The Growth of Privacy; Day 4 – The Safes

The Growth of Privacy; Day 4 – The Safes

JANUARY 31, 2020

I’ve mentioned before how I came to privacy and data protection as a business owner rather than as a lawyer.

Sure, I was a business owner who happened to practise law, but it was through a business lens that I first considered the questions of data protection and privacy; and it was the existential importance that I realised they represented to being able to remain in business that really got my attention.

I think my biggest influence on me as a business owner was my paternal grandfather. He was Florence McCarthy also and I was named after him (it’s a west Cork thang).

I was extremely lucky to have grown up knowing all four of my grandparents. In fact, I consider that I really had six grandparents, as there was an older couple who were our neighbours growing-up who served as proxy third pair.

And I was equally fortunate in the extraordinarily rich legacy of experience, knowledge and story that they each shared with me. I continue to rely on their wisdom every day.

But when it comes to business, it is my namesake whom I think of most. My grandfather was an extraordinary guy. I suppose everyone thinks that of their grandparents; but he was.

He was born on a West Cork farm in 1909, a time and place when the options open to someone finding themselves in that situation were not promising.

But Florence was a born entrepreneur. And this was a time when the start-up culture locally had, shall we say, some way to go.

He and his brother Jerry started out making jam on a primus stove in a loft over a cowshed in the yard. They had some success and started selling it up the country on the train. One day a health inspector showed up and gave them 24 hours to shut the whole thing down. My grandfather was always convinced it was one of the big jam companies that were behind the injustice of it.

They later started collecting Carrageen moss (an important food thickener at the time) and exporting it to the continent. They were always up looking to make something of themselves.

They ended up starting an insurance business. At the time it was an actual insurance business and I’m told that they would create, write and offer the policies themselves. How true this was I can no longer confirm, however it worked, it was an extraordinarily entrepreneurial activity for two lads on a farm in West Cork.

In the end my grand-uncle Jerry wanted to take the insurance business to a larger scale and moved to Cork city. My grandfather always wanted to stay close to his roots, while developing opportunities further afield. In that sense, we are truly very alike.

While my grandfather chose to stay at home, he didn’t give up on insurance altogether, he set up an insurance brokerage on the farm. This may not seem like much now, but it was pretty unheard of by local, indeed national, standards at the time. People didn’t set up and run businesses just like that from their homes at the time.

But Grandad did.

And his business was based on protection.

His central idea was a very simple one, he wanted to provide homes, businesses and travellers with convenient and affordable protection from risks that could otherwise have had potentially disastrous consequences for them.

His office was in a converted shed in the yard on the farm. And by the time I came along he had an established business with a number of people working for him. In the late seventies and early eighties, there were all kinds of exotic things like modern Dictaphones and huge electric typewriters with elaborate covers in a place where you would normally expect to see farm implements. At one stage I think he even had something as wondrous as a telex machine.

But to my mind, the most fascinating things in the office were the safes. They were huge old Victorian style safes and seemed far bigger than me. They were like Fort Knox in my mind. And what else would you keep in safes other than gold bullion for God’s sake?

I don’t think Grandad actually had any gold bullion as it turned out.

That was a simpler time when the items of material value in most people’s lives were far more concrete and had not yet become virtual.

If you had something of value, it most likely was something physical that you would need some to store somewhere safely or that you would need to insure again harm.

After my grandfather died, my mother, who had then just started the fledgling law firm that is now McCarthy + Co., where I practise law today, purchased the insurance business. And with it came the office equipment, which included the safes.

They still form part of the business here and I write this looking at them.

They are just as marvellous to me now, though I can confirm that they certainly do not hold any gold bullion.

On the other hand, they represent something far more valuable to me; a legacy of an entrepreneurial spirit that I was privileged to inherit.

One based on helping people and providing protection.

The same thing we do here today.

What we have to protect and safeguard now is something that my grandfather might have found hard to comprehend, not physical assets, but rather the personal data of those we do business with; our customers, clients and prospects.

Whatever about the changes in the nature of what we are working with, what he would have understood instinctively, however, is that the sustainability and survival of any business are dependent on a fundamental respect for those customers, clients and prospects; and, of course, their rights.


flor mccarthy

Flor McCarthy is one of Ireland’s leading lawyers and a recognised expert in marketing. He has particular expertise and hands-on practical experience in privacy, data protection and GDPR issues for marketers. He is certified by the Law Society of Ireland in Data Protection Practice and lectures lawyers on data protection practice and compliance. He is managing partner of a multi award winning niche legal practice. He has been in private practice for over 20 years and has been elected by his peers to sit on the exclusive Council of the Law Society of Ireland, the governing body for Irish lawyers.

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Flor McCarthy

Flor McCarthy is one of Ireland’s leading lawyers and a recognised expert in marketing. He has particular expertise and hands-on practical experience in privacy, data protection and GDPR issues for marketers.


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