How my life as a jetsetter with Tony Ryan crash landed
Published 20/06/2015 | 02:30
We were standing together at a reception in a posh hotel in Turin when Tony Ryan handed me a book, 'Cider with Rosie' by Laurie Lee, and said "you should read that sometime, it's very well written." I resisted the urge to tell him I had read it already and turned instead to the flyleaf which bore the inscription 'To Tony, love M.'
The 'M' was Miranda Guinness, said to be the love of his life, although he had a wife, Mairead, before her and a string of well-known lovers after her.
Tony Ryan was one of only three well-known millionaires in Ireland of that era, the other two being Tony O'Reilly and Michael Smurfit. There were undoubtedly others, but they kept it to themselves.
A train driver's son from Boherlahan in Tipperary his imagination about the possibilities of travel had been fired by Charles Bianconi, the Italian who introduced carriage travel as a means of transport in Ireland in the 1800s, and is buried in a mausoleum in the local graveyard.
Ryan joined Aer Lingus, ran their Chicago office and had the brilliant idea of pioneering aircraft leasing on a global scale. Emerging nations wanted a national airline, but couldn't afford the costs. He would not only organise the planes but also the crews to run them. His bosses in Aer Lingus hedged their bets and took a minority stake in his new venture, so he raised the rest from a London finance house called Guinness Peat and Guinness Peat Aviation or GPA was born.
He insisted that all his executives live in and around his headquarters at Shannon airport, with the result that the shore of Lough Derg was populated by the mansions of his well-paid executives. Less reverend staff referred to their Limerick lifestyle as "living in Saudi…with drink."
Ryan's philosophy was simple, as he explained it to me, "we fly farther, stay longer and work harder than the competition...that's why we're the best."
He told a hair-raising story of personally accompanying a crew to some dangerous African statelet to repossess a Boeing after the cash strapped dictator stopped making repayments. He sat with the crew for 24 hours as nervous soldiers armed to the teeth patrolled the aircraft with vicious dogs, keeping it on the ground. But eventually it was the soldiers who went off to eat, and when they did the crew hit the jets and made a rapid exit.
Why he agreed to take me on his private jet I don't know. He didn't really like journalists, but he was fascinated by the news agenda and how it worked. He knew that information was power.
Ryan was now living in Kilboy House, a stately pile in Tipperary with his prize-winning herd of Simmental cattle grazing the land. Each year he threw a fabulous Barn Dance with a planeload of air hostesses flown in for the glamour. The GPA board included the former Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald, financial guru Sir John Harvey Jones, Nigel Lawson, former British Chancellor and Sean Donlon, an influential Irish ambassador to Washington, among others.
Before we set off Donlon asked me to get a letter from my editor saying that nothing I would write would "damage our business" with which I complied. On board the private jet were Tony Ryan, Sean Donlon, GPA's top executives Jim King, Colm Barrington, Peter Ledbetter as well as myself and photographer Frank McGrath.
Travelling by private jet is an experience as far removed from ordinary air travel as driving a new Mercedes is from riding a bicycle.
We flew to a meeting in Amsterdam before moving on to Toulouse, France for lunch and a tour of the new Airbus 320, which was then just going into production. We then flew on to Turin for the night. The next morning it was off to Frankfurt for more meetings, then on to Geneva and finally putting down in Stockholm for the night.
One of the things I had noticed as we travelled was the bulging breast pockets of the GPA executives. When I asked Jim King about it he opened his jacket to reveal a wodge of open first class airline tickets to virtually anywhere in the world. Missing a flight was no bother they just hopped on the next one.
That night we went to the best restaurant in Stockholm and Champagne flowed - GPA had just concluded another enormous deal. But Tony Ryan wasn't celebrating, he was back at the hotel and his instructions were that we were leaving from the airport at 6am sharp for Shannon. Not having the safety net of the other executives I was sitting in a comfortable seat with Ryan at 5.55am. He had promised me my interview on the home leg of the journey and it appeared he was an insomniac and had spent most of the night watching documentaries on the television.
At 6.02 am he asked his assistant to call the pilot.
"Why aren't we in the air?" he demanded.
"Mr King and the others are at the perimeter of the airport, they're delayed," answered the pilot.
"I don't care where they are they're not here, take off," ordered Ryan.
But the pilot stalled and King and some other GPA executives who we had picked up in Stockholm boarded the plane. There was an almighty row as a furious Ryan berated them for being late. King took it for a while and then jollied him back into good humour by making a bet about some bit of business they had to transact later in the day.
Ryan then turned to me: "That's just what you are looking for, isn't it." he said. I couldn't disagree, but I pointed out that it wasn't something I had orchestrated.
"If I was staying in your house and your wife forgot to put out clean towels what would you think of me if I complained?" he challenged. It was such a bizarre question that I didn't know how to answer. But eventually we did get around to the interview. He then insisted I go with him that night to University College Galway, where he was giving a talk. I remember one member of the audience asking him what he feared most. "Laser travel," he answered and he meant it.
"You will let me see it before it goes to print," he asked, rhetorically, as we parted.
The following week I got a call from his public relations executive asking when they could see the article. He reminded me, your editor has given us a letter saying you won't write anything that will damage our business.
I said I wouldn't be damaging their business.
"Only we can judge that, we have to see the article." Our lawyers agreed.
Ryan read it and went berserk. He contacted his solicitors, he contacted Tony O'Reilly in Pittsburg. Senior Counsel Paddy McEntee turned up at the back door of the Irish Independent in Abbey Street late on the Friday night before publication. I was sent home.
The story was never published. The 350,000 copies of a colour supplement were pulped.
A year or so later I met a senior GPA executive and asked her why Ryan was so angry about the way I described the row on the plane that last morning.
"It wasn't that," she answered, "when he saw you had printed 'To Tony - love M' he demanded that it was stopped at all costs."
About ten years later, when GPA had collapsed but his finances had been resurrected by Michael O'Leary and Ryanair I wrote to Mary Finan, his PR woman, and asked if he would do another interview. I was surprised yet again to be told that if I took a Ryanair flight to London he would meet me at his home in Eaton Square.
Maybe he felt guilty about our previous encounter, maybe nobody had asked him for an interview in years. I never found out.
He had just been mugged a few days before and was quite groggy. The house, again filled with Irish art, was strangely quiet. He made two mugs of tea and we sat in the kitchen talking casually.
He told me he had just bought the Lyons Estate at Newcastle, Co Dublin, the ancestral home of Lord Cloncurry and intended to renovate it.
I later had the pleasure of visiting the house, it was a stunning restoration and I saw where an estimated £100m went.
As I left the house and walked in the formal gardens I caught a glimpse of Tony Ryan and a gaggle of his grandchildren and I saw a different man to the bad tempered demanding boss I had seen all those years before.
At his funeral service in Lyons in 2007, his wife Mairead and his various lovers sat through the ceremony.
He was then buried in his own mausoleum in the grounds, just like Bianconi was in Boherlahan. Miranda Guinness - the lover who had meant so much and was credited with introducing him to the taste and style that characterised his later life also fell victim to cancer and died three years later in December 2010.
I often wonder where 'Cider with Rosie' is now.
David Murphy's film on Tony Ryan is broadcast on RTÉ One on Tuesday at 9.35