Friday 20 October 2017

Flash, brash Johnny becomes 'Ronan reborn'

After years of fabulous excess and partying, the 'buccaneer' has stepped out of limelight, writes Emily Hourican

LIFE IN THE FAST LANE: Johnny Ronan. Photo: GERRY MOONEY
LIFE IN THE FAST LANE: Johnny Ronan. Photo: GERRY MOONEY

For the slow learners among us, those who somehow missed the beginning of the Celtic Tiger and failed to spot the growing fascination with wealth and fabulous excess, the 21st-birthday parties of Johnny Ronan's three children were a kind of crash course in the new social norms for the very rich. Like something out of Jackie Collins, these were celebrated with every trapping of extravagance, each more splendid than the last.

First was John Jnr's, in 2003, held in a marquee in the family home, with lobster dinners for all. Guests included Mary Harney, then Tanaiste, and Michael Colgan. Tony Fenton was DJ.

A few years later, it was daughter Jodie's turn. The party was in the 75-acre Wicklow estate once owned by Sir Basil and Lady Valerie Goulding (who gave their own legendary parties there) and bought by Ronan in 1993 from Tony Ryan for €760,000. The party seemingly had a huge budget, with 300 guests treated to Montrachet wines at €150 a bottle.

And in 2009, James Ronan, then a student at DIT, had his very own coming-of-age extravaganza in the five-star Ritz-Carlton at Powerscourt, one of Ronan's properties, where he graciously accepted the kind of gifts that one guest likened to tributes fit for a Saudi prince.

At the time, Ronan's wealth was listed by the Sunday Times as €239m and, like the rest of this emerging class of swaggering alpha-male developers, he wasn't shy about spending it.

"He likes the big price tags," is how one acquaintance put it. That means fine wines -- Cheval Blanc, Lynch Bages -- fine foods, expensive cars (along with his trademark Maybach, he has had a metallic blue Hummer and a two-door gull-wing Mercedes SLR) and important art, with a collection once valued at €10m.

In fact, Ronan was one of those driving up the price of Irish art during the boom years, buying sculptures by Rowan Gillespie and Patrick O'Reilly, who also designed door handles for the house in Wicklow. He is also a fan of Damien Hirst, with whom he has had the odd night out.

His son James, for his 21st, intended to build an 8,700sq ft house house on the Goulding estate, the ultimate boy pad, with a domed roof, Romanesque columns, five en-suite bedrooms, an internal lift, a bar with a snug and a dining room to seat 24 people. Plans were lodged just weeks after the birthday party, but turned down by Wicklow County Council last year.

James, who recently angered disability activists by posting a tasteless photo on his Facebook page of himself in a wheelchair, drinking a bottle of beer without using his hands, is planning to appeal the decision on the basis that he has "a rural planning need".

Both Ronan and Richard Barrett, his partner in Treasury Holdings, are known to be publicity-shy -- so much so that they had Maurice Harte, chief executive of Treasury Holdings, front their £125m bid for the Millennium Dome in London in 2001 (Tony Blair himself eventually stepped in to block the sale).

But whereas Barrett is almost self-effacing in his discretion, Ronan's brand of low-key comes with a flourish, a theatrical showiness that is part of his sociable and gregarious nature. It's all there in his nickname -- 'the buccaneer'. It's in his pony tail and distinctive badger-striped hair, his pink palazzo on Burlington Road, the Maybach which used to sit outside the Treasury building, and the fact that although Barrett worked from the office, Ronan often used a penthouse nearby.

It's in his choice of girlfriend -- a model 25 years younger than himself, with a career built around photocalls and presenting a showbiz series -- and, most particularly, in the manner of his breaking up with her and subsequently stepping back from Treasury Holdings.

Ronan, now 55, from Carrick-on-Suir, is the son of a Tipperary pig farmer-turned-property developer who made enough money by the time Ronan was a boy to send his son to Castleknock School, where he met Richard Barrett.

An opposites-attract mentality seem to have brought them together initially. Barrett was the cerebral, studious one, Ronan the hard-living fun-lover. But when it came to money, their attitudes were identical.

"Two heads of the same beast," is how one man who has had dealings with them described the pair. Certainly they were famously litigious -- Treasury Holdings was once involved in 38 pieces of litigation at the one time -- and professionally abrasive.

After school, Ronan went to Waterford Institute of Technology, where he trained as an accountant, and by his 20s he was already involved in deals with his father.

He married Mary, one of six sisters from Waterford, dark-haired and handsome (Glenda Gilson bears a quite striking resemblance to her), and the couple had three children before they separated.

Despite his very public dalliance with Glenda, he and Mary have never divorced. She remains a pivotal point in his sometimes chaotic-seeming life, and they are perfectly capable of appearing harmoniously together at key business and family functions.

Those who know Ronan well say she is certainly the love of his life and indeed that the couple may well one day reconcile, even though he has at times been humiliatingly public in his liaisons.

He and Barrett lost touch after school -- Barrett went on to train as a barrister -- but bumped into each other when both were putting in a bid for the same property. They decided to pool their resources, bought an office block in Blackrock and sold it less than a week later.

From there, the size, scale and audacity of their deals gathered momentum and went largely unchecked. Even the odd setback -- such as the proposed 23-storey tower in Spencer Dock, which was described as a "monstrosity" by Bertie Ahern in an unguarded moment -- didn't seem to halt their gallop.

Despite an attitude towards women that many regard as crude, Ronan has nonetheless managed to notch up friendships with some of the city's highest-profile young models and personalities.

At one point, Paddy Power was offering odds on who he would be papped 'cuddling' with next (Glenda was 5/4, Rosanna 4/1), with a spokesperson for Paddy Power saying: "We can't quite get our head around what all these lovely ladies see in multi-millionaire Johnny Ronan".

But it is noticeable that what these women have in common, apart from looks, is their dedication to the party scene.

His Friday lunches -- in Guilbaud's, Town Bar and Grill or the Unicorn, often with a gang including Eamon Dunphy, Michael Colgan, Robbie Fox and the late Gerry Ryan -- followed by a couple of pints in the Leeson Lounge, were almost fixtures in their regularity.

As was his dedication to following U2 around the globe and attending their biggest gigs -- backstage, natch.

He befriended supermodels -- including Petra Nemcova, whom he is said to admire for her business brain -- and was a pal of Haughey's, whom he met at Noel Pearson's Christmas lunches and who ultimately stiffed Ronan and Barrett on a deal to buy Kinsealy, selling to a rival developer instead.

Wherever the most raucous party was to be found, there, usually, was Johnny Ronan. Known to be hugely generous to his friends, as well as numerous charities, including Petra Nemcova's Happy Hearts Fund and the Irish Georgian Society -- and indeed to young people who could convince him of their passion and ability -- Ronan was the centre of a hard-living, fun-loving crowd, all of whom gloried in their ability to spend fortunes on fripperies without so much as a second thought.

But whereas most of his crew would, despite the long lunches, usually be home and asleep shortly after midnight, Ronan was quite likely to stay up well into the night, frequenting nightclubs such as Renards, increasingly with a much younger gang.

And whereas his own inclination may have been to stay below the media radar, keeping the developer's code of Omerta, this younger crowd included those, such as Rosanna Davison and Glenda Gilson, whose job was, essentially, to be highly visible, seen and snapped at every turn.

It was a dangerous game, a clear conflict of purpose, one that seemed to spiral well beyond absurdity as his relationship with Glenda began making headlines in every tabloid in the country.

Although they made a very odd couple -- Glenda invariably glammed-up, towering over Johnny, who, with his piratical beard and haphazard dress sense (he is known for never removing his jacket in restaurants, as well as his fondness for Tommy Hilfiger track-tops) sometimes looked more like a taxi driver than a multi-millionaire -- there was nonetheless a kind of raw passion between the two.

She was clearly built of stuff stern enough to cope with his sometimes crude manners, while he had the look of a man who couldn't believe his good fortune. Theirs was a high-voltage relationship, with frequent rows and displays of drama.

But the game between them took an unpleasant turn when he fired off an email to TV3's newsroom, stating that "any romantic relationship" between him and Gilson during the past three years had ended.

That was, apparently, the first she had heard of it. It was a bizarre, hurtful gesture, weirdly public for a man until then so private.

And worse was to come when, a year or so later, he jetted off to Marrakech with Rosanna Davison and a female friend of Rosanna's after a bout of "Sunday afternoon drinking gone crazy," as Rosanna put it.

Once in Marrakech, they checked into the €500-a-night La Mamounia Hotel and apparently had dinner and drank mint tea by the pool.

All this came the day after a nasty street brawl with Glenda, during which she kicked him twice, once in the groin, and he took a swing at her in retaliation.

His response -- jetting off with a former Miss World -- seemed a display of alpha-machismo, as well as the actions of a man in meltdown.

That incident was a nine-day tabloid wonder for its irresistible intersection of reckless extravagance, wild partying, glamorous women and romantic drama -- at a time when unemployment figures were rocketing across the country and Nama was starting to move on the biggest of the once-gilded developers.

It was also something of a swan song for that particular incarnation of Johnny Ronan.

Shortly afterwards, he took a step back from Treasury Holdings, left the country, gave up alcohol and adopted his own version of the monastic life -- long-distance cycling.

Along with hunting -- he is a member of the Ward Union Hunt -- Ronan has long been a fan of cycling, going off whenever possible with Tour de France winner Sean Kelly, also from Carrick-on-Suir and a close friend for many years.

Together they tackled the Pyrenees Mountains and rough parts of Spain, often staying in cheap hostels along the way, rather than the usual five-star pads.

His most recent public appearance -- backstage at Glastonbury with the U2 entourage and Petra Nemcova -- came via a €50 Easyjet flight (although his luggage rang in at twice that, which makes him seem a bit of supermodel himself), and suggests that he may now be trying to lead a life more in accord with his status as one of Nama's Top 10.

However, for a man who is not particularly known for his sensitivity and who delights in the trappings of wealth as much as Ronan clearly does, this may not be a symbol of contrition so much as a temporary exercise in slumming it.

Sunday Independent

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