Floating five-star hotel where Dunne hosted €1.5m nuptials
Guests at the lavish wedding recall the generosity of their host, writes Ronald Quinlan, Special Correspondent
FOR nearly 60 years, it has traversed the azure waters of the Mediterranean Sea, drawing crowds of onlookers in whichever port its wealthy guests decide to drop anchor.
In the era of the vulgar 'super yacht' favoured by Russian oligarchs and tech billionaires of Silicon Valley, the legend of the Christina O persists thanks to its associations with the Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis and the wide circle of powerful and famous friends he entertained both above and below its deck.
Given the presence on board over the years of power-brokers such as Winston Churchill, John F Kennedy and the Begum of Aga Kahn, along with stars including Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Maria Callas (not to mention Jackie Kennedy whom Onassis married), it's little wonder that news last week of the Christina O's impending sale by its Irish owners for €25m made the headlines.
But while the yacht owes its global renown to its historical associations with 'Ari' Onassis and all the famous names he invited onboard over the two decades he used it as a floating mansion, in the summer of 2004 the Christina O captured the very essence of Ireland's excess with the €1.5m wedding celebrations of property developer Sean Dunne and Gayle Killilea.
While the lavish event to which the then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern reluctantly declined his invitation was viewed with awe by some, unsurprisingly there were far more who condemned what they saw as its Bacchanalian indulgence.
Thanks to the turmoil wrought on the lives of ordinary Irish citizens as a consequence of the more recent economic crash, that view has not surprisingly come to dominate the public's perception of the Dunnes' boom-era nuptials. Looking back through the prism of austerity, there is an unreality about it all that both fascinates and appals.
Those who were actually onboard the Christina O in the summer of 2004, however, remember the affair for its romance and for the incredible generosity of its host, who at the time had a personal worth calculated in hundreds of millions of euro as a consequence of Ireland's building boom.
Asked by the Sunday Independent to describe what it had been like onboard the famous yacht for the two-week wedding celebrations of the onetime 'Baron of Ballsbridge' and Ms Killilea, one guest painted a charming picture, describing how being onboard the Christina O was akin to being a guest of the "Dorchester Hotel at sea".
Recalling the affair, they said: "There were people coming and going throughout the whole thing. Some guests came for the week, while others drifted in for the weekend. When you got on to the boat, somebody came and took your case, brought it to your cabin and unpacked it for you. The rooms were beautiful and everything was there for you. There was no real need to leave once you boarded. It was rare enough to get off it and go into town, because what Sean had done was that he had paid for the best chefs to prepare anything you wanted. And the crew were absolutely excellent and very cosmopolitan."
For the female guests, the crew are remembered somewhat differently.
One told the Sunday Independent: "There seems to be some sort of an unwritten rule that every one of them be they male or female have to fit the bill both in terms of their ability to crew and in terms of their physical attractiveness. Both the girls and the boys were beautiful as I recall."
Asked about the grandeur of the Christina O itself, another guest said: "It wasn't that the yacht was overly grand, but the wedding was rather grand. I think the thing that was stylish about the Christina was that it could accommodate 36 guests and there were 36 members in the crew – one member of crew for every guest."
Describing the interior of the yacht itself, the same guest recalled: "As you walk down the corridor towards the dining room, there's a baby grand piano where once upon a time, Frank Sinatra sang and Maria Callas sang for Onassis. There's also a portrait of Winston Churchill and, of course, there's Ari's Bar next to the dining room, which is obviously named after Aristotle Onassis. That's the bar with the famous barstools upholstered in whales' foreskins. But you don't actually sit on the foreskins as they have protective covers over them. There was also a massage parlour and a hairdressers at your disposal and the swimming pool on deck. In the evening they would put the cover over the swimming pool with the flick of a switch. The cover itself consisted of a wonderful marble mosaic. That was the dancefloor and there was a disco every night which went on into the early hours of the morning."
Recalling their experience of the dancefloor, one female guest said: "You're not meant to wear any kind of shoe or heel onboard. The only shoes they allow are white-soled plimsolls. But of course, what woman is going to be at a party on the Christina O in anything other than her heels? But certainly on the dance floor, they don't want anyone in heels because it's encrusted with that intricate mosaic."
Asked for their memories of the Christina O and the Dunne wedding celebrations, another guest told the Sunday Independent: "It was very luxurious. There was no sense of anybody sparing any expense. We berthed in the south of France, in I think it was Nice. One night we went into St Tropez. You go to Cannes and you see the super yachts of the oligarchs and some can be very vulgar, but the Christina O is not that. It really is the Dorchester hotel at sea."
Recalling the wedding ceremony itself, another guest said: "I remember Sean had asked everybody before they went on the boat if they wouldn't mind bringing a black tie and dinner jacket as we were going to be celebrating his 50th birthday. We were on the boat for about two days when we went down to our cabins and there was an invitation on the pillow to a wedding the following day in Portofino. That was the wedding and it was presided over by the town's mayoress. She married them, but we all understood that they had been married already in Thailand. Sean was extraordinarily generous. It was 2004. After the wedding we sailed down to Corsica and Sardinia. The whole thing went on for two weeks. And while it's been portrayed as being Bacchanalian excess, to my mind it was just wonderful. You have to understand that everyone on board was very wealthy in their own right, but Sean was very, very generous as a host."
Describing the mood onboard, one guest said: "It was just a wonderful moment in time. It was very sophisticated and the guests were very well chosen. The people invited had their own money so there was no sense that anyone was there to plunder the free bar. Nobody was acting up, but there was a real sense of luxury that everyone knew they mightn't ever get the chance to experience again."
Among those present for the wedding of the Carlow-born developer and his wife were Irish rugby internationals Mick Galwey and Ronan O'Gara, former Fianna Fail fundraiser Des Richardson, designers Ian Galvin and Karen Millen, Gate Theatre director Michael Colgan and former Irish Nationwide chief executive Michael Fingleton. Fingleton's associations with the Christina O went much further than his attendance at the Dunnes' wedding, however, thanks to his decision to advance a €2m loan to Sandyway Investments – a Dublin company headed up by the high-profile solicitor Ivor Fitzpatrick – to help finance the yacht's purchase and refurbishment.