Coveney is born into one of Cork‘s prosperous “merchant prince” families on July 20, 1935. He is educated at Christian Brothers College, Cork, Clongowes Wood College and the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors. He works as a chartered quantity surveyor before entering politics.
Coveney is interested in yachting throughout most of his adult life. His yacht Golden Apple of The Sun, designed by Cork-based designer Ron Holland, is a successful competitor in the Admiral’s Cup in the 1970s. A later 50-foot yacht, Golden Apple, is used by the family for the “Sail Chernobyl” project. The family sails around the world to raise €650,000 for Chernobyl Children’s Project International, a charity which offers assistance to children affected by the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
Coveney is Lord Mayor of Cork from 1982 to 1983. He is first elected to Dáil Éireann as a Fine Gael Teachta Dála (TD) for Cork South–Central constituency at the 1981 general election. He loses his seat in the first general election of 1982 but regains it in the second election in the same year. He loses his seat again in the 1987 general election and does not contest the 1992 general election. He is elected to the Dáil again in 1994 in a by-election.
Coveney is first appointed to the Cabinet in 1994 under John Bruton. He is appointed Minister for Defence and Minister for the Marine. However, he is demoted to a junior ministry the following year after allegations of improper contact with businessmen.
In March 1998 it becomes publicly known that the Moriarty Tribunal has questioned Coveney about whether he had a secret offshore account with Ansbacher Bank, a bank which had become notorious for facilitating tax evasion. Ten days later, on March 13, 1998, Coveney visits his solicitor to change his will. The following day, he dies in a fall from a seaside cliff while out walking alone. His son, Simon Coveney, insists that his father had never held an Ansbacher account. It later emerges that Hugh Coveney had $175,000 on deposit in the secret Cayman Islands-based bank. The account was closed in 1979.
Simon Coveney is later elected to succeed his father in the resulting by-election on November 3, 1998.