Finbar Callanan was born in Cork city in 1931, the son of Denis Callanan, a railway agent, and Annie Elizabeth Fry. He grew up in Rosslare, to where the family relocated, and he was educated at Mount Sion CBS, Waterford and at UCC, where he studied civil engineering and obtained a BE degree in 1951.
He undertook his early training with Westmeath Co. Council, before joining to Marine Section of the Office of Public Works in 1953 to survey the west coast of Ireland for potential fishery harbours. His interest in harbours continued with Waterford Harbour Commissioners and T J S Mallagh, before he joined Bord na Mona in 1956 as Senior Civil Engineer at Boora Works, then the largest peat producing works in Western Europe.
In 1956 Finbar married Maureen Kinsella, and in 1960 he moved to headquarters as Assistant Development Engineer. In 1965, he was appointed Project Engineer in charge of forward planning for the expansion of sod peat production, and the mechanisation of peat winning processes. As Planning Engineer from 1973 to 1975, he was responsible for the development and production planning of the Bord’s many diverse activities. Following his appointment as Chief Operations Engineer in 1975, he concluded his career with Bord na Mona in 1979 as Chief Civil Engineer.
In 1979, Finbar was invited to accept the post of Director General and Secretary of the Institution of Engineers of Ireland.His involvement in the organisation of the engineering profession had begun as far back as 1960 when he was Secretary of the Midland Region of Cumann na n-Innealtóiri (The Engineers Association). He was subsequently founder of the Dublin Region and the Engineers Club.
He chaired the Joint Executive Committee which coordinated the unification in 1969 of the Cumann and the institution of Civil Engineers of Ireland to form the Institution of Civil Engineers of Ireland (IEI). During his Directorship from 1980 until 1996, membership of the Institution increased from 3,200 to around 12,600, which gave the Institution a more credible voice representing engineers both at home and abroad.
In his role as Director he was intimately involved with the accreditation of Irish Engineering courses, leading to international agreements such as the Washington Accord between the United States, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand, later to be joined by the UK and Canada.
Following his retirement from the Directorship of the IEI, Finbar Callanan was the prime instigator of the foundation of the Irish Academy of Engineering (IAE), was its first Secretary (1996-2004) and its President in 2006.