Born: October 11th, 1957
Died: February 1st, 2023
Pioneering dairy farmer Padraig Walshe, who has died, aged 65, was president of the Irish Farmers’ Association and Macra na Feirme, chairman of Farmer Business Developments plc and a leader of several other organisations.
He was the youngest of four children born to Paddy and Sheila Walshe, who ran a mixed enterprise farm at Bishopswood, near Durrow, Co Laois.
The National Farmers’ Association, which later became the IFA, was set up two years before he was born. His father was strongly involved in the fledgling organisation and was Laois county secretary for 17 years. He also went door-to-door collecting £50 from farmers in order to set up FBD Insurance in the 1960s.
Padraig Walshe was always destined to be a farmer, so after national school in Durrow and secondary school in Kilkenny, he attended agricultural college in Warrenstown, Co Meath.
He returned to the family farm in 1976 and his father gave him complete control of the farm when he was just 22. After weighing up his options, he decided the farm would be more viable if he specialised in dairying.
By this stage he had joined the Abbeyleix branch of Macra na Feirme, the young farmers’ group. It shaped his future in many ways. Macra brought him together with like-minded people who were keen to learn about new developments in farming practices, and who might be interested in dipping their toes into farm politics.
The organisation is known for making marriages and that was the case when he met fellow member Ella Hennessy, from Spink. They married in 1983 and would go on to have four children together.
He worked his way through the ranks of Macra na Feirme and was elected president in 1987. A year later, he was appointed to the first board of Teagasc, the national research, education and advisory service.
Described as a committed European, he was elected vice-president of the European young farmers’ organisation CEJA in 1989.
He continued to run the family farm with Ella, increasing output and expanding the farm size. The work was acknowledged in 1991 when the farm won the Creamery Milk Supplier of the Year award.
He pioneered the practice of efficient grassland management and was a strong believer in the value of farm discussion groups for sharing knowledge. He hosted very popular farm walks at Bishopswood and shared the farm’s performance data to help others.
He was elected president of the Irish Grassland Association in 1996 and was involved in the establishment of the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation in 1998. He was selected as one of the first Nuffield Scholars in Ireland, in a programme which identifies leaders in agriculture. He travelled worldwide to study dairying practices as part of the scholarship and his report on his findings was often referenced.
Like his father, he threw himself into voluntary work with the IFA and held roles such as dairy committee chairman and national treasurer. He unsuccessfully ran for president in 2001 and, undaunted, ran again in 2005 and became the 12th president of the association.
His four-year term came at a turbulent time for farmers. Alarm bells were sounding over a World Trade Organisation trade deal that was thought to be a threat to Irish beef farmers. He led an IFA campaign against it and secured a commitment from the Government to veto a deal if it damaged Irish farming interests.
His presidency also coincided with the global recall of Irish pork products in 2008, following a dioxin contamination. He was sitting down to Sunday lunch with his family when his phone rang to deliver news of the impending crisis. Moments later his car was seen leaving the yard at speed, heading for IFA headquarters in Dublin to deal with the fallout. It was Tuesday before he returned.
He also championed the introduction of a beef payment system, known as the grid, while knowing it would make him unpopular with dairy farmers because they felt it did not favour them. He said he could take the flak because it was the right thing to do.
He was a skilful media performer, known for getting his message across in a way that did not alienate the non-farming audience.
One friend recalled how he treated everyone the same, whether it was the taoiseach or a small farmer in difficulty. “He did so much that people never heard about. A farmer might ring him with a problem that wasn’t big in the scheme of things but big for him, and Padraig would use the IFA network to find someone who could help him. No one was ever fobbed off and nothing made him happier than ringing someone to say he had a solution to their problem.”
He was discreet about these cases, telling family he had to nip out “on an errand of mercy”.
He was the first Irish person to be elected president of COPA, the European farm organisation. It described him as “a fervent advocate of agriculture, who defended our European farmers’ interest with passion and dedication”.
In 2010, he was appointed by the government to represent Ireland on the European Economic and Social Committee in Brussels.
Friend and IFA colleague Francie Gorman told KCLR Radio he could not think of an IFA president who had served farmers in so many different ways and at the level that he had done.
He became chairman of FBD plc in 2013 and was also a director of FBD Holdings. His eulogy was delivered by close friend Michael Berkery, who worked alongside him for more than 35 years in IFA and FBD. He told mourners he was gifted with the three As – ability, affability and availability. “His natural intelligence always shone through and he could grasp a situation very quickly ... In decisive moments Padraig was always calm, logical and determined, yet respectful of other people’s views”.
He would be remembered as “an outstanding farmers’ representative, a mighty ambassador for Irish agriculture and rural Ireland, a great motivator, a talented leader, man of total integrity, a top-class farmer”.
In his graveside oration, IFA president Tim Cullinan said Padraig Walshe had instilled pride among farmers who were feeling forgotten. “Padraig had a strong sense of the value in representing farmers ... He was able to marshal his argument to put the views of farmers front and centre,” he said.
Until his sudden death he was running the farm with his son Pat and was involved in an efficient grass management programme with Teagasc.
Friends described him as a gentle giant. His height, coupled with his penchant for flamboyant ties, meant he always stood out in any room. He had a passion for sport, particularly soccer, hurling and rugby, and Match of the Day was essential viewing for him.
Despite his constant travelling, friends said his heart was always at home on the farm with his family and the six grandchildren who delighted him.
He is survived by his wife Ella, daughters Julieanne, Catherine and Elma, son Pat, grandchildren Hannah, Emma, William, Thomas, Padraig and Patrick and siblings Breda, Eamon and Seamus.