Tuesday 21 November 2017

O'Donnell's 'near-death' drama resulted in Gorse Hill court saga

BATTLE READY: Brian O’Donnell, right, on his way into court in March with his daughter Blaise
BATTLE READY: Brian O’Donnell, right, on his way into court in March with his daughter Blaise
Gorse Hill
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

Brian O'Donnell has described how a storm-lashed sailing expedition that almost ended in tragedy 20 years ago resulted in the former millionaire and his wife, Mary Pat, deciding to sign over their wealth to their children.

The fateful decision meant the former owner of Gorse Hill's four adult children would later be drawn into their parent's high-profile and acrimonious battle with Bank of Ireland over debts of €71.5m.

According to Mr O'Donnell, the frightening brush with death underpinned the couple's decision to entrust their wealth, including the family home and works of art and other valuables, to their children.

In an interview with the Sunday Independent, Mr O'Donnell said: "There were a couple [of near-death experiences] or maybe more, but I suppose the one that is most in my mind is we were on the lake in Lough Corrib in Co Galway in a small sailing boat. A force nine or 10 gale got up and we nearly drowned. We were out on the lake and unable to get in. And because there were very few boats out there, there was no rescue possible.

"So what happened was that we lowered the sail and we effectively paddled our way through massive waves because it is a very dangerous lake and there is a funnel effect from the Atlantic where the wind comes straight down through the mountains on to the lake. After many hours we managed to beach the boat on an island in the middle of Lough Corrib. It was a small dinghy, about 12-foot long, a Norfolk Scoltie - it's a small little sailing boat used by children usually. Anyway, what happened was we were on the island for many hours and we were finally rescued by the Irish helicopter service. We were winched off the island and up into the helicopter. We were as close as you will ever get to death at that point, so that's why it was in our minds."

The accident happened in 1995 on Lough Corrib. (The couple later bought and restored a Victorian mansion there - now seized by the bank). Three years later, Mr O'Donnell and his wife put the family home, Gorse Hill overlooking Killiney Bay in Dublin, in trust for their four children - Bruce, Blake, Blaise and Alexandra - through an Isle of Man-based company, Vico Ltd. They also signed over some of their fabulous art works and antiques to their children, as he later told the official assignee of his bankruptcy, Chris Lenahe.

Now the entire O'Donnell family is embroiled in the bitter legal battle between Bank of Ireland over the couple's outstanding debts of €71.5m.

After the property collapse, Bank of Ireland called in the loan, and claimed the house as collateral. The couple were forced into bankruptcy in Ireland after their attempts to apply under the UK's more lenient regime failed. A lengthy legal battle for ownership of the hill-top mansion ensued. The four O'Donnell children were served a High Court order to vacate the property in March. Their parents returned from the UK, where they have been living, to take up residency at the mansion, sparking the infamous siege of Gorse Hill. But Bank of Ireland eventually won out two weeks ago when the Supreme Court ruled that Brian and Mary Pat had to vacate the home they built more than 15 years ago.

In a Dun Laoghaire hotel on Friday evening, Mr O'Donnell raged: "They have ruined our family. I don't think you get it. They have absolutely gone after our family. They have sued our children. They don't even owe any money to the bank. They have no relationship to the bank. So we believe they have had a continuing policy of intimidation against us in order to get what they wanted."

It had been nine days since he and his wife had vacated Gorse Hill, but he declined to talk about his family's situation since the bank took possession of it, or whether he and his wife will go back to the UK.

"We rent a house in the UK. Everybody knows about that. At the moment, I am staying with my daughter, that's it," he said.

He did have some points to make. He claimed banks caused 90pc of the economic collapse but have not honoured their part of the contract. "It's a bit like the pilot in a plane. The plane is flying. There are passengers at the back of the plane. The pilot flies the plane into the mountain, the pilot survives, then the pilot blames all the passengers because they bought tickets on the plane," he said, then paused: "Print that."

He attended the Bank of Ireland annual general meeting a fortnight ago, and the appearance at the Banking Inquiry by its chief executive, Richie Boucher, last week.

Mr O'Donnell claimed his questions were "never answered". They ranged from bonuses paid to staff to his claims that Bank of Ireland Private, the bank he actually borrowed from, is not properly licensed, although the courts didn't buy this. He argued for a one- year bankruptcy and a regime that would allow "people like me" and the small business owners he met through the Land League, the anti-eviction organisation that came to his aid, to "get going again".

Mr and Mrs O'Donnell are challenging their bankruptcies in the High Court, and also say they will take a case to the European Court of Human Rights. Vico Ltd is challenging the seizure of Gorse Hill.

"It is not a question of us persisting with suing the bank or whatever. It is a question that the bank won't let us go. It is like a cat and its prey," he said. "The family is totally resolved to continue this to try and see if we can get justice and we are prepared to go to Europe to actually achieve this because we are very concerned that we won't get it in any other way," he said.

Sunday Independent

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