AS he steps down from the chairmanship of the Irish National Stud after 10 years, the time seems appropriate to record the remarkable life and times of Dr Matt Dempsey.
While ministers for agriculture may come and go, Matt Dempsey endures and is possibly the best known name in Irish agriculture. However outside of a small circle, little is known of his private life. So we felt very privileged to be invited to take afternoon tea at Griffin Rath, the home of Matt and Mary Dempsey, for the pages of The Irish Field.
Griffin Rath, which is near Celbridge, was bought by Matt’s grandfather just over a hundred years ago. The Dempseys were always a strong farming family and his grandfather was awarded the RDS medal for malting barley as far back as 1906. Set in the rolling acres of Kildare with the Pale running close by, it has been home to Matt and Mary Dempsey since 1988.
Then as now Griffin Rath is a substantial property with the earliest part of the house dating back to the 1600s when it was part of the Carton Estate, owned by the Dukes of Leinster. Prominent on the Dempsey bookshelves, I noticed a work on the life of Silken Thomas, one of the more famous members of the Leinster family. Unfortunately Silken Thomas fell foul of Henry VIII and suffered a grisly end at the tender age of 24 at Tyburn.
In the intervening century, the Dempseys have been farming, hunting, point-to-pointing and all that is good in country life. Matt and Mary took over Griffin Rath when he was already well established with the Irish Farmers Journal.
As we arrived, first to greet us even before the dogs, was Matt’s hunter, Charlotte, in the front paddock. She is officially roughed off for the summer after a busy hunting season with the Kildares. Notwithstanding that, Matt rides out most days and does his herding and crop management off horseback. To facilitate catching, his farming and riding out coat always has a copious supply of horse nuts in the pockets.
Matt, has a CV which would be hard to equal, editor of the Irish Farmers Journal from 1988 to 2013, currently chairman of the Agricultural Trust (which owns both the Irish Farmers Journal and The Irish Field,) chairman of ACOT which became Teagasc, president of the Irish Grassland Society and much more.
However his CV goes far beyond the realms of agriculture. A keen hunting man, Matt was chairman of the Kildare Hunt Club (owners of Punchestown racecourse) during a crucial time and president of the RDS and is currently chairman of the Irish National Stud and formerly chairman of the National Gallery so we had a very full agenda indeed to discuss, all the while enjoying Mary’s delicious scones.
Mary (née O’Reilly) was also in journalism working for The Irish Horseman,sadly no longer published, when they met. Romance blossomed and the couple went on to get married. While their nine children (three sons and six daughters) have made their own lives and live elsewhere, Griffin Rath remains very much a family home with an air of elegant informality. The substantial farm is very much run on commercial grounds with beef and tillage as Matt records weekly in his popular Viewpoint column with the Irish Farmers Journal.
Education and early career
Having been educated by the Jesuits at nearby Clongowes Wood, Matt decided to study Agriculture at UCD. In 1969 he graduated with first class honours but perhaps more importantly, he had shone as a debater within the Ag Soc and with the revered L&H (literary and historical) debating society.
While most, if not all, Ag Science graduates at that time would have found their way to the advisory services, Matt’s career was about to take a different route. I asked how it came about it
“Journalism was totally accidental. I did Ag Sc in UCD intending to return home but during my finals I was offered a job in RTÉ radio as producer of the Farming Programmes by Joe Murray who succeeded Justin Keating as Head of Ag in RTÉ. A wonderful man of great capacity and integrity and a terrific boss.”
Matt was to spend three years with RTÉ before making the move to the Irish Farmers Journal around 1973 to cover EEC Affairs and also farming tax issues, both of which were new areas of interest for the paper at the time.
The Irish Farmers Journal was then edited by Paddy O’Keeffe, who became a very influential figure in making Matt the outstanding agricultural journalist he is today.
The history of the Irish Farmers Journal is worthy of an article all on its own. It had been founded as a farming publication in the late 1940s by Macra na Feirme but when it hit a sticky patch, it was rescued by John Mooney, a Co Meath farmer.
The paper had achieved a very creditable circulation of 20,000 copies when Mooney was approached with a very substantial purchase offer by Thompson Newspaper group, the publishers of The Sunday Times.
However, in a gesture of extraordinary altruism, he turned the offer down and decided to give it to a non-profit charitable trust which would be run by a voluntary un-paid board which it still is to this day.
The Irish Farmers Journal
Paddy O’Keeffe, a dynamic Cork man, was chosen as its first editor under new management and he grew the circulation to over 65,000, a remarkable achievement by any standards. O’Keeffe had made the move from his native Cork to Dublin but brought a couple of good Cork hunters with him which were kept in livery and hunted with the Wards until a serious accident forced him out of the saddle.
A chance encounter in 1978 with Denis Corboy of the EU Dublin Office saw Matt seconded for a year to the EU Commission which obviously enhanced his profile and gave him invaluable contacts within the Commission. However this was but a brief sojourn as he returned to the Irish Farmers Journal the following year.
In 1988 Matt succeeded Paddy as editor of the Irish Farmers Journal, a role he filled with great distinction for 25 years until 2013. Matt recalls: “When I took over as editor, circulation was about 67,000 copies a week, we slowly increased it to over 70,000 helped by EU membership and the changing regulatory regime with which farmers had to keep up to date, as well as major crises such as Foot and Mouth and BSE.” This was achieved at a time when circulation of print media in general was in a serious decline.
During his tenure, Matt worked with close on 20 ministers for agriculture who came and went at the whim of the Taoiseach of the day. Many came with little or no agricultural background and it was to Matt they would have turned when they needed independent advice. He recalls many of them.
“Ministers... They were all very different. Mark Clinton, Jim Gibbons, Joe Walsh, Alan Dukes, Ray McSharry, all were enormously helpful and committed while I am always grateful to Austin Deasy who facilitated me becoming chairman of the Agricultural Institute and ACOT - the forerunner of Teagasc.”
The hardest working? “Probably Ivan Yates who could ring you any time from seven in the morning right up to midnight.”
Likewise IFA presidents came and went. Matt wouldn’t be drawn on them individually but agreed that he became firm friends with many, friendships that have endured to this day.
Acquistion of The Irish Field
Around the year 2003, The Irish Field, which had been published by The Irish Times, came up for sale and certainly needed a sporting white knight if the title were to survive. The Irish Field has had a long and illustrious history but on a commercial basis, it would most likely have gone the way of The Irish Horseman and so many other standalone equestrian publications without the support of The Agricultural Trust.
So it came about that the ‘Field’ moved from Fleet Street in the middle of Dublin to its present location in the Irish Farm Centre, under the inspired editorship of Leo Powell where it has continued to grow and prosper. It is looked on as the definitive voice of the horse, be it racing, breeding, equestrian or hunting in these islands.
Leo Powell takes up the story: “I have great reason to be indebted to Matt Dempsey as he was responsible for headhunting me to join The Agricultural Trust in advance of their acquisition of The Irish Field. To be offered the opportunity to fill the considerable shoes of Valentine Lamb, a legendary editor of this historic paper, was quite an honour and quite a challenge, a great leap of faith for Matt and the board.
“The Irish Field fitted well into the stable that had for so long been occupied by the Irish Farmers Journal, and was a chance for The Agricultural Trust to expand its publishing arm, something they have successfully done again and again since. Having Matt as my boss was ideal as he understood the equine and equestrian worlds, a big help to me in my early days.”
In 2010 Matt was honoured by his Alma Mater, UCD, by being conferred with a Doctorate of Science (honoris causa) by UCD, presented by Professor Maurice Boland of the College of Life Sciences. In his encomium, the professor traced Matt’s brilliant career so far, both in the Irish Farmers Journal but certainly not overlooking his commitment to the Kildare Hunt and to Punchestown racecourse.
Matt Dempsey after receiving his Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science from University College Dublin \ Irish Farmers Journal
But then Matt came from a strong hunting tradition, I asked to recall his early days. “My father was a very keen horseman so there were always some horses around. My first hunt was in Goatstown (now the centre of fashionable south Dublin), but then on the outskirts of the city. I fell off three times! We had a particularly successful hunter chaser, Miss Bernadette - called after my sister. She won numerous point-to-points and in one glorious 10 days won the Joseph O’Reilly at Fairyhouse and the following week at Punchestown won the Bishopscourt Cup for Kildare Farmers on the Tuesday and the following day, the La Touche over banks.”
I asked Matt to recall the great huntsmen of his youth and some great days. “Huntsmen? I suppose Jack Hartigan and Joe Lenehan (of the Kildares). But in my youth we kept well behind the masters and huntsmen! I was always a farmer member of the Kildare Hunt. We had a made covert on the land. Again, in my youth the earths were stopped the night before it was drawn. Doesn’t happen now!
“We had many great days with the Kildares, especially from Dunlavin when I jumped a five-bar gate (much to the disapproval of my father). A day that stands out was with the Scarteen from Hospital. Fortunately I rode a local horse as I don’t think any Kildare horse would have got round.” Though related to the Ryans of Scarteen by marriage, on the day in question which this reporter recalls even with the passage of time, there wasn’t much time for family chat. I think both Matt and I had a clear round!
Steady hand on the tiller
I went on to ask Matt how he undertook the chairmanship of Punchestown at a particularly difficult time. “A difficult period indeed. Patrick (Lord) Carew asked me a few days before the AGM if I would let my name go forward for chairman.
"I didn’t give it much thought and said why not? Little did I know what would follow! To put it at its mildest, there was a difference in approach between HRI and a majority of the Hunt on the future ownership of Punchestown.
“We got it sorted out eventually and David Mongey has been an outstanding chairman of Punchestown since. We both went guarantee for €250,000 each at one particularly difficult stage. I must pay tribute to our deceased colleague John Ross and my brother in-law Charles O’Reilly who subsequently became master and is now chairman of the Kildares. But the hunt now is totally united and relations with HRI are excellent. Dick O’Sullivan was utterly professional and a very effective manager of Punchestown.”
David Mongey was also at the helm when Punchestown met choppy waters. He takes up the story: “I have had the honour of knowing Matt Dempsey for over 20 years and during that time we served together in voluntary capacities on several boards and committees. One of those boards and committees was the Kildare Hunt Club which owns Punchestown. Matt was appointed chairman of the overall Kildare Hunt Club during a very difficult time in the history of the KHC. His role was both to lead the KHC committee and resolve the serious issues surrounding Punchestown and its relationship with Horse Racing Ireland and ultimately the KHC ownership of the racecourse.
“His leadership, experience, and integrity were the core values that Matt brought, along with others, in helping resolve the difficulties that the KHC and Punchestown was experiencing at the time. He was the right man in the right place at the right time. As you have already recorded, he put his hand into his pocket to help save Punchestown.”
Punchestown had been written off by many and they may well have been proven right but for the sporting altruism of Matt and David who, at short notice, put their money where it was needed.
Matt continued: “For the future, Punchestown is at the very top level of Irish equestrian venues and is consistently profitable. As regards racing in Ireland, I am no expert but media rights revenue is obviously very important for all tracks and flat racing still struggles to attract a mass audience, partly due to Ireland’s low population density, but we need a showcase for our hugely important internationally successful breeding industry.”
Taking up the RDS reins
Matt rose through the ranks of the Royal Dublin Society before being elected chairman in 2001 and going on to be RDS President - the highest office the Society can bestow.
“RDS... Having joined the board in the 90s, I became chairman of the RDS Board for 12 years before becoming President in 2013 for a three-year term. Looking back, at this remove, the building of over 100,000 sq. feet of offices during my term as chairman laid a longterm platform of financial viability. After that, the friends made and the various functions across the Arts, Science and Equestrian/Agricultural areas have created treasured memories. I remember one particular horse show we had as usual the chief of the Defence Forces to one of the lunches. We had a party from Samsung from Korea who were sponsoring some of the competitions. They could not believe, given their militaristic tradition, that the head of the Army was a guest and they were overwhelmed to be able to have their photograph taken with him! What price an Army that is respected rather than feared!
Aga Khan Day at the RDS 2015: The President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins, centre, and Matt Dempsey, RDS President, left, walk to present the Aga Khan Cup to Ireland after the Furusiyya FEI Nations Cup during the Discover Ireland Dublin Horse Show \ Cody Glenn / Sportsfile
“Obviously the pageantry and international credibility of the Dublin Horse Show and the incredible successes associated with the Young Scientist Exhibition as well as the launching of young musicians all have unforgettable resonance for me.
“The future?...The RDS will, DV, be 300 years in existence in 2031. Hopefully it will continue to evolve and stay true to its mission, to further the economy and social well-being of Ireland.”
Matt recalls his term as chairman of the National Gallery. “Because of the role of the RDS in founding the National Gallery, the RDS vice president and president are ex-officious members of the Board of the National Gallery, I was honoured to be made chairman of the Gallery Board in 2015 during my term as RDS President. A wonderful Irish institution with a wonderful collection and terrific staff.”
Irish National Stud
In 2013 Matt was appointed Chairman of the Irish National Stud by the “hard working and competent minister” Simon Coveney.
Again Leo Powell gives the background to Matt’s appointment. “Matt’s family and that of his wife Mary have many tentacles in the equine world and in hunting, one of Matt’s passions. The respect in which he was held was clearly exemplified with his appointment as chairman of the Irish National Stud. That came after a period of disquiet at Tully and he was handed the reins by Lady Chryss O’Reilly, a lady for whom I know he had great regard. His and the board’s foresight in hiring a relative unknown Cathal Beale, to take on the role of CEO was, at the time, seen as a brave move, but Cathal has repaid the faith shown in him, and today is highly regarded on the global stage.”
David Mongey recalls: “I also served with Matt as chairman of the Risk and Audit Committee of the Irish National Stud. Again, he took over the role as chairman when the INS was going through a difficult time. He put in place a new management team and through some very wise stock acquisitions, put in place some of the finest stallions and mares to service the needs of the stud. The stud has built on the success of Invincible Spirit, one of the most productive and successful stallions that the National Stud has ever had.”
Matt clearly takes his duties as chairman very seriously and I asked him could the National Stud remain relevant in these times with hugely successful commercial studs owned by people with unlimited resources?
“When you consider the Irish thoroughbred breeding sector is as big as Britain and France combined and the founding idea to make stallions widely available is as valid now as it was in 1947 (the stud passed into the ownership of the Irish State in 1947). It also serves as a valuable national showcase removed from controversy. I always remember Enda Kenny during his time as Taoiseach advising his hosts on his visit to the Middle East to go to the INS but we have had many senior and distinguished visitors (including the late Queen Elizabeth II) from all over the world and in my view, it adds to the country’s soft power. We hope to replace Invincible Spirit but during Cathal Beale’s term, the legacy has been built on and the income streams have become diversified.”
Perhaps no one has worked as close to Matt as Leo and he summed up Matt’s management style saying: “Having had the opportunity to attend many board lunches over the past two decades with a range of guests representing the worlds of agriculture, business, politics, diplomacy and more, I have always been struck by the wide knowledge Matt has on many and varied topics. You had better know your facts before entering into a discussion or debate with Matt - he always seems to have a trump card up his sleeve.”
True to form
Next to his family, Matt takes a great pride in the two publications which basically represent his great passions in life - agriculture and horses. I asked him what made the Irish Farmers Journal, recently awarded Media Brand of the Year, so successful, now being the largest agricultural publication in these islands with a weekly circulation topped only by The Sunday Independent.
After a little thought, Matt said: “Perhaps it is because we have remained true to our origins… ‘to enhance the competitiveness of Irish farming and the well-being of those involved in the sector and of course, devoting all profits to improving the service we give. There are no shareholders to be paid thanks to our Trust’s status’.”
The last word must go to David Mongey: “Matt is one of those true gentlemen who possesses a sharp intellect, a kind heart, and a Christian soul and has truly lived up to his old school motto, Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam.”