Hugh Green’s naming as joint Donegal person of the year last week completes a journey started more than 60 years ago.
From humble beginnings in Raphoe and Letterkenny, Hugh rose to become one of the wealthiest people in his adopted home of New Zealand, making his fortune in construction, development and land. He has made it into rich lists in both the country of his birth and his adopted home with a fortune estimated at over €120 million.
He left his family home in Letterkenny at the age of 19 for Austraila and only stopped off in New Zealand on what was supposed to be a trip home via Canada. After amassing a fortune he has given much of his wealth away through his charitable trust. Last year he donated €200,000 to Letterkenny General Hospital for a special training academy.
The 80-year-old has been honoured for his contribution to New Zealand society with a Papal Knighthood. He has also been honoured with a honorary degree from University College Galway. In recent years the contributions from the Hugh Green Charitable Trust in New Zealand include $1 million over five years to the Centre for Brain Research at Auckland University, €190,000 to the Malaghan Medical Research Institute’s cancer cell research group and $1 million to set up a fund to support diabetes and breast cancer research. A firm that is developing an affordable, quality incubator that will save the lives of babies in developing countries has received over €300,000.
St Vincent de Paul, Auckland hospices and the restoration of St Patrick’s Cathedral have also benefitted. He has also contributed donations in the aftermath of disasters such as the Christchurch Cathedral and the mining accident that claimed many lives in New Zealand.
“He just goes about it quietly. It’s the way it’s always been,” says daughter Maryanne, chief executive of her father’s company, the Hugh Green Group, told the New Zealand Herald.
Although New Zealand has been his home since the early 1950s he has always had a great love for DOnegal and Ireland and has been a annual visitor. His recently published memoir is titled ‘Hugh Green - The Story of An Irish Emigrant Who Never Left Home’.
He was born in Raphoe in 1931, the fifth in a family of eight children. The family moved to Letterkenny’s Port Road and endured hard times. Hugh’s schooling by the Presentation Brothers did not endear him to education and he spent much of his youth trying to earn money from farms in the area.
He left tome to work in Scotland and then went to Australia. There he fell in with fellow Donegalman Barney McCahill who he had worked with in Australia. The two worked for a company called Flynn Brothers in Melbourne digging trenches. They would quit their jobs there and with two others, Eddie Kears and Jim McFadden, a new firm was established, the quartet calling themselves the Donegal Construction Company. In his recently published autobiography he remembers the early days of his first company: “We found we could dig about 100 feet each a day, sometimes making 100 pounds a week, and always between £70 and £80. The average wage was a tenth of that and I was still only 19 years old. I thought life was good.”
After saving €1,200 he left for New Zealand in 1953 with McCahill and there they won a tender in Wellington to lay cables for the Post and Telegraph Department. This was followed by another tender around Auckland City.
The company which would see him make a fortune, Green & McCahill, would soon expand into tunnelling, sewerage and stormwater construction and began a major player in infrastructure construction.
He went to acquire farmland and moved into development from there to oil and gas exploration. He married his wife Moira, the daughter of an Irish immigrant, in 1955 and he stayed in New Zealand. The couple went on to have five children and they have 11 grandchildren.
Hugh says he had no vision. “People say I must have had great vision but I really had no vision,” he told the New Zealand Herald. “I was day-to-day. I tendered for jobs I thought I could do and worked very hard to get them up and going. It just all happened. You never said ‘I want to have so much money in a certain amount of time’.”