John J Byrne
Developer with links to political figures of the Sixties appeared at the Moriarty tribunal, writes Liam Collins
Published 03/11/2013 | 02:00
In the old days in the downstairs restaurant of the Harp Bar on O'Connell Bridge, Mary the waitress would treat you in the same friendly way as she did the silver-haired old man eating a carvery lunch at the next table. It was only afterwards, when he had taken the lift back to his penthouse office, that she whispered, "that's Mr Byrne, he owns the building".
John J Byrne, who died last Tuesday at the age of 94, was one of 12 children who grew up on a small farm at Kilflynn, near Lixnaw, Co Kerry, and went on to literally transform the Dublin skyline with O'Connell Bridge House, completed in 1964 at a cost of £1m.
The landmark building was designed by Desmond FitzGerald, a brother of Garret, who went on to become Taoiseach.
Like his other office blocks, notably D'Olier House and Townsend House, O'Connell Bridge House wasn't pretty, but it made Mr Byrne a very wealthy man when it and many of his other buildings, were rented out on long and profitable leases to various government departments.
Indeed, Byrne planned to mirror the skyscraper on the other side of D'Olier Street when he bought the Ballast Office site some years later, but the planners wouldn't let this scheme go ahead.
He maintained his strong links with Kerry as one of the owners of the Brandon Hotel. He kept a house in Fenit, which he visited each year for the Rose of Tralee, his wife Ciara O'Sullivan being one of the early winners. He was 45 when he married and the couple went on to have eight children.
Byrne, who maintained a long and much-speculated upon friendship with Charles J Haughey, originally made his money building a series of 'Irish' ballrooms in England in the early 1950s – the most notable being the famous Galtymore in Cricklewood in London.
As his entertainment empire expanded, he brought his brothers over to England to run his dancehalls and he returned to Ireland, where he started in the entertainment business but later branched into property development.
The rooftop restaurant at the top of O'Connell Bridge House with its panoramic views, became for a few years 'the' in place to be seen in the era of the 'mohair suits'. But Byrne himself stayed well out of the limelight, never giving interviews and devoting himself to business, with companies like the Carlisle Trust [named after the original site in D'Olier Street] Alstead and Endcamp. His holding company was based in the Cayman Islands and would later come to prominence during the investigations of the Moriarty tribunal.
When the restaurant lost its glamour, he closed it down and revamped it as his office, a place where he could survey his growing empire. As well as office blocks, he also developed the old St Vincent's Hospital on St Stephen's Green, and the St Anne's apartments in Ballsbridge, near his home at Simmonscourt Castle.
The fact that accountant Des Traynor, organiser of Haughey's finances, was also a director of Byrne's property companies, led to much speculation over the years.
However, close associates of both men believed that it was a genuine friendship and both were frequent guests to each others homes.
Called as a witness by the Moriarty tribunal, Byrne, who banked with Guinness & Mahon and was the holder of an Ansbacher account in the Cayman Islands which was said to contain €6m, said: "I never gave him [Charlie Haughey] a penny in his life, or a pound." But, at what was probably his only public appearance, he was at a loss to explain how over £300,000 of his money found its way into bank accounts of the former Taoiseach.
Byrne also purchased the Baldoyle Racecourse in the 1970s with the intention of building thousands of houses and famously gave an option on the land to former Fianna Fail press officer and businessman Frank Dunlop, but he too failed to get the go-ahead for the development.
Although he was one of the biggest property developers in Ireland, he stayed well clear of the 'boom-time developers', going about his work in his own unobtrusive way and nurturing blue-chip government tenants, who always paid the rent and didn't give much trouble.
John J Byrne is survived by his wife Ciara, his five daughters and three sons. He was buried yesterday after a funeral Mass in Donnybrook Church.