Honorary Conferrings Speeches Archive

    at Aula Maxima, UCC

  • 02 Jun 2017








Professor PAUL ROSS, Head of the College of Science, Engineering & Food Science in University College Cork, on 2 June 2017, on the occasion of the conferring of the Degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa, on




Lord Mayor, Chancellor, President, Honorary Graduates, Cathaoirleach, Distinguished Guests, Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen,


It would be extremely hard to identify any other individual who has been so engrained in and associated with Ireland’s food and agricultural landscape as Michael Dowling. He has been a leader and influencer in many areas, varying from his extensive experience in the Department of Agriculture and Food where he successfully progressed to the role of Secretary General and led many key international negotiations for Ireland, to his most recent role as Chairman of the Board of Kerry Group plc, which is one of the world’s largest food companies, employing over 23,000 staff worldwide and serving over 140 countries.


For Michael however, his journey began back in the real Kerry – county Kerry, where he completed his leaving certificate in St Brendan’s College, Killarney in 1962. There, he shared a classroom with his future employer, Kerry Group founder and UCC alumnus, Denis Brosnan. Although his parents originally hailed from Waterford, which informs Michael’s unique allegiance to the Waterford hurlers, he himself is a true Kerry man!


After finishing in the “Sem”, as St Brendans was affectionately referred to, Michael made the move to the big city, where he initially studied Public Administration in UCD, followed by a BA degree in Philosophy and Economics.


After completing his studies, he took the first steps in his hugely successful accession through the Department of the Agriculture and Fisheries, with a role in the Trade Policy Division. This experience provided him with exposure to the area of trade negotiations, particularly at a time when Ireland was not part of the European Economic Community, EEC.


This was a difficult food landscape to be working in as Ireland was heavily reliant on the UK market, and mass emigration and poverty were preventing the country from expanding beyond its agricultural focus.


Despite the challenging times, Michael quickly rose through the ranks of the Department, moving into the role of Head of the Agri-Monetary Unit after Ireland joined the EEC in 1973, and progressing to Head of the Dairy Policy Division. During this time, Michael honed his legendary negotiation skills, and provided Ireland and Irish farmers with a strong and persuasive voice during the early years of our European membership.


In 1984, Michael took on the post of Assistant Secretary within the Department of Agriculture, with specific responsibility for EU and International trade policy, along with domestic policy in the milk sector. During this time, he was also the Irish spokesman at the EU Special Committee on Agriculture and the Chair of the OECD Committee on Trade and Agriculture. Michael’s representation of Ireland food and agriculture at the highest level in Europe underlined his excellent reputation and the regard to which he was held in.


This diligence was rewarded with his promotion to Secretary General of the Department of Agriculture in 1989, a role he led for an eight year period. During this period as leader of the Department, Michael established the first working group which involved institutions such as UCC who were leading in the area of agriculture and food research.


This lead to the creation of the Non Commissioned Food Research Program, which provided funding for third-level institutions in the areas of food research and technology, creating a huge stimulus for the Irish research landscape. Nowadays, Ireland is considered a world-leader in food and agricultural research and this can certainly be traced back to Michael’s foresight in supporting research within educational institutions. 


This grant program has since evolved in to the FIRM program (Food Institutional Research Measure) and UCC in particular has achieved enormous success through this funding program, securing over €65 million in the past 20 years through projects such as smart meat packaging using nanoparticles.


Michael’s ability to candidly predict the need to establish Ireland as a base for integrated food research was a particular hallmark of his tenure as Secretary General, and was also evident in his role in chairing the industry-based food expert group, which led to the establishment of An Bord Bia in 1994. An Bord Bia is now recognised globally as a best practise example of food promotion and is itself an international quality brand.


Michael served with a number of influential Ministers for Agriculture, including Ray McSharry, Michael Kennedy and Ivan Yates. He also worked with Corkman Minister Joe Walsh, who was a graduate of UCC’s Dairy Science program, and who led Ireland through the Foot-&-Mouth crisis in 2001.


After his enormous success and 28 year service with the Department of Agriculture, Michael decided to move into the private sector, accepting a role as Head of Agri Strategy with AIB. In this role, where he spent 13 years, Michael dealt with an increasingly challenging landscape, culminating in the 2008 bursting of the economic bubble and the resulting aftermath which heavily affected the agricultural sector, amongst others.


During this period, Michael also became a non-Executive Director for three rapidly expanding agencies – i) An Bord Bia, where he was a member of their Strategy Committee, ii) Kerry Group, where he chaired their Audit committee and iii) for the Irish Distillers Group.


Somewhere in this time frame, Michael and his wife Mary also became parents to three daughters; __________! Another non-Executive Director role some might say!


Fortunately, in 2000 Michael was able to return to a much loved interest of his, as Chairman of the Race Trust, now the Racing Academy and Centre of Education. As a passionate sports lover, Michael has long had an interest in horse-racing and championed the implementation of Horse Sports Ireland, which was established in 2006. During this time he also became non-executive director of the Agricultural Trust, which manages the publication of The Irish Farmers Journal, a role he happily maintains to this day.


Michael’s happy relationship with UCC first began when he became a visiting Professor of Agriculture and Food Policy in the Department of Food Business, providing lectures and advice to young students. The opportunity for students to learn first-hand from a seasoned trade negotiator was warmly received and the feedback from students hugely positive during Michael’s 17 year stint with the college.


In 2010, Michael was appointed by the then Minister for Agriculture, Brendan Smith, to the 2020 Working Group, which set out the targets and goals to be achieved by the food sector by the end of the decade. This led to the publication of Harvest 2020, which has since been further elaborated on through the FoodWise 2025 document. In 2014, he was commissioned by Minister Simon Coveney to deliver the Dowling Report which examined the beef sector and market prices.


The UCC connection was once again rekindled shortly after his work on the Harvest 2020 project, with Michael leading the Joint Working Group between UCC and Teagasc, resulting in the Strategic Alliance in Food Research. UCC and Teagasc have long had a close collaborative relationship, and with Michael’s input, have been able to strengthen this to the benefit of the Irish food industry. Michael continues to chair this Alliance board, and remains a key advocate for industry and institutional partnership.


Over the years, Michael has travelled extensively, representing Ireland on an international stage. During his time in the Department of Agriculture, he undertook study tours of the US and New Zealand, and led trade delegations to Hong Kong and China on behalf of Bord Bia.


Even in later years, with his role in the Agricultural Trust, Michael has visited New Mexico, Chile and Argentina to learn about their agri-food markets and to share Irish findings. His positioning of Ireland as an international case example regarding successful agriculture has strengthened our reputation and allowed our food practises to remain modern and globally informed.


In his most recent identifiable role, Michael returned to his schoolboy roots and was elected Chairman of the Board of Kerry Group in 2015. The Kerry Group, which last year made a trading profit of €750m, is synonymous with quality Irish food ingredients, and still maintains its corporate HQ in Tralee.


Given the extent of his credentials and accomplishments, it cannot be any surprise that we have gathered here to celebrate Michael. Indeed, the highest honour the university can give is to award a UCD graduate an honorary doctorate!


Across the areas that Michael has contributed to, he is held in the highest esteem by his many colleagues and friends, and was previously described as “outstanding” by Minister Joe Walsh. Professor Charlie Daly, Emeritus Professor of Food Science in UCC, described Michael as a “true poker player, who helped achieve many late decisions which helped the Irish cause in Europe”.


Like all the great Kerry men, Michael will one day hang up his boots, but for now, his future endeavours continue to be as multifaceted as his past ones, and we in University College Cork are delighted to honour and acknowledge Michael Dowling’s accomplishments.

Praehonorabilis Cancellarie, totaque universitas!

Praesento vobis hunc meum filium, quem scio tam moribus quam doctrina habilem et idoneum esse qui admittatur, honoris causa, ad gradum Doctoratus Scientiae, idque tibi fide mea testor ac spondeo totique Academiae.




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