Beauty and bounty at Renaissance prince Tony Ryan's court
Published 10/07/2011 | 05:00
He was the ultimate self-made man, thebaggage-handler who became a billionaire.Tony Ryan’s life had it all — the cultivatedbeauties (the late Lady Miranda Guinnessthe most glamorous of them all), exquisitehomes in New York, Monte Carlo and Ibiza,a jet-set lifestyle. Out of the ashes of hisill-fated aviation company GPA, he foundedRyanair, and its success allowed him todedicate his life to the pursuit of beauty.With the auction next week of the contentsof his Georgian mansion Lyons Demesne,Emily Hourican looks back on the life andtimes of the legendary Tony Ryan
Lyons Demesne was Tony Ryan's monument to himself; the physical expression of his unlikely transformation from train-driver's son to Renaissance tycoon, and a restoration project so perfect that it came near folly.
For a long time after his death in October 2007, the house remained eerily unaltered. Although empty, the glass still shone, the wood was polished, everything was kept in the impeccable condition he insisted on, not just for those times it was on view to potential buyers, but every day.
And every day the newspaper was delivered, as always, and arranged on the table where he had liked to find it. Now, however, the seal that was laid at the time of Ryan's death is to be broken, as some of the contents go for auction at Christie's on Thursday.
Only 400 of about 2,000 lots will go under the hammer, just a small part of the remarkable collection he built up, but a symbolic suggestion of change nonetheless.
The auction is expected to raise more than €2m, with the most important lot to go under the hammer, a portrait of Arthur Hill, 2nd Marquess of Downshire, by Hugh Douglas Hamilton, guiding at €224,000 to €337,000.
Hill was a nobleman and politician, who became embroiled in a three-way relationship involving Sarah Dore and pioneering barrister William Garrow in the late 1700s. He was, by contemporary accounts, a shrewd operator, with a wily mind and jealous temper; a man not unlike Ryan himself.
Of those who turned up for the private viewing, including the Hon Desmond Guinness, his daughter Marina and son Patrick, Countess of Dunraven and the Pakenhams, many were there in the spirit of bearing witness, just as much as to ogle and acquire.
They were grabbing the opportunity to see, maybe for the last time, this perfect vision of a man who prided himself on the completeness of his knowledge, understanding and taste, and who had, in Lady Miranda Guinness, an excellent tutor. They were also, perhaps, taking a final look at that rarest of things -- an Irish architectural gem for once shored up by the kind of serious money these houses need.
Lyons Demesne is where the story of Ryan's life all makes sense, where the different strands seem to come together.
It is a monument to the image he built of himself, first as the young man who said goodbye to his plans for university to become the family bread-winner when his father died; who then went to work in Aer Lingus as a baggage-handler before setting up a company that quite eclipsed Aer Lingus for a time in terms of glamour and dynamism; who flew around the world on a weekly basis and spent all his spare time reading, learning and collecting.
This was the reward he owed himself for the years of hard work becoming that toughest of all things -- the self-made man.
The fact that the house, after five years unoccupied and 20-odd as an agricultural college, needed to be physically wrestled into shape would have appealed to the macho side of Ryan's nature; the side that led him to punch Sean MacBride, son of Maud Gonne, co-founder of Amnesty International and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, during a Sunday Tribune board meeting in the Eighties.
He had been aiming for Vincent Browne during a bitter row over the future of the paper, but connected with MacBride.
It's a story pretty typical of Ryan, who liked to wear his aggression on the outside, and conducted regular Monday morning meetings at GPA that were more blood-lettings than get-togethers, and are still remembered with a shudder by those ordered in to them.
But for all his table-thumping and eye-balling, or more likely because of it, Ryan inspired a rare kind of hero-worship in other men. Even now, those who worked with and for him speak of him with admiration and regret, and back in the days of GPA, ambitious young employees would even dress like him, affecting the double-breasted suits with top-pocket silk handkerchiefs he favoured.
Some cultivated the same mannerisms and types of behaviour, professing an interest in culture, art and the restoration of old houses, desperate to reproduce another version of the man who inspired and sometimes bullied them, even to the point of trying to emulate his complicated love life.
Because Ryan's effect on women was just as pronounced.
Neither tall nor especially handsome, his rather thrusting self-confidence and desire to possess "the best" made him instantly attractive to a certain kind of woman, while his more feminine side -- the side that gloried in the fine lines and balance of a piece of sculpture, for example; that understood different weights of silk and the importance of an angle -- made him an interesting companion, where there were shared interests.
It's no wonder so many of his girlfriends were involved in design and interiors; whether he knew it or not, Ryan was on a mission to perfect his aesthetic sense.
Ryan married his childhood sweetheart Mairead, mother of his three sons, Cathal, Shane and Declan. Whether they outgrew the relationship, or the pressures of his non-stop working life took their toll is a moot point, but the couple separated when the boys were still very young.
However, they never divorced -- this could have been out of respect for the Catholic Church and Irish conventions; it could also have been a shrewd way for Ryan to avoid the possibility of remarriage to any of his later girlfriends -- and he left her more than €20m in his will.
It was Mairead, as the official widow, who called the shots at Ryan's low-key, private funeral, which was requested to be for family only.
After his marriage ended, Ryan embarked on a series of affairs with glamorous, cultivated, well-connected women. He favoured a certain type of confident, entitled beauty, always with a dash of city polish.
First was Lady Miranda Guinness, whom many believe was the love of his life, and with whom he stayed for six years. Miranda Smiley was the most bewitching debutante of her season; gorgeous and glowing with life and humour, she was popular with the girls of her year as much as with men, and, in 1963, made the match she seemed destined for when she married Benjamin Guinness, 3rd Earl of Iveagh. Together, they were London's most dazzling golden couple, while in Ireland, still a social backwater, their glamour was practically divine.
Single-handedly, Miranda lit up the gossip columns of the day, her life at Farmleigh (where she and Benjamin lived with their four children), her trips to Brown Thomas and Cezanne Hair Studio, her weekends away and lunches in the Shelbourne Hotel were read about and sighed over.
When she and Benjamin separated, in the mid-Seventies, mainly due to his alcoholism, it was a scandal that mesmerised two countries. Somehow, though, she managed to remain untainted by it, adored despite a series of affairs that would have left someone less appealing, looking tarnished.
The life Miranda had been born to -- brought up in Castle Fraser, an enormous barracks of a stately home in Scotland (the Fraser who built it is somewhere related to Sir Hugh Fraser, who married Antonia Pakenham, sister of Thomas Pakenham, and whom she left for Harold Pinter; thus, we see the fundamental interconnectedness of all things British aristocracy) -- was precisely the one to which Ryan aspired, and which he now had the wealth to engineer.
As a tutor and mentor, Miranda was perfect -- cultivated, instinctive and, above all, tactful. She guided him true, shaping his natural good taste into a kind of killer focus, geared towards architecturally important buildings, "serious" art (he favoured 16th- and 17th-Century Old Masters), and fine wines (he had a share in the Chateau Lascombes vineyard in Bordeaux).
Along the way, they had fun together, hosting and attending parties for the kind of people Ryan wouldn't have had access to without her -- wealth alone is never sufficient passport to the world of intellectuals and aristocrats.
And, for all his disingenuous talk of being "just a Tipperary farmer", Ryan delighted in this phase of his life, laying the building blocks of the collection that Christie's is bringing to auction at the same time as he continued amassing the vast fortune that culminated in an estate valued at €95m at his death, but described at the time as "only a fraction of the tycoon's wealth, much of which is already tied up in discretionary trusts for his surviving children and grandchildren".
He entertained in the formal manner -- black-tie dinners, bridge, tennis, marquees on the lawn -- and gloried in the trappings of the billionaire lifestyle; the private planes, Olympic-sized swimming pools, stud farms, and exquisite homes in New York, Monte Carlo and Ibiza.
But despite the passion -- for each other and their shared enthusiasms -- the relationship broke up after six years. Miranda moved to London, possibly in response to the end of the affair, and began work on her own great project, the restoration of Wilbury Park, a Palladian mansion in Wiltshire.
She had a relationship with the Marquess of Londonderry, but, like Ryan, never divorced or remarried. In fact, she nursed her husband through his last illness and, when she died late last year, was buried with him in the family crypt Elveden, the Guinnesses' 10,000-acre estate in Suffolk.
Ryan, meanwhile, threw himself into an affair with PR whiz Rachel Dalton, then in her 20s, and a good 30 years younger than him. Irish, based in London, with plenty of can-do spirit, Rachel was perhaps an antidote to the kind of intensity and perfectionism that dominated relations with Miranda.
After Rachel, Ryan had romances with designer Louise Kennedy, and interior designers Lucinda Batt, and Tiggy Butler, all of whom are due some credit for the success of the Lyons Demesne project.
Butler, a sleek, blonde "restoration expert", who has had a hand in Holland House in Mayfair, London, and a Kentucky mansion, is known to be a formidable operator, and recently tussled with her London neighbour, the socialite, diamond heiress and wife of the Icelandic president Dorrit Moussaieff. Butler is alleging abusive behaviour and trespass, in a case that will likely come to court later this year.
Ryan's final relationship was with Martine Head, the elegant daughter of legendary French racehorse trainer and breeder Alec Head. Ryan left her more than €6m in his will, including the specific sum of €500,000 to complete renovations on Tourgeville House in Deauville. Martine was manager of the Head family's Haras du Quesnay stud, on an estate established in 1907 by American sportsman William Kissam Vanderbilt and turned into a phenomenally successful thoroughbred horse farm by her father.
Martine, described by a friend of Ryan's as "his friend, who brought joy and tranquillity to the last chapter of a great life", lived at Lyons with him during his last illness, but no address was given for her in Ryan's will when it came to probate.
Ryan exercised close control over his life and carefully vetted anyone he let into it, preferring to remain a publicly taciturn, if prominent, figure. He couldn't, however, exercise the same restraint when it came to his sons, and the scandal that unfolded between Michelle Rocca and Cathal Ryan was exactly the type of thing he disliked most.
Cathal, who died very sadly just months after his father, seems to have shared his father's attraction to beautiful, headstrong women. Rocca, a former Miss Ireland and presenter of the 1988 Eurovision Song Contest, which was sponsored by Ryanair, had been married to Irish football international John Devine before she had a daughter, Claudia, with Cathal.
The story goes that he believed the relationship was over, and attended a 30th birthday party at Blackhall Stud with his new girlfriend Sarah Linton. When Michelle discovered them in bed and asleep together, a row broke out, during which she claimed that he "pummelled" and beat her.
When the scandal erupted, Tony himself intervened, and tried hard to persuade Michelle not to involve the gardai, calling her to apologise, then turning up in person with flowers, but the spectacularly public case just wouldn't go away. Instead, it became a lurid media event when it came to court five years later.
The jury in the civil case taken by Michelle found in her favour, but awarded just £7,500 in damages, making it something of a Pyrrhic victory. By then Michelle was dating Van Morrison, who came to court with her every day, his silent presence adding yet more layers of fascination to the case, which horrified Ryan by spiralling way beyond his control, fed by the insatiable interest of a public high on schadenfreude.
That was the era of GPA, arguably the greatest success, certainly the most famous casualty, in Irish business. The aviation company that was more like a club, even a court, glowing with jet-set glamour and celebrity appeal, and a fully realised, almost iconic identity. The sums of money involved in GPA -- the contracts, the salaries, the bonuses -- were frankly stunning, and the ethos of the company was as much about myth-making as deal-making.
Ryan himself didn't care much about sleep and clocked up around 500,000 air miles a year, often visiting six countries in three days, at a time when much of the country went abroad barely once a year.
This was a Shannon-based company, the brainchild of one man, that became the biggest plane-buyer in the market. By the time of the ill-fated IPO in 1992, it had 400 planes on order, worth some $20bn; the biggest deal in aviation history. No wonder those on the outside were so keen to see it fail.
It crash-landed, of course, and from its ashes Ryan founded Ryanair. His tenacity as a businessman paid off, and from near-bankruptcy he gathered a fortune running into billions. But he may also have broken the mould. Since he died, the house has failed to sell, with an asking price that has dropped from €80m to €50m, but is still attracting no buyers.
Billionaires with Ryan's kind of aesthetic sensibility are clearly thin on the ground. Perhaps, too, it's a sign that the appeal of a collection like this is in the accumulation, the slow assembling from scratch of beautiful and rare objects, not the ready-made acquisition.
"Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty," said Theodore Roosevelt. It's a quote that could well apply to Ryan's life, his collection and the women he loved.
Sunday Indo Living