Sunday 23 October 2016

The folks who lived on Gorse Hill

Bankruptcy is purgatory and the dogs are gone but one year since the Killiney Hill seige, Brian and Blake O'Donnell battle on

Published 24/04/2016 | 02:30

A hill to climb: Brian O'Donnell and his son Blake outside court last week. The family has vowed to never give up its legal battle with Bank of Ireland Photo: David Conachy
A hill to climb: Brian O'Donnell and his son Blake outside court last week. The family has vowed to never give up its legal battle with Bank of Ireland Photo: David Conachy

This time last year, the siege of Gorse Hill drew to a whimpering close. The once minted Brian O'Donnell exited the grand gates of the €7m clifftop retreat in Killiney that had been the family home for the last time. He drove straight to Bank of Ireland's annual general meeting, and tossed the keys of his seized mansion at Richie Boucher, its chief executive, in a staged stunt, declaring: "here are the keys to Gorse Hill you spent €9m trying to get".

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One year on, the €7m mansion lies empty, mired in litigation preventing its sale. Brian O'Donnell, the former solicitor turned property developer, likens life in bankruptcy to "purgatory", his daughter Blaise has had to give up her beloved dogs and the family keeps on losing to the bank down at the Four Courts.

Yet the O'Donnell family ploughs on. The former billionaire property developer, Brian O'Donnell, and his son, Blake, will be resuming their front row seats at Bank of Ireland's AGM on Thursday. He won't be repeating the stunt that made him the star turn at last year's event. Instead the once minted O'Donnells will be urging distressed mortgage holders with Bank of Ireland to turn up at its annual general meeting this week to get their cases "noticed" by its executives.

"We would like to say if there any people who are currently in distress, in arrears with mortgages to the bank, or have been put into bankruptcy by the bank, or whatever it is, I would strongly urge them to come to the AGM because it is the only chance they'll get to be taken notice of," said Blake O'Donnell, also a solicitor, who with his father has been representing the family against Bank of Ireland.

As for Gorse Hill, "nothing has changed since the time of the AGM and the bloody keys. Remember the bloody keys?" says Brian O'Donnell, fishing them out of his bag. (They apparently retrieved them after last year's AGM).

O'Donnell and his son have squeezed half an hour between their court engagements in Dublin and their flights back to the UK, where both live.

The O'Donnell family is scattered. Brian and Mary Patricia O'Donnell, who moved to the UK in 2011 as the financial woes kicked off, live in their rented home in Kent. Blake, the eldest, lives in London, flying back and forth to represent the family in court alongside his father.

The other three children live in Dublin but in changed circumstances. Blaise O'Donnell, one of two daughters, has parted with her beloved husky and beagle because of the constraints of apartment living.

"She had to give them away because she didn't have anywhere to keep them anymore," said Blake.

Bank of Ireland versus the O'Donnells is one of the most acrimonious debt cases in the Four Courts. Brian, a solicitor, and Mary Patricia O'Donnell, a psychiatrist, built up an international property portfolio worth €1bn during the boom but the bust left them with massive bank debts. In 2011 Bank of Ireland got a judgment order for €71.5m against the couple, and has been trying to enforce it ever since.

The bank moved to take Gorse Hill. The O'Donnells said the house was owned by a company in trust for their four children. But when the Supreme Court ordered the children to vacate, their parents flew home from London to assert their "right to residency". The bank accused the couple of "barricading" themselves in while members of the Land League protested outside.

The so-called people's protest over the repossession of a multi million euro mansion complete with swimming pool and sea views, as thousands of lesser souls faced eviction from far more modest family homes with barely a murmur, divided public opinion.

The family is not broke in the sense that thousands of mortgage holders in arrears are broke. For instance, Blake O'Donnell is dealing with the latest legal salvo from Bank of Ireland over a London property worth €132m. The Columbus Courtyard in Canary Wharf is owned by a British Virgin Islands registered company of which Blake and Bruce are directors. Bank of Ireland got wind the property was for sale, worked out that the O'Donnells stood to make a profit of €7m and rushed to court seeking orders to stop the profits being dissipated.

Columbus Courtyard pays an O'Donnell company €250,000 a year in fees to manage the building. "We can't talk about that. It's still live," says Blake. "It is completely open and transparent. There is a company. It provides management services. I and my brother are directors of it, and Brian is a consultant to it, and we work for it. That's basically it."

According to his father, Columbus Courtyard has nothing to do with Bank of Ireland anyway, as international banks financed it.

Brian O'Donnell has repeatedly claimed that the bank is making an "example of them" - he says his companies have paid over €170m to AIB and paid a total of €700m to international banks and Bank of Ireland is the only one to pursue them.

He describes "life under bankruptcy" as "purgatory": "You are not able to do anything economic, you can't have a credit card, for instance, you can't do simple operational things," he says.

He won't say what he's allowed to live on. "I'm not going to discuss that. We are getting by, that's all," he said. "It's very, very difficult. I would not recommend this course of action to anyone . . . It's ongoing."

There is an end in sight though. He and Mary Patricia are due to emerge from bankruptcy on July 29, free of his debt to Bank of Ireland. But the bankruptcy supervisor, Chris Lehane, will have a say in that.

Lehane organised a dawn raid on Gorse Hill in January 2015, fearing that valuable furniture and items might have been "concealed, removed or about to removed". He is also probing the expensive gifts the O'Donnell children received from their parents. They include a first edition of James Joyce's Ulysses bought for €42,500 in 2007 which was gifted to Blake. "Yes, they were gifts to us from our parents," said Blake.

His father says they are "fully cooperating" with Lehane and "have done everything that he has asked us to do".

When the New Land League took up their cause at Gorse Hill last year, Bank of Ireland's legal team drily claimed that O'Donnell was "ultimately a member of the landlord class". Debt is a great leveller. One of the things Brian O'Donnell wants to raise at Bank of Ireland's AGM is the pressure put on customers over debt. "A lot of people too are suicidal and are under enormous pressure," he said.

"There are a couple of friends of mine who it has happened to - they have hanged themselves under pressure.

"Another friend of mine rang me and said there are 28 farmers in Meath who have actually committed suicide over the last number of years. And this is under pressure from the banks. But nobody talks about it."

The AGM is an opportunity for people under pressure from their banks to look the executives making the decisions in the eye, he says: "It is time that they stood up."

The O'Donnell family is contesting or appealing almost every aspect of Bank of Ireland's attempts to enforce its e71.5m judgment. The family has't had much luck. Twelve months ago, he said they were in court 82 times and lost 82 times.

"Since then we have managed to keep the record going and have never won anything," he says.

"We are strong and we will continue to fight and we believe that we have a very good case against Bank of Ireland - and we believe that in time we will be countersuing them for damages for what they've done."

He clenches his fist dramatically: "We will never give up," he declares before rushing off to catch his flight. Bank of Ireland declined to comment.

Sunday Independent

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