Saturday 7 December 2019

Obituary: Owen O'Callaghan

Forward-thinking developer who helped change Cork's streetscape, writes Liam Collins

INQUIRY: Property developer Owen O’Callaghan pictured at the Mahon Tribunal, Dublin Castle. Photo: Tom Burke
INQUIRY: Property developer Owen O’Callaghan pictured at the Mahon Tribunal, Dublin Castle. Photo: Tom Burke

Owen O'Callaghan, who died last Monday aged 76, was a developer who almost single-handedly changed the streetscape of his 'home-town' Cork, building office blocks, shopping centres and car parks, some of questionable architectural merit, which have left their imprint on the city.

"But above all we will never forget that glint in his eye and his all-bracing inclusive charm for all those that he met," Fr Pat O'Mahony told the congregation at his funeral Mass in Cork last Wednesday.

O'Callaghan's biggest development, however, was not in Cork, but the Quarryvale site in west Dublin, now the sprawling Liffey Valley Shopping Centre, through which he became embroiled in allegations of widespread bribery and corruption which became a major part of the long-running Tribunal of Inquiry into Certain Planning Matters and Payments (Flood/Mahon Tribunal).

The tribunal's 'star' witness, rival developer Tom Gilmartin, claimed that Mr O'Callaghan told him he had given money to Albert Reynolds and Bertie Ahern to facilitate planning designations and, through lobbyist Frank Dunlop, he had bribed the late Liam Lawlor TD and a number of councillors.

From the early 1990s until his death, Mr O'Callaghan was involved in prolonged litigation and legal challenges involving the Tribunal and gave evidence for 38 days between 2004 and 2008, in which he strenuously denied making corrupt payments.

Probably one of the most bizarre episodes was an allegation by Denis 'Starry' O'Brien who claimed to have given Bertie Ahern, then Minister for Labour in the Fianna Fail government, £50,000 in cash on behalf of O'Callaghan as he sat in his State car in the underground car park of the Burlington Hotel in Dublin prior to a post All-Ireland function on September 17, 1989.

It later emerged, after the story was published in the Sunday Business Post in April 2000, that no such reception took place that night in that hotel, that Mr Ahern was not using his State car that night, that the Irish Nationwide Building Society pass book from which the £50,000 was supposedly withdrawn was forged and the account never existed, and that 'Starry' O'Brien was fishing in Co Waterford at the time the meeting was supposed to have taken place.

At the time of his death, Mr O'Callaghan was still attempting to overturn tribunal findings against him which were upheld in the High Court in 2013.

The son of a farmer from Ballincollig near Cork city, Owen O'Callaghan, who was born on August 28, 1930, studied to become a chartered surveyor after school and worked originally for the firm of O'Connell & Harley. He left to set up his own house building company OMAC, based in Youghal in 1969 and was so successful that he established O'Callaghan Properties Unlimited in 1979, which continues to this day with his long-time associate John Dean and his son Brian as directors.

He first became embroiled in political controversy in the early 1990s when he attempted to develop a 17-acre site with CIE into a technology park. The site had not been publicly advertised for sale and led to then Fine Gael Minister Michael Lowry levelling accusations of a 'golden circle' of developers connected to Fianna Fail.

There is little doubt that he was well-connected, particularly to Fianna Fail, and Albert Reynolds was a guest in his house - which led to unproven allegations made by Tom Gilmartin, who claimed that Mr O'Callaghan told him he had given the Taoiseach a large sum of money in the bedroom of his Cork mansion at 3am.

He went on to develop the Mahon Point Shopping Centre on a 111-acre site in the Cork suburbs, and others at Opera Lane/Half Moon street, Anderson's Quay, Academy Street, Merchants Quay, North Main Street in the city centre. Although he always lived in Cork he was also behind developments at Arthurs Quay in Limerick, Golden Island in Athlone, Carlow Shopping Centre and Liffey Valley, which was jointly developed with the late Duke of Westminster. He was also involved in projects in Bermondsey and Hammersmith in London.

In the process, he became one of Cork's wealthiest citizens and lived in an estate in Rochestown with his wife, Shelagh, and their children, Brian and Zelda. His 22-year-old daughter, Hazel, died in a tragic accident in 2002 while trying to manoeuvre her horse into a horsebox.

He was well-known around Cork as a genial man who was greeted as Owen by all and helped many good causes in a low-key and what was described as a "discreet" way.

Owen O'Callaghan, who continued to work up to shortly before his death, had some of his loans taken into Nama after the property collapse in 2009, but he always insisted that these were all performing. Unlike many other developers, he also continued house-building, mainly in Cork, right through the down turn and was back developing larger-scale projects at the time of his death.

Sunday Independent

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