Dr Brendan O’Regan’s universal gesture

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Martin Moodie
Martin Moodie is the Founder & Chairman of The Moodie Report.

“If you’re involved in developing an important idea, you have to let it possess you. If you keep knocking on the door, the door will open.” – Dr Brendan O’Regan.

And so we say farewell to a great man of duty free, a great man of Ireland and a great man of peace.

Dr Brendan O’Regan, the visionary who created the airport duty free industry just over 60 years ago in Shannon, Ireland has left an indelible mark on this business and on Irish society at many levels.

His passing, at the grand age of 90, has brought tributes from political leaders and captains of industry who acknowledged his contribution to commerce and to country, and from ordinary folk who were simply touched by his grace and kindness.

Brendan O’Regan was a man who could connect at all levels and the sadness felt by those who knew him is due not so much to the passing of this great and gentle man’s life but to the remembrance of all he stood for.

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I last saw Dr O’Regan at his home in Malahide on the outskirts of Dublin in late 2005 (he later moved to England where he spent his final months with his daughter and son-in-law).

It was a lovely day. The meeting and interview had been arranged for weeks but his trusty assistant Pauline Campbell who handled his affairs so ably for so many years confided that Dr O’Regan had been fretting about whether his powers of recall would be up to the meeting.

He need have had no such worries. Ultimately we published the interview virtually word for word, such was his clarity of thought. By then he was an old and frail man but his eyes and mind still sparkled and his humanity shone like a jewel.

After the interview we took lunch at the Grand Hotel, overlooking the Malahide Marina – a hotel his family nearly bought many years earlier. He asked me what I’d like to drink. Politely I said I’d take what he was having.

“Well I’m having a small Irish,” he said.

I remember vividly later, back in London, listening to his voice replayed on my tape recorder as I transcribed the interview in the early hours of a dank Autumn morning. I knew it was probably the last time I would hear him and I felt both moved and inspired by what I was hearing.

My words can never compare to his but I can’t come up with better ones today than those I wrote that October morning.

Anyone who is involved in duty free anywhere in the world should understand this: that Dr Brendan O’Regan gave breath not just to an industry but to a concept. His great achievement was that, at the very essence, he took commerce and made it a force for good – so it was no longer just commerce. That is his outstanding heritage.

He transcended business. Not many people do that. And not many ideas do that. Not many people bequeath great notions. He has.

He once said: “I will fight to the last breath helping to make peace in my country”.

And that is exactly what he did. Working with the Irish Peace Institute and a project close to his heart called Mankind Must Manage a World Without War Dr O’Regan continued to press for peace in the world as it had finally come to Ireland.

The day before we met, the IRA had announced it was decommissioning arms – a historic day in the torturous path to peace. I asked Dr O’Regan about the significance of that gesture. He replied (remember he was 88 at the time): “The Irish peace is an acknowledgement of the giving up of violence by the organisation which steered it for so long. That is really the answer to all wars. They should be given up by both sides without either side claiming a victory.”

Later I asked him how he felt about his achievements within the aviation sector, particularly with relation to duty free shopping and airport free zones – his two great bequests to the industry.

“I am proud,” he said. “I think that duty free shops have a great part to play in the world because they are an extraordinary kind of world link… a very understandable way of equalising the world. Duty free has become a universal gesture.”

A universal gesture. Oh that our industry might continue the simple clarity of that thought. That it might display at least some of the associated vision and benevolence of Dr O’Regan and that other great industry figure and advocate of peace, DFS founder Chuck Feeney (a man Dr O’Regan admired hugely).

As we talked that day in Malahide, Dr O’Regan said without any sadness: “88 years of age is really the period when one begins to say goodbye.”

And now, indeed, the final goodbye has been uttered. Dubai Duty Free Managing Director Colm McLoughlin, another keeper of the Irish and industry flame whom Dr O’Regan had much regard for, captured the sense of loss beautifully when he said at the weekend: “I feel today as I felt on the day my own father died. We have all lost the Father of the industry that has been so good to us, and I will miss him greatly.”

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