Beatty, Alfred Chester (1875–1968), mining engineer, art collector, and philanthropist, was born in New York on 7 February 1875, third son of John Cuming Beatty and his wife Hetty, daughter of William Gedney Bull. His paternal grandparents were born in Co. Armagh and Queen's Co. (Laois) respectively. He was educated at Westminster School, New York, and at Columbia University (school of mines), where he graduated in 1898 with an average 91 per cent in his final examinations. Travelling west to Denver, Colorado, he began his mining career as a ‘mucker’ or labourer. Within ten years he had progressed from foreman to supervisor to mine owner and millionaire. He paid, however, with his health; in 1910, suffering from silicosis, he was refused a life insurance policy. The following year his wife, Grace Madeleine (née Rickard), whom he married 18 April 1900, died of typhoid fever, leaving two young children. Beatty moved his family to London, and bought Baroda House in Kensington Palace Gardens. On 21 June 1913 he married the divorcee Edith Stone, daughter of John Dunne of New York. After a holiday in Egypt in 1914, Beatty found the dry climate so beneficial to his health that he returned almost annually until 1939 and bought a house in Cairo. From this base he built up his collection of Islamic books. A bibliophile, he had begun in the early years of the century with European books. An extended trip to Japan and China in 1917 saw him spend $50,000 enhancing his Far East collection.
In December 1914 he launched his own mining company, Selection Trust Ltd, which remained small until after the first world war, when it developed profitable interests in Russia, Serbia, the Gold Coast (now Ghana), and Sierra Leone, among other countries. It was primarily the exploitation of the copper belt in Northern Rhodesia that made Beatty's colossal fortune. As well as books, he spent this on snuff boxes, watches, and impressionist art, in which he built up one of the world's most valuable private collections. He was much influenced by his cultivated wife. A naturalised British citizen since 1933, he was fêted as a patron of the arts and philanthropist who generously endowed cancer research and financed a research institute at the Royal Marsden Hospital. During the second world war he served on a number of committees and gave valuable advice relating to his own field; however, he found the postwar situation uncongenial. Citing as his reasons the bureaucracy of the Labour government (which restricted, for instance, the amount of currency he could take abroad) and his strained relations with the British Museum, which he considered ungrateful, he determined to leave London for Dublin in 1949. His son had recently bought Mount Armstrong House in Donadea, Co. Kildare, and Beatty had a good impression of Dublin from a visit in 1937. He was also influenced by Ireland's lower income tax and by the enthusiastic and cooperative attitude of Irish government officials to his projected move. After first transporting his c.9,000 books, weighing thirty-five tons, packed in 250 boxes, by plane to Dublin and housing them in a Grafton St. warehouse, he moved into his new house at 10 Ailesbury Road in May 1950, aged 75, having handed over the chairmanship of Selection Trust to his son. His librarian, publisher, bank manager, book restorer, and their families moved with him. However, his wife, from whom he had been estranged for a number of years, remained in London.
The departure of one of its wealthiest men caused consternation in London, and delight in Dublin. He was none the less knighted in 1954. In Ireland he began as he meant to go on, with a large bequest: the National Gallery of Ireland received ninety-three French paintings in September 1950. His comments on Ireland were invariably appreciative: ‘Ireland is the best country in the world in which to retire. The country has atmosphere – the people have so much charm. Life goes on as it did elsewhere until 1939’ (Irish Tatler & Sketch, May 1956). Such warmth, taken with his good humour, generosity, and fascinating conversation (which ranged from Wild West mining camps to Biblical papyri), made him a media darling. In his eighteen years in Ireland he featured in over 250 articles with such headlines as: ‘The copper king with the heart of gold’.
The Irish government did not disappoint him, and removed where it could the ‘red tape, regimentation and controls’ (Daily Telegraph, 10 July 1956) which he claimed had plagued his life in England. He was exempt from the exchange rules limiting the amount of currency he could take abroad, as well as import tax on his foreign purchases. Ministers came to expect his phone calls with schemes on how to boost the economy. After arranging for Selection Trust engineers to examine the Avoca copper mines, he recommended their closure and was disappointed that his advice was ignored and the mines kept open at a loss. It suited his sense of consequence to have the ear of presidents and prime ministers, and he became good friends with de Valera (qv) and Seán T. O'Kelly (qv). When the latter's house in Wicklow burnt down with his library in it, Beatty bought 1,200 new books, four oak bookcases, and a bookplate from the genealogical office and presented them on O'Kelly's next birthday.
His gifts to the nation included oriental weapons and armoury to the military museum of the Curragh camp, Co. Kildare, further paintings and drawings to the National Gallery of Ireland, and numerous loans to exhibitions. He was foremost benefactor to the Wireless for the Blind fund. His greatest endowment was the Chester Beatty library, for which he bought a site at 20 Shrewsbury Road, Dublin. It opened privately 8 August 1953, and the following year (11 August 1954) was opened to the public on Wednesdays. To house his ever-growing collection – in the 1950s and 1960s he bought 800 Japanese woodblock prints and, to please de Valera, numerous sixteenth-century Jesuit publications – he added an extension on 24 August 1957.
Ireland responded by heaping him with honours: he received honorary doctorates from Dublin University (1951) and the NUI (1951) and was made freeman of the city of Dublin (26 July 1956). On 7 August 1957, in what he called his proudest moment, he became the first honorary Irish citizen. Three years later he received a diplomatic passport, granting him immunity on his numerous voyages. He lived only four months each year in Dublin, spending most of the rest of the year in the south of France, claiming he could not endure an Irish winter.
He died in Monte Carlo on 19 January 1968, and was buried in Glasnevin cemetery on 29 January, following a state funeral at St Patrick's cathedral. He was the first person born outside Ireland to receive this honour, and the only private citizen. Predeceased by his wife and daughter, he was survived by his son and grandchildren. His library was left to a board of trustees to administer on behalf of the Irish people. In 1975 the government fulfilled a condition of the bequest by opening a new gallery, and on 7 February 2000 – the 125th anniversary of Beatty's birth – a new library for the collection was opened in the gardens of Dublin castle.