O’Keeffe, Paddy (1923–2013), editor, businessman and farmer, was born on 6 May 1923 at Duntaheen, near Fermoy, Co. Cork, the eldest child of two sons and a daughter of John O’Keeffe, farmer of Duntaheen, and his wife Margaret (née Ahearne). After attending CBS Fermoy, he boarded at Athenry Agricultural College, Co. Galway, where he showed himself to be precocious and impudent. He then undertook a two-year pre-university course at the Albert Agricultural College, Dublin, before entering UCD, from where he graduated B.Agr.Sc. (1946). Uninterested in playing second fiddle to his father in running the family farm, he left that to his younger brother Philip, who ultimately took it over.
He was working as an agricultural adviser in Co. Louth when he accepted an invitation in 1947 from his old UCD professor, Edmund Sheehy, to review the lossmaking Portrane and Grangegorman hospital farms, totalling 1,600 acres in Co. Dublin. His report exposed blatant inefficiencies in an operation carelessly supervised by civil servants and local politicians. He was given a four-year management contract but needed just two to turn the farms around. This achievement brought him to the fore of a movement, centred on the young farmers organisation, Macra na Feirme (‘Macra’), that sought to lift Irish agriculture out of its torpor.
Through his involvement with Macra, where he sat on the executive, and with the Irish Grassland Society (IGS), where he was secretary and later president, he impressed wealthy, likeminded individuals. One such, John Mooney (qv), asked him to embark upon overhauling Macra’s ailing newsletter, the fortnightly Irish Farmers’ Journal, into a repository of technical advice, price information and pointed commentary. Despite lacking experience in journalism, O’Keeffe agreed whereupon Mooney bought the Journal in mid-1951. That November O’Keeffe became joint editor alongside the other full-time employee, the radio broadcaster, Michael Dillon (qv), who stepped down within a year. Two months previously O’Keeffe had married Anne O’Connor from Kanturk, Co. Cork. They lived in Ballybane, Co. Dublin, and had one son and three daughters.
Operating from a tiny office in the basement of the Pepper Cannister Church at Mount Street Crescent, Dublin, O’Keeffe toiled on a limited budget producing poorly printed, designed, and sub-edited weekly issues of eight pages. Macra volunteers did the selling and distributing for free. The early material was mostly either culled from foreign publications or rendered begrudgingly by poorly paid contributors. As circulation grew slowly from under 2,000 copies an issue, the venture bled cash until autumn 1952 when new recruit Jack Carmody showed a knack for wooing advertisers. O’Keeffe soon had enough money to hire more staff and a better printing company, and relocated his expanding operation to Earlsfort Terrace, Dublin. The first official circulation audit in 1954 put weekly sales at 15,000, mainly to young farmers. This figure, and the associated profits, rose inexorably, as he built a team, eventually sixty-strong, that delivered comprehensive, reliable, and ever more specialised coverage. By 1960 the Journal was firmly established as Ireland’s leading farming periodical.
The Journal encapsulated O’Keeffe’s vision of agriculture as an efficiently scaled, technocratic industry, unencumbered by the official doctrine of self-sufficiency and by the sentimentalism surrounding small-scale husbandry. Championing dairying as the best use for grass, he beseeched farmers to make the most of Ireland’s fertile grassland with its capacity for enabling the cheap production of beef, lamb and milk. He was evangelical about applying science to farming, being especially knowledgeable about grassland management and animal breeding. The Journal benefited from the relations he formed with the more forward-thinking experts in the state farm research entity, the Agricultural Institute, established in 1958.
O’Keeffe’s editorials condemned the Department of Agriculture for its conservatism, penny-pinching and attempts to perpetuate an economically unsustainable small farm framework. The Journal broke stories that embarrassed the department, most notably in reports spanning several decades on the ineffectiveness of its cattle disease eradication initiatives. He clashed with successive ministers for agriculture, as the Journal vaunted itself as ‘fearlessly on the farmer’s side’. Other recurring targets included food processors, the veterinary profession, trade unions, the Land Commission, semi-state companies and local politicians on the county committees of agriculture.
The predominant note was one of aspirational uplift with laudatory profiles of modernising farmers being one of his staples; so too was reporting on the more advanced methods used in places such as Denmark, the Netherlands and New Zealand. His clipped, propulsive prose briskly dispatched errant practices and policies before pointing the way ahead, simplifying for the purposes of exhortation. He successfully pushed issues like the eradication of pests; EEC membership; the benefits of silage, clover and artificial insemination; the replacement of cattle fairs with marts; and the encouragement of borrowing and land leasing. In the mid-1950s he undermined a ban on Landrace pigs by having one smuggled across the border.
Brash yet bereft of self-importance, he was a short, stocky livewire capable of inspiring those around him. He always erred on the side of optimism, dismissing those who were more cautious, though his mischievous wit and bonhomie usually enabled him to indulge his relish for heated debate without forfeiting friendships. His packed work schedule routinely necessitated his writing and editing parts of the Journal while en route to, and even at, the printers. A relentless networker-cum-socialiser, he gave lectures and chaired farm debates, accumulating contacts in Ireland and beyond, spanning farming, business, the state sector, academia, and politics. Holidays, including his honeymoon, took in inspections of foreign farms. The public knew him as the host for much of the 1950s and 1960s of Farmer’s Forum, Radio Éireann’s farmer discussion programme.
The politics of farming
Upon the formation of the multi-commodity, non-party political National Farmers’ Association (NFA) in 1955 – a development that O’Keeffe did much to encourage – the Journal stopped being Macra’s organ while granting it and the newly established association an official page each. Initially the NFA, which had its headquarters in the same premises, relied heavily on the Journal’s expertise; later the Journal benefited from the services of the NFA’s economics office. In 1963 Mooney transferred all his shares in the Journal to a tax-exempt charitable trust with all profits going back into the newspaper and the NFA getting half the seats on the board. O’Keeffe continued to run the Journal as he pleased, effectively setting the farming agenda.
O’Keeffe tempered his criticisms of the government after the appointment of his friend Charles Haughey (qv) as minister for agriculture in 1964. Haughey worked with the NFA in implementing transformative initiatives long promoted by O’Keeffe, including a creamery consolidation programme and the importation of Charollais beef cattle. Haughey’s ability was such that O’Keeffe overlooked his venality; he even facilitated Haughey’s acceptance of a £10,000 bribe in the early 1960s.
From summer 1966 relations between the Fianna Fáil government and the NFA soured over collapsing produce prices. O’Keeffe always fell in behind the NFA, but his editorial policy of urging compromise on both sides provoked NFA members into burning copies of the Journal at one rally. When an NFA delegation camped outside Haughey’s office in November 1966, O’Keeffe brokered a short-lived truce between Haughey and NFA president Rickard Deasy (qv). He blamed both men for what he believed was an unnecessary conflict, which climaxed in early 1967 with illegal farmer roadblocks and mass arrests. That spring the new minister for agriculture Neil Blaney (qv) reacted to the Journal’s unreserved criticisms of his hard-line stance by banning his department from advertising there. This boosted the Journal’s credibility without diminishing its revenues.
The business of farming
Weekly circulation was then approaching 70,000 copies while editions of up to eighty pages were proving insufficient to accommodate demand for advertising. From 1965 its image quality benefited from the services of Ireland’s first web-offset lithography printing press after O’Keeffe and Mooney had invested personally in the Journal’s new printing contractor. O’Keeffe secured a green-field site at Bluebell, Co. Dublin, for his growing newspaper in 1968 and convinced the NFA and almost all the other important farm organisations to move there also. Made head of the cooperative formed by these participating organisations to develop the projected Farm Centre, he obtained the necessary loans, despite the countervailing intrigues of Haughey in his new role of minister for finance.
In 1967 the NFA founded an investment cooperative, Farmers’ Business Developments (FBD). As its chairman, O’Keeffe directed various farm-related investments and raised money for an FBD controlled insurance company that would be the first to tailor its policies for the under-insured, relatively low-risk farming community. Some 2,800 farmers invested £187,500 with another £62,500 coming from the Belgian farmer insurance company Assurances de Borenborg Belge (ABB), which provided technical advice. The government threw up assorted regulatory obstacles before granting FBD a general insurance licence in May 1970. A mismanaged FBD Insurance was though overwhelmed by the volume of business and suffered heavy underwriting losses, obliging O’Keeffe, its non-executive chairman, to devote much time to it. Matters improved once Brian Colivet became chief executive in spring 1971. FBD Insurance cultivated customer relationships based on mutual trust, piggybacking initially on the NFA’s branch premises and grassroots knowledge. O’Keeffe helped build farmer confidence by keeping executive pay within bounds and stipulating that board members be paid for expenses only.
Holding all the threads
Occurring as Ireland’s imminent entry into the Common Market aligned the interests of farmers and government around securing subsidies from Brussels, the opening in 1972 of the 50,000 square foot Farm Centre signalled the farm lobby’s organisational strength and newfound political clout. The ensuing EEC subsidy-fuelled farming bonanza pushed the Journal’s yearly profits beyond £300,000 in the late 1970s by when it was recognised as the great Irish publishing success of its day. (O’Keeffe sought to gain directly from the higher milk prices by turning the 130-acre tillage farm he had bought in 1967 at Ballydague in Ballyhooley, Co. Cork, into a dairy operation, which he managed by telephone.) Having acquired a broader farming readership, along with access to the apex of power, O’Keeffe grew more circumspect as editor, but shirked neither from controversy nor from telling his readers hard truths.
The Farm Centre-headquartered FBD Insurance was similarly flush, and from the mid-1970s invested an alarming proportion of its funds in farmland, property development and oil exploration. O’Keeffe masterminded this much-criticised strategy, which delivered enough winners, particularly in property development where the farm lobby’s political muscle told to good effect. In 1969 the trust controlling the Journal was renamed the Agricultural Trust and its remit expanded to include funding agricultural education and research. This allowed O’Keeffe to channel funds to FBD investment vehicles and the often cash strapped NFA, which was renamed the Irish Farmers Association (IFA) in 1971. There were rumours of O’Keeffe and other Farm Centre principals holding secret investments in FBD-backed ventures, as money flowed readily between Farm Centre entities with the Agricultural Trust being the cash cow. O’Keeffe dominated the building, overshadowing even the IFA presidents. Yet he never dominated the IFA – its internal politics, which the Journal refrained from covering, was too tumultuous for that.
Affairs of state
His influence peaked during the 1973–7 Fine Gael–Labour coalition government thanks to his friendships with the minister for agriculture, Mark Clinton (qv), and the minister for industry and commerce, Justin Keating (qv). Especially close to, and admiring of, his near neighbour Clinton, O’Keeffe lauded him in the Journal and guided him on policy and media relations. O’Keeffe was appointed to the board of the RTÉ Authority (1973–9), where he pressed, not entirely successfully, for positive coverage of farming. He also achieved his ambition of becoming chairman of the Agricultural Institute (1973–9); excelling in this role he orientated the Institute more towards researching grass strains, milk production and the development of dairy products without unduly antagonising a recalcitrant workforce.
At O’Keeffe’s behest, Clinton integrated the Agricultural Institute with the farm advisory services, installing him as chairman of the newly unified farm authority in summer 1977, only for the incoming Fianna Fáil government to effect an immediate repartitioning. Although the Journal was neutral between the two main parties, Fianna Fáil mistrusted O’Keeffe: he was too powerful and independent-minded, and his political connections were skewed towards Fine Gael, the traditional party for large farmers. The issue of farmer taxation then diminished his influence further by poisoning relations between the farm lobby and the government. In the late 1970s, moreover, O’Keeffe irritated most of his readers by unsuccessfully pushing a tax based on land value that would have suited intensive dairy producers more than other farmers.
The 1982–7 Fine Gael-led government appointed Journal staffer Matt Dempsey chairman of both the Agricultural Institute and the farm advisory services and made O’Keeffe chairman of the review group on Ireland’s forests (1984–5) and chairman of Bord na gCapall (1983–7), the body responsible for the non-thoroughbred horse industry. (A keen huntsman, otherwise uninterested in sport, he rode with the South County Dublin and Ward Union hunts until 1987, when he was lucky to make a full recovery from breaking his neck in a fall.) He steadied a Bord na gCapall beset by scandal and infighting but could not prevent the government from starving it of funds before abolishing it in 1987. Reflecting his longstanding advocacy of tree planting to farmers in areas with poor soil, the forestry group’s report prefigured subsequent policy by recommending the creation of a stand-alone state forestry service with responsibility for encouraging private afforestation.
These appointments did not stop him from continuing to decry the tax and spend programmes pursued by a succession of alternating Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael–Labour governments from 1977, mainly because the ensuing increases in inflation and interest charges further depressed an ailing farm sector. This culminated in his endorsement of the pro-free market Progressive Democrats (PD) party founded in 1985. He also shared the PD’s social liberalism and in a personal capacity publicly opposed the anti-abortion amendment to the constitution in 1983. His editorial policy intensified anti-incumbency sentiment among farmers in the four general elections held during 1981–7. Having assailed Haughey during his earlier terms as taoiseach (1979–81, 1982), O’Keeffe lauded him throughout his final period in power (1987–1992) for enforcing swingeing budget cuts. They had always maintained good personal relations despite their frequent political differences.
Blotting the copybook
The Journal weathered the long 1980s farming slump well, its weekly circulation declining gently from a peak of over 80,000. Far more damage was done by O’Keeffe’s failed molasses import venture, Co-operative Molasses Traders Ltd (CMTL). Launched in 1977 with money from O’Keeffe, 140 farmer-customers, FBD Insurance, and some anonymous investors, this heavily loss-making operation was persevered with from 1979 in the hope that its finances would be restored by the lawsuit taken against the builder of CMTL’s leaky storage facilities at Limerick Docks. This delay allowed FBD Insurance to exit unscathed while CMTL was propped up with loans from the Agricultural Trust. When the lawsuit produced an inadequate settlement in summer 1984, the Agricultural Trust lost at least £1 million, denuding the reserves set aside for the Journal’s further expansion.
Along with the other Agricultural Trust directors, O’Keeffe disclaimed any knowledge of the loans and blamed John Deegan who was manager of CMTL and the trust’s secretary and financial controller. O’Keeffe’s denial beggared belief given Deegan had for long been his Farm Centre fixer. Deegan extracted improved severance terms after threatening legal action against his employers. As this fiasco unfolded, FBD Insurance adopted a more conventional investment strategy.
A busy retirement
Relinquishing the editorship in summer 1988, O’Keeffe then served as the Journal’s chief executive before becoming chairman of the Agricultural Trust in 1993. From 1991 he enlightened and provoked readers with a weekly opinion column in the Journal. He was made an honorary life member of the RDS (1988) and received an honorary doctorate from the NUI (1990). IFA chief executive Michael Berkery filled the vacuum left in Farm Centre. Wearying of the infighting among the elected IFA officials, O’Keeffe had abetted Berkery in creating a powerful IFA management capable of providing the farm lobby with leadership continuity.
In the early 1990s he moved residence to his enlarged 200-acre farm at Ballyhooley, Co. Cork, where he overcame early setbacks to more than treble his 200-cow herd’s milk yields between 1973 and 2000. He then leased his farm until 2012 to Teagasc, the state farm research body. He resigned as chairman of FBD Insurance in 1996 by when it held eight per cent of the Irish general insurance market, boasted over 400 employees across fifty branches and was an important contributor to IFA revenues. His substantial shareholdings in FBD and FBD Insurance matured into valuable investments amid a series of bonus dividend payments in the 2000s: one made in 2007 earned him €348,850.
After his wife’s death in early 2011, he married Jane O’Callaghan (née McMahon), a widow, in October 2012; she owned the Longueville House Hotel in Mallow, Co. Cork. He was still attending farming research forums, writing columns, and chairing the monthly Irish Farmers’ Journal board meetings right up to his peaceful and sudden death in his Ballyhooley residence on 13 January 2013. His remains were donated to medical science following a humanist service held in the Cork Marts complex near Fermoy. A tenor sang ‘Nessun dorma’ at the service in recognition of his love of opera. In 2015 Teagasc opened its new Paddy O’Keeffe Innovation Centre for the Advancement of Grassland and Dairying at Moorepark, Co. Cork.