‘Roscommon can prosper on world stage – but you have to have the highway to get out!’

Gerald Farrell, a Castlerea native who became a major figure in the pharmaceutical industry, talks to Paul Healy about the GAA, how Roscommon can shine on the world stage…and how his father once rescued Joe Frazier!

We never meant to crash the wedding, and, in fairness, we didn’t.

  By the time the wedding guests had arrived and begun to socialise, we were probably the only two people in the then buzzing lobby who were discussing the pharmaceutical industry, a scary experience in Castlerea for world boxing champion Joe Frazier (I will explain), and how a global business can be run from a supposedly dying village in the heart of Roscommon.

  I had suggested to Gerald Farrell that we should meet in the warm and inviting new-look lobby of the Abbey Hotel. We had never met before.

  The 56-year-old Castlerea native, who lives in Dublin, recently retired from a successful career at a high level in the pharmaceutical industry, and was relaxing on his own in the lobby when I arrived for our appointment. It was quickly evident that the lobby would not be ours alone.

  I knew the red carpet wasn’t for the journalist and the Castlerea native.

  “There’s obviously a wedding due here” I said after our handshake. We agreed to order coffee, proceed with the interview and mind our business when the bride and groom arrived.

 While the ‘pharmaceutical world’ would take him to another world, he is relaxed, indeed enthused, when talking about Castlerea and his youth there.

  His father, Harry Farrell, was a very well-known Garda, who served in Ballymoe, Ballintubber and Castlerea, while his mother, Catherine, was a schoolteacher in Ballymoe.

  “My father was a Mayo man. He played for the Mayo minors and used to bring me to Mayo games. Apart from following the GAA, he had a big interest in horses, and at one point was chairman of the Connacht Showjumping Association. My mother was a national schoolteacher, in Ballymoe, and that’s where I went to school.”

  “Everyone knew Garda Farrell” he says of his father, while poignantly revealing that his dad was meant to have been in the patrol car with John Morley and Henry Byrne on the day they were murdered following a bank raid in 1980.

  Gerald’s dad was meant to be working that day but, due to a mix-up with the rota, had left home to go on a shopping trip when the Garda car called to collect him. A while later, Morley and Byrne were gunned down near Loughglynn. Garda Harry Farrell was a good friend of Morley in particular and was “badly shaken” by the tragedy.

  Gerald Farrell was born in 1959 and raised in the family home on the Ballindrimley Road, Castlerea. His memories of those times are fond ones.

  “In the late 1950s and the 1960s, Castlerea was a good market town. It was a popular shopping town which had so much to offer…cinemas, shops, schools, a Fair Day, all of these things brought people into Castlerea. The psychiatric hospital was a big employer.”

  Before going to school in Drimatemple NS, Ballymoe, Gerald had attended Mean Scoil Iosef Naofa, Castlerea (known as ‘Mary O’s’).

  Great friendships were formed and his memories of Castlerea are happy ones. “We played football on the streets” he recalls of an era long before the social media age, a time when children gravitated towards open fields and streets, rather than to a virtual world.

  He was a sports enthusiast, winning an All-Ireland Long Jump title in 1977, and, long before that milestone, falling under the spell of the GAA.

  “Danny Burke coached everyone in Castlerea” Gerald says when I mention the great Castlerea man, before going on to praise the phenomenal time and interest that Danny has devoted to Gaelic games.

  Playing with Castlerea GAA Club was a big part of Gerald’s youth, but, in a reference to the dominance in the 1970s of the club from the county town, he recalls wryly “we could never beat the Gaels!”

  Be that as it may, he remembers Castlerea stars fondly, guys like Mickey Freyne and Harry Keegan.

   College education was gained in NUIG, where he graduated with a Bsc Hons, and in UCC, where he gained a PhD in Plant Biotechnology. He had already decided that, while family members were “all teachers, or certainly civil servants, that was not for me.”

  After gaining his PhD he went to work in Canada as a Research Scientist for the Canadian Government.

   While ‘Canada’ was a good experience, Gerald wanted to get into the business side of the pharmaceutical industry.

  He subsequently returned to Ireland and joined a small bio-tech company in Dublin.

  In 1989, he married Mona, a Clare native. When he returned from their honeymoon, there was a new job offer – a chance to join Eli Lilly, an American global pharmaceutical company which was on the point of introducing the revolutionary Prozac drug to Ireland.

  He took a gamble, joined the company, and never looked back. He became National Sales Manager in Ireland, and rose through the ranks here and in the UK. Ultimately he was offered the role of MD in Ireland and served in that capacity from 2003 until 2015. The company which he headed employs about 1300 people in three locations in Ireland.

  “They were a great company to work with. I saw the world and I enjoyed my work” he reflects. 

  Gerald was President of the IPHA (Irish Pharmaceutical Healthcare Association) from 2008-2010.

  He is now working with a number of companies as a consultant and a board director. He is a non-executive director of Presbia, a medical device company which has developed a procedure to correct long-sightedness which does away with the need for reading glasses.

  Gerald says he can’t really understand why people buy drugs off the Internet. In the pharmaceutical industry, the most stringent standards apply (“you could eat your dinner off the floor of our manufacturing plants”) and he hails the tremendous positive impact new drugs have had in addressing health concerns in areas such as oncology, psychiatry, diabetes, etc.

  “Prior to the 1920s, being told you had diabetes was a death sentence. Medicines save lives now. Prozac, when introduced, immediately began to save lives.

  “People wonder about a cure for cancer…I think there’s an explosion of knowledge now in science and IT areas. It’s difficult (to answer the question on cancer). Will it be eradicated in ten years’ time? No. Will more people survive than now? Yes.”

  Nowadays, there’s more time to enjoy family life. Gerald and Mona have three children…Grace, Ruth and David. There’s also time to pursue other interests (slightly bashfully, perhaps because we’re basking in the glow of Connacht’s rise, he admits to being a Leinster season ticket holder!).

  Although both his parents passed away in 2013, he visits County Roscommon regularly and is keenly interested in its economic and sporting fortunes (he’s a keen Roscommon GAA supporter). 

  Two of Gerald’s sisters live locally. Mary lives in Donamon and Joan is in Clarinbridge, Co. Galway. Another sister, Cathy, is in Cork, and his brother, John, is based in London.

  Observing how towns and villages in rural Ireland are struggling, he’s well aware of the shop closures, the emigration, the fact that “Roscommon has one of the lowest rates of FDI (foreign direct investment).”

  He makes the point that a lot of Irish people are in senior positions with companies across the world. They, and their peers, are aware, he says, of the excellent education and skills of Irish people. Besides, he feels the “narrative” about rural Ireland can be simplistic, and says that reviving our fortunes is not all about tax breaks or initiatives, that towns and villages won’t be re-built in the traditional way. Instead, we need to think in a new way, one that truly embraces the Internet Age.

  He speaks of “local/global thinking” and stresses how anyone with a good idea can bring it to the world stage from the most remote part of Co. Roscommon. Well, he does concede that good broadband is essential but, in reference to Denis Naughten’s recent appointment to Cabinet, adds wryly “you have the right man in the right place.”

  “People need to be allowed to start and fail and start again. It doesn’t matter where you are, but you have to have the highway to get out…!”

  He points to our good, affordable housing, good schools and quality of life. People “don’t want to be stuck in a commute.” For reasons such as these, people will remain in Roscommon, and others will move here. His message is positive. Emigrants can be tempted back to enjoy Roscommon’s quality of life and to pursue successful careers, availing of the opportunities provided by the Internet Age. Local/global thinking will see more small businesses being brought to the world stage from our smallest villages.

  The lobby in the Abbey Hotel is filling up with wedding guests. We have reached the ‘Joe Frazier story.’ Frazier is the legendary former world heavyweight boxing champion who will forever be linked in public consciousness with his great foe, Muhammad Ali.

  Bizarre it may seem, but Frazier briefly toured Ireland with a band back in the 1970s. It was “an exotic occasion” when Joe and his band – ‘The Knockouts’ – arrived to perform at The Casino Ballroom in Castlerea. A huge crowd turned out to see the boxing superstar turned ballroom singer. But all would not go smoothly. Gerald’s recall is that the admission fee was increased and this did not go down well with some of the fans. Ructions started at the entrance to the ballroom.

  “When the trouble started, my dad (then a Garda in town) was sent for. Joe Frazier was in his dressing room, shivering with fear! My dad rescued him and took him to the barracks in Castlerea. He was very grateful!”

  While I’m still visualising the man who, with Ali, survived the most epic fights in boxing history, cowering in a Castlerea ballroom, the bride and groom arrive in the lobby beside us.

  They’re starting a new future together in Roscommon, and, from chatting to this proud Castlerea native, I’m left in no doubt that there’s a bright future to be enjoyed here.

  We didn’t crash the wedding; we left as quietly as Joe Frazier slipping out of Castlerea…