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Billy Vincent’s pioneering spirit will live on forever

A LIFE LESS ORDINARY: In the first in a new series chronicling the stories of remarkable people who lived remarkable lives, KillarneyToday.com reflects on the life and times of the late Billy Vincent, a hugely accomplished philanthropist who, despite his great success in life, never forgot his roots in Muckross, Killarney

Billy Vincent at a re-dedication and rebuilding of one of his family’s boats, The Elizabeth Rose, at Muckross Rowing Club Killarney some years ago.
Picture: Valerie O’Sullivan

OVER a number of years, students from the three Killarney secondary schools accepted awards for demonstrating commitment to the local environment and dedication to issues of social justice and they did so to honour the memory of a dynamic business tycoon and philanthropist who devoted much of his life to improving and promoting their town.

Pupils from Killarney Community College, St Brigid’s Secondary School and St Brigid’s Secondary School shared the Billy Vincent Memorial Award which was designed as a tribute to a man whose family donated the incredible gift of Muckross House and Gardens to the State and its people.

The students involved worked on projects to improve their local community and they were recognised for their understanding of the wonders of the natural environment and their sense of social justice – traits that Vincent held dear and exhibited regularly throughout his long and fascinating life.

Arthur William Bourn Vincent – who preferred to be addressed simply as Billy – firmly believed that the first 13 years of his life in Muckross laid the foundations for his successes in adulthood.

He was a grandson of William Bowers Bourn who owned the hugely successful Empire Gold Mine and Spring Valley Water Company in California before he purchased Muckross House.

The 11,000-acre park and the Victorian mansion is now one of the country’s most precious tourism jewels, attracting tens of thousands of visitors every year with the obvious exception of 2020.

Muckross House and Gardens: Gifted to the State

The property, which dates back to 1843 and had been previously owned by the Herbert family, was the base for Queen Victoria when she visited Killarney in 1861.

Although the Bourn Vincent family travelled extensively, they always regarded Muckross and Killarney as their home and they invested huge sums of money maintaining and improving the property which overlooks the Lakes of Killarney.

Displaying incredible generosity, the family donated Muckross House and Gardens to the Irish State in 1932, three years after the death, caused by pneumonia, of the then 10-year-old Billy’s mother Maud at the age of 44.

In December of that year, the government through the Commissioners of Public Works accepted responsibility for maintaining and managing the park for the purpose of the recreation and enjoyment of the general public. The extraordinary gift to the people became part of Ireland’s first national park with Billy Vincent’s childhood home at the heart of it.

The carved oak memorial to the late Billy Vincent in Muckross

Although he lived between California and Cannes, in the south of France, and in Monte Carlo in the latter years of his life, Billy Vincent maintained closes ties with Muckross and he was a very regular visitor to Killarney until the mid-2000s when his health began to fail.

Despite the clipped Oxford accent, he was pure Irish and Kerry in the best sense.

He was the patron of the successful Muckross Rowing Club – the oldest in the country – and donated a number of top class racing boats which are used at various regattas by club crews.

A Cambridge University graduate, he fought with the Fusiliers in World War II and rose to the rank of captain while serving on the frontline in Italy as well as spells in India, Persia and Iraq. After the war, he joined the Hiller Aircraft Corporation and he later invested successfully in oil exploration.

Billy, who played a key role in the development of the Ireland Fund and was a personal friend of Prince Albert of Monaco, was described as “an extraordinary character” by influential Irish-American journalist and publisher Niall O’Dowd who first encountered the Muckross man in 1979 when he set about starting his first newspaper in San Francisco.

Official State papers documenting the handover of Muckross House and Gardes to the State in 1932

Billy invested in the cash-strapped venture and encouraged other business interests to do likewise and it enabled the publishing project to survive and prosper.

“He refused to take the money back. I will never forget him. He was as patriotic and decent an Irishman as you would ever meet.” O’Dowd later remarked.

Billy Vincent died in October 2012, at the age of 93, when he was survived by his wife Elizabeth and son Marc. Following a memorial service in St Mary’s Church of Ireland in Killarney, his ashes were interred alongside his father, Senator Arthur Rose Vincent, in the family grave at Killegy, Killarney, overlooking the sprawling Muckross Estate.

A memorial to the great man was unveiled in Muckross by the then Minister for the Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Jimmy Deenihan, in June 2013.

The striking memorial was crafted by German sculptor, Rolf Hook, from a large piece of 300-year old oak that from a tree that fell near Muckross House.

The 3.5m long and 1.8m sculpture features a heart and a butterfly representing Billy’s generosity and kindness and his gentleness.

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