Jack O’Dwyer: pioneering industrialist committed to improving the lives of those around him

An Appreciation

On a fine day in 1951, John O’Dwyer snr brought his fourth child and third son to the train station in Waterford city. The journey in the family pony-and-trap was a short one, from Drumdowney, Slieverue, just outside the city in Co Kilkenny. That day John jnr, known affectionately as Jack or Seán to his family and friends, embarked on the 8,000 mile journey to start his new life in Salisbury, Rhodesia; as Jack reflected in later life, his 19-year-old self could not have pointed to Rhodesia on a map! Thus began the remarkable journey that spanned continents and decades.

Jack was born on February 14th, 1932, in Drombane, Tipperary, and the family moved five years later to Drumdowney, Kilkenny. One of 13 children of the late John and Mary O’Dwyer (née Keane), Jack and his siblings were instilled with a keen sense of value for education, hard work and loyalty to family. He attended De La Salle College before setting off for Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, where he dedicated 13 years of his life to the Rhodesian government civil service. During his time there, he honed the principles and values introduced in his early family years, excelling in his career and making lifelong friends; he took pride in launching and being elected president of the Civil Service Club in Salisbury and in establishing the first Mashonaland hurling club; he even had hurleys shipped out from Ireland!

Returning to Ireland in 1964, Jack was headhunted by and joined Desmonds & Sons clothing manufacturers in 1966, where he grew and modernised the business and led it to become one of the largest and most profitable in Northern Ireland. He rose to the position of deputy chairman, and owner Sir Denis Desmond acknowledges the role played by Jack in the success of the company, employing thousands in their nine factories, across Northern Ireland, during some of the most difficult years in the Troubles. He and his growing family settled in Derry, where he happily resided for his remaining 50-plus years.

Throughout his long and distinguished career, Jack balanced his professional pursuits with a commitment to public service and contributed in leading roles to the Industrial Development Board, the Local Enterprise Development Unit, the Enterprise Ulster Board, the NI Partnership and tirelessly sought opportunities to promote business growth and employment. Jack was a founding member and lifelong supporter of the Alliance Party, helping to foster cross-community peace and exemplifying his dedication to civic harmony. He was a justice of the peace. He chaired the Omagh Fund, set up following the 1998 atrocity, showing his empathetic leadership and compassion during a time of great need. His unwavering commitment to learning was evident in his leadership as University of Ulster pro-chancellor for 14 years; he received an honorary doctorate in 1997 in recognition of his significant contributions to education. He acted as treasurer for the Pushkin Trust, nurturing transformative, creative learning and education. Jack was a central protagonist in creating the Derry Diocese Priests Pension Fund, a testament to his foresight and commitment to the wellbeing of others. For a spell he had the great honour of being president of his beloved Ballyliffin Golf Club; he was a passionate sportsman throughout his life, even when restricted to watching in later years.

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His legacy is one of wisdom, centre-ground compromise and inclusive progress, at the core of which was his dedication to community, opportunity and advancement.

Jack, who died on January 14th, was a man of integrity and kindness; he was a natural conversationalist, with a joyful sense of humour, who loved nothing more than debating the issues of the day and even in his 90s, all visitors knew they would have an enriching chat in local and global politics and sport. He was an exceptional father, husband and professional who made a unique contribution to the lives of those around him. He was awarded the OBE in the 1970s and the CBE in the 1990s.

They say that behind every great man is a great woman; behind Jack was a “force of nature”. On a trip home from Rhodesia in 1954 Jack met the love of his life, Peggy Murphy, from Tullogher, Kilkenny. The two married in 1957 and went on to have six children. They celebrated 66 years of unity in 2023. Jack’s memory will forever be cherished by Peggy, his family, friends and the countless lives he touched throughout his life’s journey.

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