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Saturday 17 March 2018

An enigma who changed the face of Dublin

Hugh O'Regan made and lost a fortune – but for him it was about finding a meaning in life, writes Liam Collins

The last time I met Hugh O'Regan, his black SUV pulled up out outside the Alexandra Hotel in central Dublin and I watched through the window as he phoned to make sure I was inside and that there was nobody lurking in the lobby who might see him talking to someone in the media.

"The good thing about meeting people for coffee now is that they pay because I have nothing left," the one-time multi-multi-millionaire told me as he sat down.

Dressed in a black leather jacket, he was jittery and nervous during this encounter. He had recently become the latest victim of the 'Curse of Kilternan' – as his dream of a kind of utopia in the Dublin mountains turned into a nightmare that brought his empire to its knees.

But then, as his son Stephen said at his funeral: "He had loads of dreams and loads of them did come true."

Or, as his friend, the celebrant Fr Joe, added: "He was a true philosopher, a lover of wisdom."

O'Regan didn't regard money as simply something to buy and sell with, but as a force with "energy" all of its own which could turn the world into a better place.

But unfortunately, when last we met he was drowning in a tsunami of bad debt after sinking €170m of his own money and borrowings from Anglo Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide Building Society into the doomed mountainside 'mausoleum'.

Another of his companies, Clubko, which owned an imposing former gentleman's club on St Stephen's Green, had racked up costs of about €30m and the company had borrowings of over €70m.

In fairness to the bankers, there did seem to be a touch of megalomania about these ventures, but you would also have to wonder what sort of madness had inspired the financiers to go along so willingly with O'Regan's 'vision'.

We didn't really get anywhere in our discussions that day. I wanted him to talk openly about the collapse of his empire and the trauma that went with it. He said he didn't mind the humiliation of being penniless and still driving around in a big car and living in a fabulous home on Park Avenue in Sandymount, D4 but he wasn't ready yet. He wanted time to prepare a damning case against his one-time backers, using information he had acquired under the Data Protection Act.

But then I also knew from previous encounters that he was also a bit of a conspiracy theorist and maybe it just all boiled down to the fact that he owed so much money there was no hope of paying it back.

Later, I heard that he was really ill. He was very affected by the suicide of his brother Jack. Even this week, mystery seemed to hang over Hugh's death at the age of 49.

The priest at his funeral mass said he had a "heart attack while walking near Newtownmountkennedy (Co Wicklow)" on Monday night, dying the following morning in Loughlinstown Hospital.

In a bankruptcy hearing in London last Thursday, the property owner and solicitor Brian O'Donnell said: "One of my good businessman colleagues committed suicide two nights ago" – which was taken to be a reference to Hugh O'Regan.

His son, however, went on social media to say that such rumours "are not true".

In truth, it hardly matters, because for most people just hearing the news of his death, however it happened, was a shocking moment.

Maybe such things arise because Hugh O'Regan was something of an enigma. He was an anti-business businessman; he was hugely successful but unsatisfied with mere success; he didn't court publicity yet was a well-known figure; he was neither a bar owner nor a developer in the traditional sense; he was more of a savant who was consumed with ideas.

He was also, as Mannix Flynn told the congregation on Friday, someone who had "changed the face of this city" and, as many others testified, his life wasn't about empire-building or making money, it was about something much deeper, like finding a meaning in it all and doing some good at the same time.

I first met Hugh O'Regan one afternoon around this time of year back in the late 1980s. After a Christmas party, a few of us were looking for a quiet pub to have a 'cure' and we ended up in Temple Bar, then mostly derelict, in a pub which up to a few weeks before had been called Flannery's. The well-spoken barman turned out to be Hugh O'Regan, who had left AIB out of boredom, borrowed €150,000 and bought the old pub, changing the name to 'The Temple Bar'.

Chatting to him that afternoon in the empty bar, we could tell he was a guy who was going to go places.

Brought up in Harold's Cross, he went to school in Synge Street, working on a paper round and with a local milkman as he went through school. He then joined AIB and did an economics and law night course in UCD, before striking out to conquer the Dublin bar business.

He made a killing when he bought and sold the Jameson's headquarters in Smithfield, before putting together the Thomas Read Group, named after an old cutlery shop in Parliament Street.

Now, anyone walking around Dublin city could map an interesting route by the bars he owned: The Crane, The Oak, Thomas Read, The Bailey, The Dawson Lounge, Ron Blacks, The Buddha Bar, The Harbourmaster and right out to the airport, where once he controlled the departure lounges.

He sold the group at the right time, getting over €30m from Paddy Kelly the developer. They were like ships in the night; Kelly, a developer, was going into pubs and O'Regan, the publican, was going into property development.

It doesn't seem to have worked out very well for either of them.

"I remember one very long conversation that we had walking around Ballsbridge" wrote Dr Gary McDarby following Hugh's death. "In that conversation, he revealed to me the struggles he dealt with daily and in particular how the death of his brother Jack really affected him.

"He wanted to get out of the pub industry and use his good fortune to do something different and more meaningful. I remember coming away from the conversation thinking that here was a really good soul who, to the outside world, had been successful but on the inside was fragile and struggled with life. He needed support and good people around him to help him realise his dream."

O'Regan's thinking, said McDarby, "was wild and imaginative and really energising".

He employed John Rocha to design the Morrison Hotel and then launched into the ill-fated Kilternan project, which had already ruined another great entrepreneur, Pat Quinn, in a previous existence.

"He drove me around it one day to see what I thought," businessman Ben Dunne told me on Friday as we waited for the hearse and wicker coffin carrying Hugh's last remains to arrive at the Star of the Sea church in Sandymount, Dublin 4.

"He told me he paid Chuck Feeney €12m. I asked him had he paid a deposit and when he said he had I told him to let it go – walk away while you can."

He didn't, the huge, almost complete edifice is now hanging over The Scalp, waiting for another visionary with deep pockets.

Hugh O'Regan was more than just a businessman, as his sons testified during the week. Dublin Fashion Week, the 'Something to Live for Project' Camara (which supplied disused computers to the Third World) and many other young entrepreneurs, social and financial, benefited from his guidance and generosity.

He gave them space and encouragement and money in their 'start-up' ventures and then left them to get on with it. Doing some good seemed a worthwhile goal; he didn't care about the recognition that might have gone with it.

But there was also a dark side. That was very much in evidence when he set up 'Bartrade' to challenge what he considered the monolith of Guinness in the Irish pub trade.

He plunged into it, like he did with everything else, but during that upheaval he was disturbed and seemed almost on the verge of paranoia. Eventually, he let it go and got on with another phase of his life.

"Hugh O'Regan, humanist, cultural philanthropist and creative developer, man and family man, father and husband, all-round good guy," said his son Stephen, who runs BalconyTV, in the days after his passing.

"He had a keen eye for great human beings and his staff was the best in the world. He had fantastic ideas and was fearless in pursuing them for the betterment of the citizens of the city of Dublin and its visitors."

Hugh O'Regan was a quirky guy, with quirky friends. Well-known figures and associates, like the designer John Rocha, businessman Ben Dunne, councillor Mannix Flynn, Waxworks owner Paddy Dunning, publican John O'Dwyer and many more. He mixed with people from all walks of life; publicans, former employees and a huge cross-section of society who had joined Hugh O'Regan's conversation as some time or other in their lives.

Arriving with his coffin, his brother Declan carried a colourful plastic 'Dancing Flower', complete with sunglasses.

"Mind that, it's very important," he said, handing it to one of his nephews – as if this colourful trinket illustrated for his brother Hugh the folly and joy of all human existence.

Sunday Independent

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