independent

Friday 18 April 2014

Who's that girl?

Karen Woods

Hollywood couldn't have produced a better script: young middle-class woman meets and falls in love with the son of the richest man in the country.

She's a publican's daughter, he's the son of a businessman worth an estimated €5bn. He buys a trophy UK golf resort to add to his property portfolio, because he can.

Later, they move into a sumptuous apartment together. Life is exceptionally good.

By the time they marry, he's the son of a bankrupt former billionaire, the €5bn fortune has crumbled and the family is mired in endless litigation over massive amounts of money owed to the banks.

Even the trophy golf resort has to be sold off.

Within two months of their wedding, the young bride is left to start married life alone as her husband begins a three-month jail sentence for breaking a court order not to put overseas assets beyond the reach of a bank.

She becomes the most photo-graphed and talked-about woman in the country, her looks and clothes scrutinised as she visits him in jail looking very glamorous and expensively dressed for someone whose husband and in-laws are supposedly on their uppers.

Shortly after her new husband is jailed, it emerges in the High Court that she had been receiving a €320,000 salary from a Russian company in the Quinn family's IPG (International Property Group) since April 2011.

A court official is put in charge of all her assets. Her bank accounts are frozen and she is allowed only €2,895 a month -- this includes paying two mortgages in Dublin.

All of this by the age of 31.

She's probably too young to have watched TV series such as 'Dallas' or 'Dynasty' when she was a child, and to consider that her life now reads like a storyline from them.

She is Karen Woods, (she still goes by her maiden name) the good-looking young Castleknock woman who married 33-year-old Sean Quinn Jr in May, smack bang in the middle of a High Court case taken by IBRC, formerly Anglo Irish Bank, which claims the Quinn family owes it almost €2.8bn, including €2.3bn in loans, and €455m from its overseas property portfolio.

The Quinn family disputes that it owes the bank the €2.3bn loan figure.

The couple reportedly enjoyed an opulent wedding reception at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Wicklow, with Champagne flowing and a free bar tab for guests.

To some, it seemed as if they were giving a massive two fingers to their legal challengers but, according to a source close to the couple, the wedding had been booked a year earlier.

Whatever happened in court, Karen Woods was going to marry Sean Quinn Jr.

"Karen doesn't regret a thing," says a friend. "She went from going out with the son of Ireland's richest man to marrying the son of a man who's received the largest ever judgment order in an Irish court, but she was always going to marry Sean, no matter what happened.

"She had prepared herself for the possibility of him going to jail but, even so, she was shocked when it happened.

"He's halfway through his jail term now and she just wants him out so that they can begin married life, as they had hoped and planned for."

But married life couldn't begin as normal. Even the couple's honeymoon has been the subject of scrutiny, with reports that IBRC employed a financial investigator to retrace Sean Quinn Jr's steps on a post-wedding trip that took in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Vanuatu, a tax haven with strict banking secrecy laws.

Karen has been photographed each week turning up in her Audi A5, or in a relative's black BMW SUV, to visit her husband at Mountjoy's training centre.

On one of her first visits, she was heard by reporters asking prison staff to "please, please let us in", desperate to see her husband and to escape the lenses of the waiting photographers.

Those same photographers have captured Karen over the past six weeks looking fit, glamorous and smiling.

Her outfits have been scrutinised from top to bottom, and note has been taken of her Prada and Marc Jacobs designer handbags.

She has been prompted to say that one particular outfit consisted of labels French Connection, Topshop and Zara -- rather than high-end designer labels -- and she claims she shops mainly on the high street.

Last weekend, one newspaper ran a 'get her look' feature, which friends say she found bizarre, as if she was suddenly a celebrity.

She has been accused of dressing for the catwalk rather than prison visits, and has been labelled 'brazen' by those who challenge her audacity to turn up at Mountjoy looking well-groomed.

"Karen's a very private person," a source says. "She had managed to maintain her privacy for almost seven years of a relationship with Sean before all this happened, and she wants to return to that privacy.

"She doesn't think she's anyone special, she just wants to start leading a normal married life. She's being portrayed as a wannabe Wag or a wannabe model, and she's neither.

"And, let's face it," the source continues, "if Karen was a pudgy size 16 and not as pretty and not as blonde, the discussion about her looks wouldn't be happening in the first place. Then again, if that was the case, Sean might not have married her.

"In fact, Karen has a fantastic personality. She's quite quiet and homely, but she gets on well with everyone she meets. She's personable and has an infectious laugh and a ready sense of humour," they add.

Once inside Mountjoy's training unit, she and members of Sean's family are given an hour with him. She can hug him but nothing more.

"Sean's a complete family man and would love to start a family; they both would," says a friend. "But there's no chance of that happening at the moment. They're absolutely not allowed marital relations in Mountjoy.

"Karen has already said that she misses him awfully and that she felt he was being scapegoated for Anglo's collapse. She says the hardest part is leaving him behind when each visit is over."

Also, while he's been in Mountjoy, the famous Belfry golf resort in Birmingham, which he bought in 2005, was reportedly sold off to a US group for €113m, half the price he paid for it.

Another Quinn trophy bites the dust.

Karen Woods met Sean Quinn Jr almost seven years ago. It was the height of the boom and a time when the Quinn family's current troubles must have seemed unimaginable.

But, according to friends of Karen's, there was no glamorous Hollywood drama to their first meeting.

Then in his mid-20s, Sean was based in Dublin to work at the Quinn Group's Blanchardstown offices.

A keen GAA player, he had transferred from Teemore Shamrocks in Fermanagh to St Brigid's GAA club in Castleknock. There, fellow club member Craig Kilmurray and his partner Lisa introduced him to Karen.

Lisa was one of Karen's bridesmaids at her May wedding.

"For Karen, Sean is just the best in the world," says our source. "She loved that he's laid-back, relaxed and has a good sense of humour. He's also massively protective of her."

When they met, Karen was around 24. The second eldest of four children, her parents Joan and Patrick Woods own the popular Dame Tavern pub off Dame Street in Dublin and the family live in Castleknock village.

Her oldest brother, Graeme (34), continues to co-run the pub along with his father, who works there most nights of the week. Graeme is married to Louise Keating, a friend of socialite and TV3 presenter Glenda Gilson.

Karen has two other siblings, 29-year-old Colin, who lives and works as an accountant in Melbourne, Australia, and 21-year-old Eimear, who is studying human resources at the Dublin Business School.

They're described as a normal Dublin family who are into GAA.

"Karen's parents are both aged 55 and youthful looking," says a friend. "Patrick looks more like Graeme's brother than his father and Karen is the image of her mother Joan, from whom she takes her good looks and style.

"They're a beautiful family, not snotty or posh, just normal Dublin people."

Karen was educated at Mount Sackville primary school and completed her secondary education at The Pembroke in Ballsbridge, a now-closed private school once described as a school for 'middle-class daughters of Catholic liberals'. The late Maeve Binchy once taught there.

The Woods boys attended Castleknock College, while Eimear, the baby of the family, went to Mount Sackville, the private school for Castleknock girls.

Following school, Karen did an arts degree at UCD and, since 2002, has worked in the car trade, formerly as a sales executive for Joe Duffy's north Dublin Audi dealership and currently as a part-time receptionist with the same company.

In secondary school, she was a talented runner, winning 400m and 800m races in schools championships and competing for Ireland at championships in the UK.

Up until the age of around 20, she was a member of Metro/St Brigid's athletics club, situated along the banks of the River Liffey at Islandbridge, and which boasts senator Eamonn Coghlan as its most famous member.

Nowadays, however, competitive running is a thing of the past, and Karen prefers to go running in the park with friends and to take part in fun runs for charity.

"Not this year," says a friend, "because there's too much going on, but in previous years they would raise a few hundred euro for a charity and run those 10k races."

Karen runs in the Phoenix Park, a stone's throw from the luxury home she shares with her husband. The couple live at Farmleigh Woods, an upmarket estate of houses and apartments that overlooks Farmleigh House and is just minutes from the primary school she attended.

Neighbours at Farmleigh Woods describe Sean and Karen as a very nice young couple.

It is believed they live in a double penthouse, and while the apartments are described as sumptuous and luxurious in the brochure, they're not quite a match for Sean Quinn Sr's 14,700sq ft mansion in Ballyconnell, Cavan, which boasts a swimming pool, nine-car garage, cinema, bar and gym.

More importantly for Karen, her home is situated close to her parents, with whom she spends a lot of time.

"Karen keeps it very local," says a close friend, repeating the Quinn family line that she and Sean Jr don't flash the cash.

"You won't see her and Sean in Krystle, at charity balls or in magazine photos -- it's really not their thing. They socialise a lot with Karen's brother Graeme and with Sean's four sisters. The couple's love of GAA also influences how they spend their time.

"Their social life is also built around the GAA club -- they go to all the senior football matches and county hurling games," the friend says.

"Karen didn't go to Dublin's recent game against Mayo, she wouldn't go without Sean by her side, but she watched it on the TV.

"They would describe their lives as quite uneventful. They go out for dinner once a week, switching between restaurants in Castleknock; the rest of the time they cook at home.

"Neither of them describe themselves as good cooks," the friend added.

Since Sean went to prison, Karen has been keeping an even lower profile.

"Karen and Sean would be known as a couple to a lot of people in Castleknock, but she hasn't been able to gauge people's reaction to coverage of her since Sean went to jail because she hasn't been on a night out since he went to Mountjoy," the friend continues.

"She's not really in the mood for going out and is keeping herself to herself. She just wants him back home so they can get back to normal."

With years of legal battles ahead, the middle-class publican's daughter is in the thick of a massive national story.

It's highly unlikely that life for Karen and Sean Quinn Jr will return to whatever normal was for them for a very long time.

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