In the 50 years since its establishment, University of Limerick has been central to the economic and social development of Ireland’s mid-west region. UL has always strived to be not only a world-class institute of learning but also the nucleus of a region that has grown beyond recognition over recent decades into a thriving hub of industry, commerce and culture. Few people understand that mission more clearly than Michael Houlihan.
In the story of the mid-west and its remarkable expansion, it is not an exaggeration to say that Michael Houlihan deserves a section all to himself. A solicitor, businessman and civic leader, he has been instrumental in developing both the region and the University. He has been a tireless and persuasive voice for progress and has demonstrated vision, imagination and diplomatic dexterity in building partnerships that have stimulated growth across Munster.
Some who know him have described Michael Houlihan as a colossus, which is an apt description of a man who is larger than life in both physical stature and reputation. Whether as the first Clare man to serve as president of the Law Society of Ireland or as the driving force in transforming his small family law firm into a nationally recognised practice with more than 50 staff, Michael has always pushed standards. Through his actions, he has been a powerful flag-bearer for this part of the island and helped redefine the perception of what was possible for a solicitor from outside Dublin.
However, Michael Houlihan’s contribution to this country extends far beyond his own distinguished career. He has always known that the collective is greater than the individual, and he has championed community and civic causes for decades. His legacy lies in the dozens of projects across Limerick and Clare that would not have been possible without his expertise and dedication. Several of these are dotted around our own campus. Between 2006 and 2014, during his term as chair of the UL Foundation, Michael helped deliver more than a dozen major capital developments, including the Analog Devices Building, the Glucksman Library and the Bernal Institute – a world-leading centre of science and engineering launched by then-Taoiseach Enda Kenny in November 2016.
The roots of Michael Houlihan’s life of high achievement can be traced back to his childhood in Ennis, County Clare. He was one of six children, and his parents, Ignatius and Oona, were both solicitors – Oona being one of the first female lawyers in Ireland. Michael was educated at the Cistercian College in Roscrea before attending University College Dublin. He later studied at the Law Society of Ireland, which admitted him as a solicitor in 1963. He grew up in a time when it was not the norm for young people from this part of the country to attend university, but his ambition was never limited by the constraints of geography or convention.
Michael Houlihan’s father operated a law firm on Bindon Street in Ennis, and Michael joined the business in the 1970s. He was charged with heading up litigation and helped steward the firm’s growth over the intervening decades. He specialised in county council and insurance work, and regularly led difficult national cases. He served as county solicitor for Clare County Council from 1976 to 2006. Today, 16 years after Michael’s retirement, the firm now practises under the name of MHP Sellors in Limerick and Ennis and is the largest dual-county law firm in the mid-west.
Michael Houlihan has always had a global vision. During his tenure as president of the Law Society in 1982, he purposefully cultivated international relationships with similar agencies overseas, including the International Bar Association and the Law Societies of India and Scotland. He is an honorary member of the American Bar Association and a member of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America.
While his career has taken him all over the world, Michael has never lost his sense of place. He has always sought to use his connections to amplify the work being done close to home, and from the late 1970s, he became increasingly active in various industrial and civic projects across the mid-west. He was president of the Ennis Chamber of Commerce between 1977 and 1979 and chaired Shannon Development in the 1990s. He also led the Shannon Regional Tourism Board for a period.
Michael Houlihan became involved with University of Limerick in the 1990s during the development of the University Concert Hall, which was opened in 1993 by then-Taoiseach Albert Reynolds. It was the first of many significant projects at UL to which Michael contributed, and it cemented a friendship that has endured for three decades. He was one of the leading figures within the UL Foundation for more than 20 years, during which time the Foundation channelled over €200 million into infrastructure and academic programmes at the University.
Michael was a familiar sight around UL for years, particularly after his retirement, when he might visit the campus several times a week to help with different projects. Having been a member of the Governing Authority, Finance Committee, Audit Committee, Joint Honorary Doctorate Committee and Nominating Committee, he has given years of service to the University. He was an active collaborator with Ed Walsh, Chuck Feeney and the Glucksman family and offered sage and astute counsel to successive administrations as UL grew in size and scale.
After retiring to Kilkee, County Clare more than 10 years ago, Michael Houlihan continued the habit of a lifetime by throwing himself into community initiatives like the Kilkee Civic Trust, an organisation that works to enhance the quality of life in the town. Even in retirement, Michael has proved himself to be an irrepressible force for good.
The other great love of Michael Houlihan’s life is his family. His wife, Joan, sadly passed away in 2017 in the couple’s 50th anniversary year. Initially from Omagh, County Tyrone, Joan instilled in Michael a keen interest in promoting links between the North and South of Ireland. The pair raised three children, Maeve, Brian and Kate, and were blessed with two grandchildren, Isabel and Oscar. Michael has brought the same love, attention and sense of fun to his family as to his 50-year career in law and business.
Michael Houlihan is a native of Ennis but a true son of the mid-west of Ireland. Described as a man of unswerving integrity by those who know him, he has left an indelible mark on this region and made a unique contribution to University of Limerick. It is for these achievements and qualities that we honour him here today.
Chancellor, I present to you Michael Houlihan and ask that you confer upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws.