At just 29, he seemed absurdly young to be given the job of leading Limerick towards university status - but anyone underestimating Ed Walsh was mistaken
Before we sit down to talk, he shows me around his period residence a couple of miles outside Newport. The original structure, splendidly restored, was once home to Sir Benjamin Bloomfield, who saw action at Vinegar Hill during the Irish rebellion of 1798.
The first Baron Bloomfield led a colourful life, but he hardly packed as much in as his successor at Oakhampton House, Dr Edward Walsh – Ed to his friends and foes alike.
It’s almost exactly 50 years since he was announced as director of the new third-level college planned for Limerick, an institute that fell short of the full university demanded by local campaigners.
On November 22, 1969, the Limerick Leader reported that the incoming director was “a 30-year-old Corkman”. That wasn’t entirely accurate: the new man was still only 29.
For those who had fought long and hard for a Limerick university to rival those in Dublin, Cork and Galway, it can’t have read like an auspicious appointment.
AE: Maybe we could start by going back to the autumn of 1969.
EW: Stephanie and I were in the States and we wanted to come home. Our second child had just arrived. But it was difficult, because I enjoyed – totally – working in the US. You couldn’t do wrong, it seemed.
AE: You applied for the new post of director at what was to become NIHE Limerick. Then you withdrew your application?
EW: Yes – I’d heard nothing from this Limerick thing. I’d applied for a few other jobs and I was interviewed and appointed by UCD. Before I started, a telegram arrived. It said, ‘Notwithstanding the fact that you have withdrawn your application, would you consider reactivating it?’ I remember Stephanie had the new baby in her arms. She said, ‘That’s very strange!’
AE: So you had a change of heart?
EW: I decided I’d do the interview – UCD gave me permission. I flew into Dublin and my sister picked me up. I was shaving going down to the HEA [Higher Education Authority]. Got there at ten o’clock and to my surprise they were all sitting around the table. I had just published a book and I put it on the table. They seemed to be impressed ...
AE: But you must have had a vision they bought into.
EW: Well I was working at Virginia Tech, one of the technological universities that create wealth in the US. And I think that ‘tech’ association would have been attractive to the academics in the HEA. Because the plan was that this thing was obviously going to be inferior to their institutions.
AE: They underestimated you, so?
EW: [Laughs]. The academics didn’t want a university in Limerick. I was back in Virginia Tech on the Monday morning giving my lectures — and by Wednesday I had the offer.
As soon as I started, my encounters in Limerick were vividly in contrast with my work life in the States. Put it this way, I didn’t close my bank account there.
AE: “Vividly in contrast” sounds like a polite way of saying not as good.
EW: For the first 18 months, the prospect of it being a success looked very dismal. There was no sense that, as far as Dublin was concerned, getting this bloody thing in Limerick moving was of any priority. It wasn’t. They had done their political thing.
AE: They’d thrown a bone to the campaigners for a Limerick university.
EW: Yeah – and the expectation in Dublin was ‘Guess how long they’re going to spend squabbling over where the campus should be’.
AE: Right – and you spent almost no time choosing Plassey. OK, I’m going to show you a photograph.
EW: What have you?
AE: It depicts a preposterously young looking Ed Walsh outside Plassey House in the very early days. Someone who is rather ... let’s see, how will we put it? Not lacking in confidence, anyway. Perhaps rather ...
EW: Rather arrogant! I was just totally arrogant, I suppose. In the States, aged 25 or 26, I had managed to raise enough money from the utility companies down the east coast to provide more funding than I could use for energy research. I had been interacting with the leaders of US corporations. So coming to Limerick ... I wasn’t inhibited, if you know what I mean.
AE: The campus we have now in Plassey is magnificent, but did it ever cross your mind that a university in the heart of the city would have had a different dynamic?
EW: Of course. But perfect is the enemy of the good. And can you imagine all the issues around compulsory acquisition?
AE: King’s Island in the city was mentioned?
EW: In principle, I was very anxious that it would be King’s Island.
EW: The historic association. A university in the heart of the city. But Joe McHugh was director of the regional development organisation and he told me, “Forget about that one. You’ll spend forever trying to acquire the land – and Dublin would be delighted with that choice.”
AE: Because it would be a long-running saga. Like the Opera Centre today.
EW: Yes — it would go on and on.
AE: OK, so you started on January 1, 1970 and it’s clear from your memoir that the first weeks and months were like a whirlwind. There’s another interesting photograph from that time. It was taken at the Intercontinental Hotel, where the Strand is now. In it, you’re chairing the first meeting of the planning board.
EW: They had no meetings rooms – they had to clear a bedroom for us.
AE: When I look at the picture, I see this very young man at the head of the table, flanked by older, more experienced people. They didn’t really understand what they had on their hands, did they?
EW: No. There was a rather scruffy document produced by the HEA, setting out a range of programmes in science and technology, with an element of the humanities ...
AE: When I say they didn’t understand what they had, I’m talking about this guy at the top of the table – you. They didn’t know what to make of you.
EW: No, they didn’t. They weren’t antagonistic to me – this poor young guy. But the fact that a 29-year-old had been appointed to do the thing was certainly a reason for concern.
AE: They weren’t quite true believers of where you wanted to go? At least, not at first.
EW: The first problem I had was the local community, who didn’t want what they were being offered. They were hugely disappointed and sceptical. The first meetings I tried to chair broke up in confusion.
AE: So that photograph was staged, a PR shot?
EW: Yes, it was. There was a press conference and they were pulled back for the photograph. The blood and guts hours were beforehand. They wanted an arts degree. They wanted a trajectory towards medicine. I said, “Forget it! There’ll never be medicine in Limerick!” And of course to my great pleasure and astonishment there’s a very, very good medical school now.
AE: So you just ploughed on. That seems to have been a great strength of yours.
EW: Well I ploughed on in a zone of ignorance, because I didn’t understand the real constraints of work – or life, I suppose. Perhaps because I’d been given a free hand in the US. My strength was I didn’t understand how the public sector worked. So I was constantly doing things that shocked anyone who understood them.
AE: I’ve always felt that without your powerhouse personality, things would have been completely different. It’s hard to imagine what might have ensued, but I don’t think it would be what we have now.
EW: Well, in one’s life you look back. And when you’re in your youngest years, the decisions you take turn out, in retrospect, to have been the most important ones. For example, the choice of Plassey – that was of huge importance. We restored Plassey House impeccably, with George Stacpoole taking out the fluorescent lights. Making it look like a university, physically, was hugely important. If we were out in Mungret or Raheen, it might have been different.
The key thing was getting the World Bank funding. If the World Bank hadn’t come in, it would have been a two-storey, Mickey Mouse operation. Enough to keep Limerick quiet.
AE: Instead, you started making waves and doing things differently.
EW: We had a small group pushing the thing, a hunting pack. We could move like lightning, before the files in Dublin caught up with us – it’s true!
The World Bank people said, “If you want this to happen, you’ve got to listen to us – we’ll only fund it on that basis. We assume you can put up buildings that will keep the rain out. It’s all about what happens in there – the quality of the laboratories and the equipment.” So the faculty we had managed to recruit couldn’t believe that their wish lists were being supported. Whatever! Two electron microscopes, at a time when not all of the universities had one. This was mindboggling to our new people. And it drove the academics elsewhere scatty.
AE: Once building started at Plassey, there was a relentless focus on growing the campus out there.
EW: Clearly, if I had tried to do it in the city, it would have helped the city. But my job was to create something which might become a university – and I was fairly ruthless in refusing proposals to do other things elsewhere. By international standards, we were still small. So any opportunity to make something happen, I wanted to make it happen at Plassey. My thinking was that if there’s a strong university associated with Limerick – it will benefit the city. And the city will eventually grow around it.
AE: As a Limerick city person myself, I’ve been critical of the fact that there has been no UL presence whatsoever in the city centre. It felt to me that the campus grew to university standard quite a long time ago – and yet there were more and more buildings going up, with the Clare side being developed.
EW: Blame me.
AE: Blame you?
EW: Blame me. Because critical mass is absolutely vital. And in terms of knowledge creation, proximity is vital – people with different expertise bumping into each other.
AE: I think I only saw you twice in my four years there.
EW: How awful!
AE: Once when you presented me with my degree. And once when I happened to run into you on a rainy day and I held a door open for you. You looked at me with a kind of grateful surprise.
AE: To your credit, in your book you included some comments written in the Limerick Weekly Echo by a first-year student back in 1975. Let me read some of it ... “For the most part, he rules in the manner of a renaissance pope. He is almost totally isolated from the students and surrounds himself with quite a sizeable retinue. He is also a patron of the arts, to the extent of having himself immortalised in oils, and is passionately dedicated to the idea of his own infallibility.” Quite well done, wasn’t it?
AE: Is it accurate?
EW: The first couple of years were great because we were all in Plassey House and we knew each other. But then, as things moved forward, the opportunities for mingling with students and so on decreased ...
EW: In fact, the great problem was just trying to think. Your time was sliced up in 15-minute segments. You went from one excitement to the next, chairing committees and so on. And then, later on, came the embarrassment of meeting faculty members — and you sometimes wouldn’t know whether they were members of the general public or your own staff.
So as the place grew I was constantly aware of how isolated I was, I suppose. I was dealing only with people who would help move the campus and the reputation forward – raising money for the next building.
AE: It seems to be an incredibly demanding job.
EW: It’s a more difficult one than running a business, because academics prefer minimal management so that they feel they have the freedom to get on with their job. You normally don’t give orders to academics. And yet you have the State – the PAC or whatever – wishing to ensure that everything is done as it should be.
AE: You recently described your 28 years at the helm as “a mixture of elation and traumatic dismay”. That was an interesting way of putting it.
EW: Because I had no time for the unions, there were those associated with the union who did all sorts of strange things to frustrate what I was trying to do.
But, generally, we still had a hunting pack on Wednesday mornings. The deans and division directors would meet and occasionally pencils were broken with displeasure. But often there was hilarious carry-on and laughter at these meetings. There was a kind of openness which ... maybe I wasn’t reading it correctly, but we enjoyed each other’s company and we enjoyed the skirmish in trying to win out in something or other.
Maybe I was so aloof that I wasn’t aware of the academic squabbling and tensions. But certainly, as institutions become larger, difficult issues arise.
AE: Can you give me a sense of what it was like to be the leader in the maelstrom of this movement. You had a leadership style that was all of your own ...
EW: I was helped by the fact that I didn’t have to manage the troops for the initial decade or so. The threat to us from the other universities was so obvious that people instinctively knew what they had to do. We were nearly brought to our knees by UCC – and we survived that.
AE: They saw you as muscling in on their patch?
EW: Oh yeah! But in a way, when there’s an external threat, it’s much easier to manage an organisation.
AE: Because you can create an us-against-them mentality?
EW: Yes – and the threat was so obvious. Brigid Laffan was among our first group of students – she was one of those considered deficient by the NUI. In 1975, NIHE was made a recognised college of the NUI. We were subject to UCC assessment – which meant they were to report to the NUI on whether our students were eligible to receive degrees.
AE: Which didn’t go down well with you.
EW: It was like Coke being asked to bring their product to Pepsi, for assessment. So they found all sorts of things wrong – even Russian, which they weren’t teaching at all. So Bridget was one of those whose work was found deficient. To my great satisfaction, she went on to become vice-president of UCD. She could have been president, but she’s now occupying the most distinguished academic post in Europe.
AE: So you take great delight in that.
EW: I do.
AE: And then eventually, in 1989 ...
EW: We got the university status. After that the place became much more difficult to manage.
EW: Oh, people said, “Now we’re a university we should do this, do that.” Our strength had been trying to do a small number of things well.
AE: So people started getting notions, is it?
EW: It was “now we’re a university, one would expect ...” And then political correctness started having an unhelpful effect. Really, I planned on leaving once we got the university legislation. I planned on leaving in 1990. But then Chuck Feeney came along and after a year I got the UL Foundation going.
AE: It’s clear from your book that the years after university status were very challenging for you.
EW: Charlie Haughey, knowing the university legislation was coming, didn’t reappoint Paul Quigley as chairman of the governing body. He appointed his main fundraiser in Clare, a chap called Jack Daly.
AE: The Merchant of Ennis. You didn’t get on.
Ed Walsh and Jack Daly, right, look on as Colm Prendergast, NIHE Electronics Engineering Undergraduate, receives a scholarship from Eugene J. O'Sullivan, President of the Irish-US Council for Industry and Commerce
EW: [Laughs.] It was a horrible, nasty experience. It was absolutely soul-destroying. In the 28 years I never had the university in court and was never before the Public Accounts Committee. I can’t give myself credit for that – I give it to John O’Connor, who was directing the financial affairs. But shortly after Jack Daly arrived there was a letter from the Comptroller & Auditor General, expressing concern about affairs - to my astonishment.
AE: Affairs generally?
EW: I can’t remember the exact wording – but enough to terrify me. I went to John O’Connor and said, “John – what’s this about? I can’t believe it.” So it became obvious that our chairman had written to the Auditor General. We were all brought before a sub-committee of the Governing Authority, to be investigated. They went through everything.
EW: Everything. It was a dreadful period – six or nine months. They found nothing. I remember saying to the Governing Authority – “We have got to where we are by taking judicious risks. But under the conditions you are creating here, my team can’t take risks.”
AE: So the game had changed.
EW: Totally. There was a little huddle of people before governing body meetings. It was awful. So the last years were fairly miserable.
While Paul Quigley was chairman, he would say, “Ed, on the basis of your track record, I’ll support even the daftest ideas you are bringing forward. I know some of them will fail, but just take it that I will support you.” So, could you have a better chairman? And then I was suddenly encountering this, this ...
AE: It wasn’t just Jack Daly you had a problem with. You’ve been highly critical of the capacity of some governors to govern.
AE: You think a university needs a smaller cohort of governors?
EW: Denmark discovered this. You don’t need 34 people on a governing body. So they have, I think, 11 – a majority of them outsiders, people who are highly regarded internationally. Frank Rhodes, the president of Cornell University, came to the campus and he was very complimentary about what we had achieved. But he said, “Your major deficit is the quality of your governors.”
AE: On a related subject, is it not fair comment to say that poor governance was at the heart of the difficulties that UL has encountered over the last four years?
EW: You can broaden it. Whenever I was going to meet a minister, I would strategise and say, “Let’s identify initiatives that cost nothing that would help our institution.” And at the top of the list for universities would be governance. It would cost nothing – it would save money – to reform university governance. You bring in people who have experience in running organisations, who can ask the difficult questions.
In the great universities in the US, the role of the board is to recruit the president, support the president, monitor what the president is achieving and, if necessary, fire him. They don’t get into the minutiae. Chuck Feeney used to say, “Eyes and ears in, hands out.”
AE: But when the university is making what is clearly a disastrous decision – for example, suing the Limerick Leader over a story that was nothing less than accurate – is it not the role of the governors to override the executive and say, “You’ve got it wrong”?
EW: I don’t even know who took that decision — but it was not a good decision. Des came in with a whole lot of mopping up to do. He is having to sort that out and I wish him every success. In the years I was there, some newspapers would have reports and I would say, ‘Not only is it unfair but it’s totally wrong – that just did not happen!’ But I never wrote a letter to the paper, because that just gives firepower. I ignored it.
I couldn’t believe it when the Limerick Leader thing unfolded. Even if the paper was totally wrong ...
AE: Which it wasn’t.
EW: Just in terms of common sense, you don’t do that. I was so sad and upset about the whole bloody thing. This event will never be forgotten in Limerick media – in national media. It consumed a huge amount of emotion, internally and externally. It distracted people.
AE: And it’s still not resolved after four years.
EW: I was hoping it might once Des arrived.
AE: One of the problems is that it became so entrenched – unnecessarily – that resolving it has become more difficult than it needed to be.
EW: In the early days, I said to the Irish Times representative in Limerick, Arthur Quinlan, “Arthur, I don’t know really how to deal with the media. Come on out to lunch and let’s have a chat.”
AE: What was his advice?
EW: He said, “Ed, the best PR is drip, drip, drip. Tell us what’s happening. Ninety per cent of what you tell us we’ll ignore, but we’ll have a feeling for where the institution is going. And then when something bad or difficult occurs, we’ll be able to put it in the context of what is being achieved.”
So I took that bit of advice from him.
In the early days the Limerick Leader played a fantastically helpful role in informing and uniting the region around the project.
I could do no wrong, as far as the Limerick Leader was concerned – until I showed the Hail Mary film [the controversial Jean-Luc Godard film which was accused of blasphemy]. There was a very devout editor and I could do no right after that."
AFTER an hour and a half of talking, he says he has taken up enough of my time (“I’m on a perpetual holiday myself”), but it feels we have barely scratched the surface of his epic career. And as it turns out, he is really only getting warmed up.
AE: When you left, in 1998, You made a decision to divorce yourself from matters at UL. Have you found that a difficult thing to do?
EW: Much less so than I thought it would be. Because I pulled down the shutters totally. When a chief executive steps down, he has an obligation to get out of the way. The last person an incoming chief executive wants to see around is the previous one.
I was so decommissioned that, six months later, taxi drivers in Limerick knew more about what was happening than I did.
AE: How often do you go to the university now?
EW: Not too often. Lew Glucksman [like Chuck Feeney, a major benefactor] suggested that I go on the board of the foundation, so I go there for those meetings. I go to the concert hall reasonably often. What I see, I’m delighted with. When the financial crisis came I thought the grass mightn’t be cut — so credit to the leadership. The campus looks stunning – I’m hugely proud of it. It’s a pleasure to be there.
Ed enjoying a comical moment on campus recently with UL chancellor Mary Harney. They were attending an event celebrating the 30th anniversary of the enactment of the University of Limerick Act
AE: And it just keeps growing — still more buildings going up.
EW: [Pause]. Now, I’m not going to say what’s on my mind ...
EW: Well ... by international standards, UL is still a fragile institution. So if I was running UL now, my prime objective would be to get that northern ring road in place.
AE: OK, go on.
EW: In Brussels, there is huge interest in the concept of a world-class living and working space. The kind of swish living conditions that you’d find in a Frankfurt or a Los Angeles. That is something that could be catapulted into Limerick. Right now, there isn’t a decent executive apartment in Limerick city.
As you will know, there is a strategic development zone [SDZ] planned for the northside of the Shannon, the Clare side. It’s very much Des Fitzgerald’s initiative — I’m an enthusiastic supporter of it.
My conviction is that, in the context of Brexit, the project has the potential to offer the EU an opportunity to highlight the merits of EU membership. There is a mood that would not mind, at all, a European project of scale – something that could be catapulted into ‘the other island’.
AE: You mean Ireland.
EW: Yes — a huge project that could demonstrate what the European Union in Brussels is about. I think it could move Limerick, its university and the region onto a new trajectory. We could compete with Dublin for inward investment and be the envy of the other regional cities.
Given the current Brexit chemistry, the tide is now at the flood. So a prompt, united regional move on this could help ensure buy-in from both Brussels and Dublin.
One of our graduates heads up, in Brussels, a company called Schuman Associates – Gerard McNamara. If you want to make hay in Brussels, they take you by the hand and line up packages. He has taken a huge interest in this.
The package is lined up so that there will be no state capital expenditure — but it’s being resisted by the council in Limerick.
AE: Which isn’t surprising. The city-centre UL project is obviously going to be the priority for people in Limerick.
EW: But that Clare side of the Shannon is of much more importance to the city of Limerick than to Clare. And Limerick is blocking the Clare initiative.
AE: You’re clearly frustrated by this.
EW: I am hugely frustrated that I’m not in a position to do battle on this one. Because it would be the dynamo for Limerick! It would bypass Galway and Cork. I’m just about to turn 80 – and I’d love to be in harness to help make this happen.
Two years before I came to Limerick, there was the Lichfield report. It recommended a bridge at Annacotty and a ring road going around the north of the city. Fifty years later, it has become a serious proposition [the Limerick Nor-thern Distributor Road].
AE: It’s still in the planning stage.
EW: Eventually it is going to be built – and there is huge potential to grow the city in the north-eastern segment, once that road goes in. And the city will eventually wrap around Plassey.
AE: What physical manifestation could we envisage if a Brussels-backed plan was to materialise? I’m trying to imagine where exactly all this new building would take place.
EW: I’ll do something I shouldn’t. Come with me.
He leads the way to his office and its meticulous filing system. In seconds, he finds what he’s looking for – architectural drawings which show the vast scale of the proposal, planned over more than 700 acres.
EW: Philip Shipman, who was involved in drawing up the UL campus plan, has done a plan for this. Des’s idea is to take the concept of medical education a step further — into science, engineering and business. You can’t produce a doctor unless the doctor has spent an amount of time practising medicine. But we are quite happy to produce engineers and scientists who have scant experience.
So the concept is that you would invite knowledge-driven enterprise into the zone, with a commitment that part of the building would be specifically built for their business and the other part would be accommodate student interns. A considerable portion of their education would be conducted in these buildings.
AE: It’s so big it seems to dwarf the existing UL campus.
EW: It’s a huge project! A multi-billion euro project. We’ve had guys flying in, quietly, from various places looking at this. And the only thing that’s missing is the road and that bridge.
AE: Obviously the Limerick council’s take on it is that it would get in the way of the city campus at the old Dunnes building.
Dr Des Fitzgerald with Jack Scanlan, UL Student Life president and Dr Mary Shire, UL head of strategic alliances
EW: They feel it would distract, yes. And I know that you personally are hugely committed to the heart of the city – and that’s right. But if this thing happened, the whole city would benefit. And by God it’s already a thousand times better than it was when I came in 1970. We can be proud of it.
AE: So what’s your take on the plans for the city campus?
EW: I don’t want to say things that would imply I’m not supportive of it. But the SDZ offers huge potential for Limerick city to outflank Cork and Galway. So I would certainly prioritise that if I were involved.
AE: Is it not fair to say that UL, at this point in its existence, should have a significant presence in the city?
EW: Yes – from the city’s standpoint it is [fair]. But if you were selfishly thinking in terms of making the university stronger, I would still be inclined to concentrate all my energies on the SDZ. Confident that it would really put a rocket under Limerick. Transform it, you know?
Though he doesn’t say it, you sense that part of him would love to be 30 years younger and still at the helm of the university, hellbent on delivering another audacious project, pitting himself against those who would stand in his way.
He has more than enough on his plate, though. He’s currently going through his archives, which he’ll be handing over to UL in January, in time for the 50th anniversary of his appointment as director of what was then little more than a vague concept.
He hands me his CV, with its extraordinarily long list of current and previous functions. There are seven roles in the ‘current’ list (‘principal’, ‘chairman designate’, ‘deputy chairman’, ‘board member’ etc).
He lists his hobbies as sailing, walking, gardening, painting and silverworking and he also finds time to play the violin, piano and saxaphone.
It’s a busy life, for sure, but he may have slowed down just a little. The list of ‘previous functions’ is set out over two intimidating pages — 74 different roles undertaken between 1963 and 2015. I count 21 chairmanships.
AE: I’m exhausted just looking at this.
EW: Well when you start at 24 ...
AE: In the book you say you were chilled by a conversation with the outgoing provost of Trinity. He said that as soon as he quit the job, the phone stopped ringing.
EW: Yes I remember that. Bill Watts – we had a dinner for him at Plassey House.
AE: You were always going to keep yourself busy, after stepping down.
EW: I remember talking to Tony Ryan about it. He said, “Ed, what are you planning on doing?” I said, “I’m already doing things – I’m involved with some start-up companies and I’m doing consulting.”
He said, “Ed, you’re too old to have anything to do with start-ups. Eighty per cent of them fail.”
I said, “Tony – twenty per cent of them succeed.”
So then he said, “A bit of advice when you’re consulting. Learn not to blush when you’re doing your invoices.” Six months later he was trying to get Baldonnel converted into a civil airport. So I was consulting for Tony – and learning not to blush when I was writing the invoices.
AE: You’ve said that the 21 years since you left UL have been easier.
EW: They have. I haven’t had to deal with unions. I haven’t had to attend any tedious board meetings – and I’ve been extraordinarily well paid. One of the most satisfying things was to be asked by Mark Davies and Tara Dalton to chair a spinout start-up, Stokes Bio — a microfluidics company. I chaired it through all sorts of trials, tribulations and emotion. We sold it [in 2010]for €33 million. So that was one of the successes. There have been failures too, of course.
THE career achievement he’ll be most remembered for is not a matter of debate. And his favourite memory as UL president is of the night he walked away.
EW: There was a farewell party on campus and I was up on stage with an Abba tribute group. There were several thousand students in front of me. Their hands were up in the air and they were singing, “Ed, we love you!”
Maybe the booze was talking, but ... my God! It was wonderful to leave on a note like that. I hadn’t met any of them, but they were proud of the campus. Proud of what had been achieved.