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Sir Ronald Arthur Irish (1913–1993)

by Barrie Dyster

This article was published:

Sir Ronald Arthur Irish (1913–1993), accountant and company director, was born on 26 March 1913 at Dulwich Hill, Sydney, son of New South Wales-born parents Arthur Edward Irish, customs clerk, and his wife Florence Abbott, née Hales. Ronald attended Homebush Public and Fort Street Boys’ High schools. After training with A. S. White and Fox and then C. W. Stirling & Co., he qualified as a chartered accountant in 1934, and the same year became a member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Australia (ICAA).

In 1935 Irish set up his own practice. On 16 May 1936 in the Stanmore Baptist Church he married Ruth Theodora Aylward, a stenographer. He formed R. A. Irish and Michelmore in 1940. The firm absorbed other partnerships, regional and interstate, until 1969, when it joined with a Melbourne-based entity, Young and Outhwaite. Irish was senior partner in Irish Young and Outhwaite until 1980, when it became part of Deloitte Haskins and Sells. He had been president of the Institute of Registered Tax Agents in the mid-1940s, a member of the executive council of the Taxpayers Association of New South Wales in the same decade, and president of the ICAA from 1956 to 1958. Together with Ray Chambers in the 1950s he generated a structure for accounting degrees that was taken up by the University of Sydney and the ICAA. A life member of the Australian Society of Accountants (1972) and the ICAA (1974), in 1972 he chaired the Tenth International Congress of Accountants, which convened in Sydney.

From the beginning Irish had offered himself as an authority in his profession. In 1935 he addressed a national meeting of accountancy students on the skills required to report on the new phenomenon of holding companies, with their many subsidiaries. That same year his first book appeared, Practical Auditing; it went into second (1938) and third (1942) expanded editions because it met a need to understand the transformation taking place in corporate structures. He joined two barristers, P. H. Allen and R. G. Reynolds, to produce Australian Executorship Law and Accounts (1942). Irish’s Auditing Theory and Practice appeared in 1948, and Auditing for Students in 1952. His magisterial work, Auditing, came out in 1957. By its fourth edition (1972) an editorial committee of fifteen leading practitioners was listed on the title page, but their names were subordinate to ‘Sir Ronald Irish’ as the author and arbiter of the volume, and ‘Irish’ remained on the book’s spine.

By the early 1940s Irish had entered corporate life through company secretaryships in the media empire assembled by the late Sir Hugh Denison, particularly with radio station 2GB in Sydney and with the nationwide network, Macquarie Broadcasting Services Pty Ltd. Associated Newspapers Ltd was Denison’s flagship. Irish joined its board in 1950. Its main assets were an afternoon Sydney tabloid, the Sun and the Sunday Sun and Guardian, and Sungravure Ltd, an up-to-date printing establishment. He took part in negotiations during the firm’s swift and sought-after takeover in 1953 by John Fairfax & Sons Pty Ltd, in the teeth of outraged opposition by (Sir) Frank Packer, a rival bidder. He remained a director of Associated Newspapers and of Sungravure under the new owner.

The Sun’s competitor in Sydney’s afternoon market was the Daily Mirror, one of Ezra Norton’s papers. He also owned the Sunday Mirror and the Sportsman in Sydney and Truth, separate editions of which appeared weekly in four other States. Norton put his papers up for sale in 1958. Again wishing to freeze Packer out, Fairfax set Irish up as chairman of a shelf company, O’Connell Pty Ltd, which made the purchase. Irish became chairman of Truth and Sportsman Ltd, which changed its name to Mirror Newspapers Ltd in 1959, and was sold to Rupert Murdoch in 1960.

Irish chaired Rothmans of Pall Mall (Aust) Ltd from the Anglo-South African tobacco company’s entry into Australia in 1955 until his retirement in 1981. He was chief executive between 1955 and 1974. The factory at Granville, New South Wales, was in production within a year, and Rothmans soon held a third of the national market for cigarettes. Its Winfield brand sponsored rugby league in New South Wales; television advertisements for the product made Paul Hogan a celebrity. The company had donated £20,000 to the British Empire and Commonwealth Games held in Perth in 1962, and had given cigarettes to the athletes. It cemented its reputation through the Rothmans National Sport Foundation, which employed prominent former competitors and sponsored a wide range of sporting activities to associate smoking with manliness and health.

Tirelessly, Irish attacked what he saw as biased medical research into the consequences of a habit that was pleasurable and ‘part of the social scene’ (Sydney Morning Herald 23 September 1969, 1). Smoking, he suggested, was to be preferred to ‘a tragic and alarming increase in drug-taking,’ which he claimed coincided with ‘the surge of anti-smoking propaganda’ (Sydney Morning Herald 6 October 1969, 16). By the early 1970s he was also challenged to explain Rothmans' business and sporting contacts with South Africa.

Other Australian subsidiaries of British industrial firms also invited Irish on to their boards. He chaired one of them, Babcock & Wilcox (Aust) Pty Ltd, for a while in the early 1960s. In the 1970s he chaired International Cellars Australia Pty Ltd, a subsidiary of Rothmans’ overseas parent company, whose major Australian acquisitions were Hungerford Hill Vineyards Pty Ltd and Walter Reynell & Sons Wines Pty Ltd. An aggressive British conglomerate, the Wood Hall Trust, bought the Hornibrook group, an Australian civil engineering firm, in 1964, assembling it with other companies into an entity called Wood Hall (Aust) Pty Ltd, on whose board Irish sat from 1965 to 1981. In 1958 the Federal government had appointed him to the Manufacturing Industries Advisory Council, which he chaired from 1966 until the end of his tenure in 1972. He was a company investigator for the Commonwealth and New South Wales governments. For some years he was also a major fund-raiser for the federal Liberal Party of Australia.

From 1959 Irish was chairman of Anthony Hordern & Sons Ltd, a department store at Brickfield Hill, Sydney. After business declined from the 1960s, the board decided to abandon retailing, demolish the store, and open the massive site to high-rise development. By the 1980s Irish chaired Brickfield Hill Properties Pty Ltd and its successor, World Square Pty Ltd.

Appointed OBE in 1963, Irish was knighted in 1970. In 1986 he was made an honorary fellow of the University of Sydney. His first marriage having been dissolved in 1959, on 12 February 1960 he married Noella Jean Austin (Jeannie) Fraser, a secretary, in the Cronulla Presbyterian Church. Sir Ronald died on 12 July 1993 at Elizabeth Bay, survived by his wife and the three sons from his first marriage; he was cremated. In 2015 he was inducted into the Australian Accounting Hall of Fame.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Charter. ‘Sir Ronald Irish, OBE.’ 64, no. 9 (October 1993): 10

  • Irish, Sir Ronald. ‘Sir Ronald Irish, O.B.E., F.C.A.’ Fortian 68 (December 1970): 35–36

  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Most Not Harmed by Smoking, Says Mr Irish.’ 23 September 1969, 1

  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Journal Attacks Smoking Defence.’ 6 October 1969, 16

  • University of Melbourne. Centre for Accounting and Industry Partnerships. 2015 Australian Accounting Hall of Fame Dinner and Awards Ceremony commemorative booklet. Copy held on ADB file

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Citation details

Barrie Dyster, 'Irish, Sir Ronald Arthur (1913–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2017, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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