Mayo men have a history of making their name wherever they settle but one man took Galway into his heart and spent his whole adult life trying to make it a better place.
Indeed John Bourke, who died at his home in Dalysfort Road, Salthill, after a short illness, managed to achieve many ‘firsts’ in his quest to improve his adopted city.
From the get go when he returned to Ireland from New York with his wife Peggy, he went about this in his own low key manner, didn’t try to patronise and always wanted to do so under the radar.
That quiet trait of his and his devotion to being a family man first and foremost is probably the reason he shunned being in the public eye, preferring to work under the radar.
But his contribution to both the economic, commercial and cultural life of the city, not to mention his contributions to both health and education makes him a special person.
Claremorris native John Bourke certainly didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in his mouth and he expected to work hard when he started in the insurance business which brought him to Limerick, to Dublin and Galway, where he met his future wife, Peggy, in Seapoint in Salthill.
In the 60s they emigrated to New York where they worked in the Financial District and Wall Street where two insurance companies he founded were floated on the Nasdaq exchange. John and Peggy got married in St Patrick’s Cathedral there but after a decade decided to rear their family in their beloved Galway.
His company, Pan Atlantic Group — now Celtic International Insurance based in Knocknacarra — was the first of its kind to be set up in the city and indeed the first outside of Dublin. The firm in its own purpose built building in Salthill, eventually had offices in Dublin, New York and London.
It was the first company to offer insurance over the phone (Autoline), the first to offer Roadside Breakdown Assistance (Ireland Assist) and nearly twenty years later, open Glenlo Abbey in Bushypark, the first five star hotel in Galway. Celtic ran the first ever European PGA event, west of the Shannon in 1984, the Celtic Classic which was won by Gordon Brand Jnr.
His friend and former neighbour, John Mulholland remembers him as a very generous man who on hearing of Christy O’Connor Jr’s lack of sponsor at a critical stage of his golfing career, went to sponsor him for the next eight years until Christy found an international backer.
John believes without John Bourke’s help then, Christy’s career may have taken a different turn. Later it was Christy who designed the golf course at Glenlo.
“And he (John Bourke) backed Christy so genuinely and generously. He was a gentleman but also a businessman to his core,” says John remembering a man whose company he enjoyed on many’s the occasion.
In fact John Bourke loved a good party, especially when he was surrounded by his family, employees and close circle of friends, people he respected and enjoyed.
Over the years, his and his company’s achievements were celebrated with an effusive joy but he also had a knack at turning negatives around, thanks to his great sense of humour and his ability to laugh at his own mistakes.
His right hand man for years and General Manager at Celtic International, Larry Joyce, remembered not only the boss but the man and his friend in his eulogy at the funeral in Salthill.
As well as covering John Bourke’s life, he concluded by thanking the Mayo man for his friendship, his mentoring, guidance and generosity over the years.
Larry remembers it as a unique place to work with a family atmosphere steered by John’s energy and enthusiasm.
John Bourke was also the man responsible for introducing cruise liners to Galway Bay through his own personal contacts in Florida, which he linked up to the Galway Harbour Company — though not many people ever knew that. Seeing the first cruise ship in the Bay brought a smile to his face for sure as he was always convinced of their financial benefits to the area.
His other firsts include him being the first NUI Galway Foundation’s chairman as his interest in education was great believing a university needed to be part of its local community.
He was also the first to contribute to the Clinical Science Institute in Galway as its co-chairperson, which went on to establish the National Breast Cancer Research Institute.
The Bourkes loved the arts and were more than happy to sponsor the vist of Spanish group, El Comediants for the Arts Festival in 1985 and four years later sponsored Druid Theatre’s “A Whistle in the Dark” in London’s Royal Court Theatre.
He served as President of the Insurance Institute of Galway, President of Galway Golf Club and was also a past chair of the Galway Branch of the Irish Hotels Federation and on its National Council.
He threw himself into developing Glenlo Abbey treating it as a personal project and where he and Peggy displayed their good tastes in décor and style to the public.
He was devastated when his family lost the hotel some years ago and spent recent years working on getting it back, something that may still happen and which indicate that the man never really retired, despite being in his early 80s.
The man with the ‘can do’ attitude bore his short illness bravely and died surrounded by his beloved wife and family at home.
He is survived by his wife Peggy, his children, John Henry, Geraldine and Brian as well as his brother Tom, sister Pauline, son-in-law Dominic and daughter-in-law Sara and his adored grandchildren Ann-Marie, Seán, Isabel, Grace, Ava and Caitríona.
John Bourke might be remembered for his achievements in his adopted Galway but his biggest pride was his family, who will never forget him.