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Sir Allen McClay (1932 - 2010):
Industrialist and philanthropist

Allen McClay was one of the most successful entrepreneurs in Ulster, and while not starting from rags became nevertheless one of the wealthiest individuals in the province, thanks to his highly successful pharmaceutical companies; he was also a most generous philanthropist, contributing eight-figure sums to medical research and to Queen’s University, Belfast. 

He was born in Cookstown, County Tyrone and educated at the High School there, but left at 16. A story he related was that he had originally wanted to study English but was encouraged by his mother to take pharmacy as he was more likely to get a job as a result He secured an apprenticeship in pharmacy, which however little, did pay him, and qualified in 1953, after which he worked (from 1955) for Glaxo, the pharmaceutical and healthcare company. He would later concede that the company shifted him into a sales rôle as he was such a poor pharmacist; in fact he built up a thorough knowledge of the industry, and set up his own company, Galen, in Craigavon, County Armagh, in 1968. This he very much built up from scratch, starting with a small staff; in 1997 Galen was floated on the London and Dublin stock exchanges, and was revealed as Northern Ireland's first billion-pound company by market value. This was all the more impressive for Ulster having little or no tradition in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology sectors. Although he remained its principal shareholder and non-executive president, more and more the company looked to foreign and not local markets. He resigned in 2001, but later set up another company in the same sector, Almac, which also became very successful, particularly in research. 

He set out his attitude to philanthropy in an interview, in which he stated: “I think it’s part of your responsibility, if you have a consideration for the community and society and world you live in.” He was a munificent donor of wealth. His McClay Foundation, set up primarily to carry out research into cancer, he endowed with some £20,000,000, and he donated an eight-figure sum to Queen’s University, Belfast, perhaps the most notable outcome of which was a resplendent new University Library, which bears his name (and his portrait in the vestibule). 

Allen McClay received several state honours: OBE, CBE, and finally a knighthood in 2005. He joked though: “When they say ‘Sir’ I’m always looking behind me to see who they are talking to”. He was modest; a senior stockbroker said of him: “He’s one of the entrepreneurs and innovators who really drove the industry.” One Vice-Chancellor of Queen’s University in a tribute was able to describe the McClay Library as one of the leading university libraries in Europe; his predecessor had described Sir Allen McClay this way: “a creative entrepreneur in the Ulster tradition of people like Dunlop with tyres and Ferguson with farm machinery”, adding that he was “the most significant philanthropist Northern Ireland has ever known.” 

He died in the United States.

Born: 21 March 1932
Died: 12 January 2010
Richard Froggatt

Professor Sir Peter Froggatt

Bibliography:; Interview with Sir Allen McClay, The Scientist, July 2008; obituary,The Daily Telegraph;