first staged in 1961, will be performed on Inis Oírr  as Laethanta Sona during this year’s Galway International Arts Festival in August/September.

The translator of Laethanta Sona, Micheál Ó Conghaile, admits it wasn’t an easy task but thanks to a read-through with actors, Bríd Ní Neachtain and Raymond Keane, and director, Sarah Jane Scaife, the musical style of Beckett’s prose came to life.

Micheál, a native Irish speaker who remembers as a child not understanding his English-speaking cousins when they visited his home on the now depopulated island of Inis Treabhair, always strives to be true to the original work.

When he was translating Martin McDonagh’s plays, The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Cripple of Inishmaan, he regularly communicated with the playwright to ensure McDonagh was happy with the Irish interpretations — and, thankfully, he was most of the time.

The Beauty Queen had already been translated into 33 languages and Micheál, who was a fan, believed that McDonagh’s Hiberno-English style would translate easily into Conamara Irish. He was right and the Irish-language productions of the plays been well received by audiences and critics alike.

It’s obvious from listening to Micheál that he really enjoyed the McDonagh translation process and was more than happy with the results.

“I hadn’t even written a play at that stage myself,” he laughs, although he has since written three dramas, all of which have been produced.

His productivity is phenomenal, although he doesn’t really have a routine and admits to being easily distracted during the writing process, often needing to sequester himself somewhere away from home, usually abroad and preferably in the sun.

As well as his own creations – which include novels, plays and poetry – he translates other writers into Irish, and since 1985, he has been a director of Cló Iar-Chonnacht (CIC). It was in that year he set up the Irish-language publishing company which, to date has published 800 books.

However, this summer he sold Cló Iar-Chonnacht to Deirdre Ní Thuatháil, who has been a manager there for years. Micheál is confident she will be “a good pair of hands to bring it even further

“Deirdre has worked there for 20 years and I knew this was a good time for me to step back and concentrate on my own writing”, he explains.

“I’m working on a memoir about my island Christmas childhood experiences. We moved onto the mainland [from Inis Treabhair] when I was 15 and, of course, after that it would have been very hard to return to island life, though we loved it when we were there because we didn’t know any better. I remember reading books by candlelight. The family was self-sufficient, up to a point and we learned how to row a boat from an early age.”

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.

Connacht Tribune Digital Edition App

Download the Connacht Tribune Digital Edition App to access to Galway’s best-selling newspaper.

Click HERE to download it for iPhone and iPad from Apple’s App Store, or HERE to get the Android Version from Google Play.

Or purchase the Digital Edition for PC, Mac or Laptop from Pagesuite  HERE.

Get the Connacht Tribune Live app
The Connacht Tribune Live app is the home of everything that is happening in Galway City and county. It’s completely FREE and features all the latest news, sport and information on what’s on in your area. Click HERE to download it for iPhone and iPad from Apple’s App Store, or HERE to get the Android Version from Google Play.

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Galway in Days Gone By

Galway In Days Gone By

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Three boys catching up on their reading at the Galway Races in Ballybrit on July 28, 1988. Photo: Joe O'Shaughnessy

1921

Impure milk

Impure and dirty milk supplies do a serious injury to our population. Milk is, perhaps, the most important part of the diet of our infants, who will some day have to take their part in the work of the nation.

It is our duty to see that all forms of disease, which are likely to weaken the race by sapping its vitality, should be vigorously battled with. No form of food is so susceptible to contamination as milk, for it is a natural and complete food substance which is eminently suited to the growth of all kinds of disease germs, especially the dreaded germ which is the cause of consumption.

Unfortunately, a large percentage of our milch cows suffer from tuberculosis. The disease may not be apparent to the eye but can be easily detected by the veterinary surgeon by means of the “tuberculin test”. Milk from these cows often contains germs of the consumption which is causing such havoc and misery in Ireland.

Something must be done by public bodies to insist on the testing of suspected cows, and the frequent sampling and testing of public milk supplies. Educational authorities should urge farmers to take a personal interest in the matter and stamp out disease by keeping cowsheds sanitary and paying strict attention to cleanliness of milking.

It must be brought home to the farmer that it is his duty to produce an article which is acceptable to the public by being pure, of high quality, and free from the germs of infectious disease. It is only by working on these lines that the farmer can hope to gain the confidence of the consumer.

Races weather

Nothing is more necessary to the complete success of the Galway meeting next Wednesday and Thursday than the rainfall which is pretty general all over Ireland at present.

I learn from a reliable source that Galway is getting its quota and that the course is in good condition. This is all necessary to induce owners and trainers to send on horses, and I have no fear that runners will be plentiful on both days.

Writing as a metropolitan, I can safely predict a great attendance – one can only wish he could predict other things so surely. On all sides one hears the questions, “Are you going to Galway? Have you booked your room” and a reference to “the fun of the fair,” otherwise the Bazaar, nearly always follows.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.

Connacht Tribune Digital Edition App

Download the Connacht Tribune Digital Edition App to access to Galway’s best-selling newspaper.

Click HERE to download it for iPhone and iPad from Apple’s App Store, or HERE to get the Android Version from Google Play.

Or purchase the Digital Edition for PC, Mac or Laptop from Pagesuite  HERE.

Get the Connacht Tribune Live app
The Connacht Tribune Live app is the home of everything that is happening in Galway City and county. It’s completely FREE and features all the latest news, sport and information on what’s on in your area. Click HERE to download it for iPhone and iPad from Apple’s App Store, or HERE to get the Android Version from Google Play.

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