Falklands helped him build the empire that was to slip from grasp
Published 30/01/2014 | 02:30
Over 25 years he built and lost and empire, but he has left an indelible mark on the Irish landscape in the form of the Citywest complex on the Naas Road outside Dublin.
Jim Mansfield, who died yesterday at the age of 74, was an extraordinary man who came from nothing and ended his days in the Tassaggart House, the last vestige of what was once a sprawling business conglomerate that encompassed hotels and apartments blocks, golf courses and even his own personal airfield.
He bought and restored Palmerstown House near Naas which was to be 'the jewel in the crown' of his leisure empire, but turned out to be just another millstone around his neck when the property boom turned to bust.
One visitor to Tassaggart House recalls being shown into the drawing room to await Mansfield. As he wandered around the room he was astonished to come across an original Picasso hanging on the wall, a painting to which his host seemed quite oblivious.
Born on April 9, 1939, at Brittas in west Dublin, Jim Mansfield left school at 14 to go and work for a local farmer. He would later return to buy up much of the land he knew as a young man, including a field that he bought for €30m from another 'local boy', the ballad singer Paddy Reilly.
He then went to work in a gravel pit and bought his own lorry, trading in anything he could buy or sell.
"When I got married (to Anne) I left the house every morning at 4am and didn't get back until 11pm," the often taciturn businessman would say later.
He emigrated to England in the 1950s and went into the scrap machinery business. As his empire expanded, one of his great money-spinners was buying old, but still reliable JCBs, re-painting them in the bright canary yellow livery and shipping them over to the US, where they were sold at a handsome profit.
The 'coup' that made him a household name came in the aftermath of the Falklands War. Mansfield tendered and won the contract to collect thousands of tons of scrap metal left behind on the remote South Atlantic island after the conflict. He shipped it back to Britain and the US and sold it for a fortune at auctions in Liverpool and Atlanta. With the proceeds he bought Tassaggart House and a 160-acre estate off the Naas Road near Rathcoole for £1.3m in 1990, returning to Ireland with Anne and their three son Anthony, James and Patrick.
In the following years he created the Citywest hotel and golf complex, bought Weston aerodrome and turned it into his own private airport, and he bought Palmerstown House from American heiress and horse trainer Anne Bullitt, a daughter of William Bullitt, the first US ambassador to the USSR.
Along with the estate, he also picked up her possessions, which included the Picasso, a Ming vase, a pair of duelling pistols presented by George Washington to the Marquis de Lafayette, John F Kennedy's doctoral thesis and a treasure trove of documents, including letters to her father from his friend Sigmund Freud and a massive collection of haute couture gowns and dresses from Paris.
Some of the items became the subject of a long-running court case between Mansfield and her estate – and when the case was settled in the Dublin High Court the judge, Mary Laffoy, struck it out "with a little note of sadness" as she was looking forward to hearing more about the remarkable personalities involved.
He was in bad health with various ailments for a number of years. One of his few public pronouncements came after his private jet was impounded in Belgium in 2006 after customs found a consignment of heroin stashed on board. The jet had been on "private hire" at the time and Mr Mansfield would later tell the Sunday Independent in an interview "there are no drugs in my business".
But the biggest tragedy of all for Jim Mansfield was to see his life's work torn apart in 2012 when his holding company HSS – otherwise the Mansfield Group – was put into receivership, with Bank of Scotland attempting to recover €170m loaned to two of his companies.
It was the end of an empire and the rags-to-riches career of one of Dublin's most colourful businessmen.