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Book Review

Tony Ryan – Ireland’s Aviator

By Richard Aldous

Gill and Macmillan 264 pp

It is worth saying, repeatedly, as we go into a hopeful economic recovery, that we produced Celtic Tigers in this country long before we actually had a Celtic Tiger. That is, ‘real Celtic Tigers’: business figures and pioneers with the drive and imagination to realise their dreams, enrich themselves and enrich many others, as well providing much needed employment. Yes, we produce rock stars, poets, and world class sports figures, which is not bad for a rainy little island of about 6.4  million people, but we also produce world class business figures, which is even more impressive, given the country’s relative historic poverty and the fact that the industrial revolution seem to pass us by.

But that may well be why we produced such individuals of entrepreneurial spirit and drive. We had to hone such skills, just to survive. With little natural resources to squander, and no colonies to plunder, we had to get by on our wits, ingenuity and sheer hard work. And certainly this is the story of Tony Ryan, a working class boy from Limerick Junction, and later Thurles, who began work in Aer Lingus and rose through the ranks before creating his own highly successful aviation business Guinness Peat Aviation and then set up a fledgling airline, the now hugely successful Ryanair. The real crucible for Ryan was working in the Shannon Free Zone, an early example of the State’s clever thinking on low tax zones- and long may it continue.

Tony Ryan was not just a world class businessman but, in what is surely a remarkable consequence, two of  his closest lieutenants, Denis O’Brien and Michael O’Leary, would go on to also become world class business people, in separate spheres. Indeed, the coincidence is even more remarkable. Having worked for Ryan, who revolutionised aircraft leasing internationally, O’Brien went on to do the same with global phone networks and O’Leary went on to do the same with international air travel, an idea that Ryan began. So it’s an Irish success story – in multiple!

Surprisingly the author, Richard Aldous, doesn’t make more of this comparison. Ryan’s first forays into far flung and often dangerous places to lease aircrafts, directly resembles the forays of Denis O’Brien’s Digicel in the Caribbean and in Asia. But this is a necessarily concise biography done with the cooperation of the Ryan family and Aldous does a masterful job of cramming a lot in, with a highly readable and compelling style. Indeed, it is an inspirational read and should be required reading for all those interested in modern Ireland as it emerges from crisis and builds on recovery. The sheer spirit and adventurer of Ryan is intriguing.

But Aldous doesn’t shirk from giving a rounded picture of Tony Ryan, who could also be a difficult and stubborn figure, not least in dealing with international bankers and colleagues. He also describes with the disastrous initial flotation of the Guinness Peat Aviation in which Ryan almost wiped out all his hard won fortune. Still strange is the degree to which Ryan persisted with this flotation even when all the indicators were against its success. But with typical grit he eventually recovered much of his losses and the company was saved.

Aldous doesn’t dwell on the reactions of the GPA directors and investors, many of whom had big losses, and many of whom had come from the top tier of Irish officialdom, along with former Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald. The book also deals with Ryan’s other interests, including his generosity to cultural projects, a trait unusual, alas, among our business community. There was Ryan’s loving restoration of Lyons demesne in Kildare, the GPA literature prize and his support for the Hunt Museum in Limerick. Aldous also deals with Ryan’s family life and many relationships, be they platonic, business or romantic.

But the book reminds also of Ryan’s real legacy, which is the breaking down of monopolies and the opening up to competition for business and choice and good value for the consumer, be it in air travel or anything else in life. This is such a given now that we take it for granted. But Aldous reminds us of how restrictive and unfair were such monopolies. In fairness, Desmond O’Malley is described here as being way ahead of time, as Minister, in wanting such competition and choice. By contrast, the Labour party resisted the licensing of independent radio stations in the 1980s and then insisted that they have a State shareholding!

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Such a mindset still exists in Ireland, but thankfully it doesn’t prevail. Today, half of the world’s commercial aircraft are managed from Ireland, where nine out of the ten top aircraft leasing companies are based. They employ thousands and sponsored the recent highly successful and popular Flightfest over Dublin. This is the late Tony Ryan’s real legacy, a small island country looking to the skies and punching above its weight on the world stage.