The colourful developer talks to John Meagher about a ‘lack of respect’ from the operators of the places he put on the map, how Dublin has changed for the better and the advice John Banville gave him when starting his new literary career
Harry Crosbie has something he wants to get off his chest. “Ask me,” he says before our interview begins, “if I go to gigs and the theatre any more.”
It is a curious request, but he is insistent, so midway through a wide-ranging conversion, the topic comes up. He says he refuses to go to shows at the 3Arena — or the Point, as calls it, using its old name — and the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre.
The reason soon becomes clear. Crosbie was the mastermind developer behind both Dublin docklands venues, but he lost control of them after the late-2000s crash. He had requested that the current owner of both, Live Nation, give him honorary membership, but his wish has not been entertained. He is sore about it today.
“I was refused a [complimentary] membership of the VIP club in the Point by Mike Adamson [Live Nation chief executive for Ireland]... I said to him, ‘I helped you open this place. Not only did I found this place and run it on my own, but the idea of turning it sideways and taking out the sidewall and putting the stage there that made it into one of the great venues in the world was my idea’. And he said, ‘It is company policy — you can’t have a [complimentary] membership.’
“The result of that,” Crosbie adds, “is that if I have a ticket and I go down [to the 3Arena], I have to stand in a public queue. When I went down last, before the Covid, so many people came up to me and said, ‘What are you doing standing in a public queue?’ I got embarrassed and I came home. The result is I don’t go to the Point.”
He becomes exercised by what he sees as a lack of respect. “Free membership forever,” he believes, is not an unreasonable ask. “I built the shagging place and they bought me out for nothing.”
He hasn’t been in the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, thanks to the beef with Live Nation, for some time. Its distinctive sloped roof, designed by the star architect Daniel Libeskind, is something he sees every time he leaves his front door. Crosbie lives in a large, remodelled 18th century warehouse on Hanover Quay, a few kicks of a football away from the theatre.
“It’s just a sad state that someone like me can’t go to the Point or the theatre that I invented,” he says.
Review puts Crosbie’s grievances to Live Nation. A spokesperson says it’s a “no comment” from both the company and Mike Adamson.
Crosbie has helped shape the skyline of Dublin for 40 years and has long been regarded as one of the country’s more colourful developers. At 75, he is showing few signs of wanting to stop and there’s a new chapter in his life that he is keen to talk about.
Last year, he published a slim book featuring 12 short stories he had written during lockdown. Now the Dublin publisher Lilliput Press is bringing out an expanded version, with several more stories, many of which are inspired by Crosbie’s boyhood and early adult life in and around the docklands of Dublin.
“Did you read it?” Crosbie asks, when Review calls to his home. “All of it?”
If this normally bullish figure seems a little sheepish about the book, Undernose Farm Revisited, it’s because it is his first foray into literature.
“I never had a lesson, I’d never done it before and I had no idea whether it was good, bad or indifferent,” he says. “I’m really good at business and opening venues, but this was a new yoke.”
Crosbie says that over the course of his reading life he frequently told his wife, Rita, that he could have written some of those books too. “‘Would you stop saying that’,” he recalls her saying in exasperation, “‘and just do it’.”
Lockdown gave him more free time than he knew what to do with, so his writing life began. “I asked a couple of mates of mine, including John Banville and John Boorman, the movie director, and I said, ‘Do you know anywhere I could go to a class about writing?’ and they said, ‘Guys like you don’t need to go to classes — just do it and see can you write’. So I wrote the first story — ‘Eighteen and a Half’ — and I took it to the guy in Lilliput, who I’d met at [former U2 manager] Paul McGuinness’s house at lunch and he said, ‘That’s not bad, do another one’. So I did, and another and another.”
At that point, he decided to show his work to his Booker Prize-winning friend. “I said to Banville, ‘I read your stuff all the time and my stuff looks semi-literate, there are no big words, and I want to be able to write like you’ and he said, ‘No, you don’t. Leave it alone. It’s perfect’.”
He was confident that Banville would tell him straight if his writing wasn’t good enough. “I wouldn’t hang out with people who aren’t honest,” he says. “That doesn’t mean that I don’t know bullshitters or that I’m not a bullshitter, but when it comes to serious stuff like that, when I look at someone in the eye and I say, ‘Tell me the truth’, whether it’s buildings or business or whatever, there are a few people around me who tell me the truth.”
Banville wasn’t the only heavyweight literary figure to give him praise. The Pulitzer Prize-winning American author Richard Ford has supplied a blurb for the book that likens Crosbie’s writing to that of Mark Twain.
“He used to teach at Trinity and I got to know him really well. He used to come down here [to Crosbie’s home] a lot and he wrote back this amazing line,” Crosbie says. A lot of good writers have come back and say it’s very good.”
He enjoyed the process of writing greatly and plans to write another book, possibly a novel.
Undernose Farm Revisited is a vivid depiction of a Dublin that is long-gone. Much of it is set in the once grimy and dilapidated docklands where he first started work in his father’s haulage firm. Today, the area is fully of shiny apartment blocks and high-rise offices that housed thousands of tech workers before the pandemic intervened.
“I love Dublin and the older I get the more I love it,” Crosbie says. “There are such interesting parts of the city. I’ve always loved Georgian architecture and, as you can see” — his hand sweeps the enormous garden room we are sitting in — “I collect Georgian furniture and have been doing so all my life, but one thing I now know for a fact is that these modern glass buildings look absolutely wonderful beside a Georgian building and all these An Taisce guys who said that wasn’t right were all wrong.”
He is adamant that modern-day Dublin trumps any era. “The city has never looked better and alive and pulsing with life. And that is because of the creative destruction that all cities need. You need to be constantly tearing down and rebuilding. If you study Dublin the way I do — and I know every brick of the city — all the ugly buildings are gone, but the really good ones are safe. Hawkins House is gone and it should be gone. If you go around the city, I could show you buildings that won’t survive another 10 years.”
He says he is proud that he helped to open up the east of the city when he began work on the old Point railway depot in the mid-1980s.
“Before the Point, the average Dubliner never ever came down past Butt Bridge, so the community down here was completely isolated from the city. There was no real connection. There was terrible poverty and want and unfairness down here and because I had been born into it, I didn’t realise how different it was until I began to go up to the city myself.”
The abject poverty he witnessed as a boy has largely gone. His book tells the stories of characters — most of them based on real people — who struggled to earn a crust. Some of them, he said, would turn up every day at the docks looking for work, but as there was only a finite number of jobs, they were often turned away.
“Dockers would walk home past here, soaked to the skin, with no work. Not with no money in the sense that you or I understand it, but with no money whatsoever and going home to corporation apartments with no heating, no prospects and their kids with no education. All of that has been completely swept away.
“We’ve gone from a city of my youth of being shabby, old and faded into a modern European city and I sometimes can’t believe it. When I walk across the road to buy the paper, there could be 100 languages in the shop. And I think that’s just wonderful. You meet young kids that come over here with a few hundred euro in their pocket and they’re living four to a room in Capel Street and they get three jobs and I think that’s wonderful. The more we let in with that ferocious work ethic, the better.”
He gestures though the floor-to-ceiling windows towards the new Boland’s Quay development across the waters of the Grand Canal Dock. “One of the great pleasures of my life is to see how the area has lifted, how there’s more fairness now, how there’s more compassion, how everybody down here has the chance for education and they didn’t have that before. The whole social stratification, the stigma is slowly being eroded away. If you have a kid down here now who’s intelligent and smart and has any talent, that talent can be developed.”
Crosbie is well placed to offer a view on the contentious plans for Merchant’s Arch in Temple Bar and venerable folk music pub The Cobblestone in Smithfield. He is especially taken with the fate of the latter, although he answers in a roundabout way.
“You can’t run art on handouts — there has to be a commercial rigour behind it. And that’s why the Point is so massively successful. It’s the same with the [Bord Gáis Energy] theatre, the same with Vicar Street [another of his venues]. They are very secure financially. You can’t go out looking for money from the State that the State doesn’t need to do. I know that sounds tough, but that’s the way it is. I would love to see The Cobblestone survive, but perhaps it won’t.”
Crosbie may be a flinty interviewee — he initially says he will only talk on the condition that he be sent a recording of the conversation — but he is an entertaining one. Much of what he says is strictly off-record and there is plenty of gossip, including his disgust at a well-known British broadcaster who, on attending a party at his house, asked him if he had “better wine” than the stuff she had been served.
His house is enormous — room after room, filled with armchairs and sofas and the sort of drinks bar you’d find in a typical Dublin pub. It’s no wonder that Crosbie tends to throw parties for the great and the good.
The most recent knees-up happened after he appeared on the Late Late Show tribute to Bob Geldof. “About 40 of us came back here afterwards,” he says. “We had a fantastic party until four or five in the morning. Myself and Geldof were looking out the window here and directly over there [he points to roughly where Google’s HQ stands today] was the meat plant where he used to work.” Geldof immortalised his pre-fame days working in a slaughterhouse in the lyrics of one of Boomtown Rats’ emblematic songs, Rat Trap.
Geldof is far from the only Irish rocker that Crosbie says he is friends with. He regularly talks about “the guys next door”, a reference to U2 and the fact that their recording studio adjoins the wall at the end of his house. He jokes that sometimes when they’re playing in the studio, he and Rita bang on the wall and then Bono, or one of the others, bangs back from the other side.
He has a lot of time for the band and dismisses an inquiry about which of them he gets on with best as “a rookie question”. He believes they got to where they are due to talent, hard work and — most critically, he believes — to honesty.
Crosbie has lived on Hanover Quay for 27 years. When he moved here from the embassy belt of Ballsbridge, it was a world of change and one that Rita initially found hard to get used to. It’s a move he has never regretted.
“This house was built in 1796. I had been living in a big mansion on Shrewsbury Road and I said, ‘I would love to live there’.”
The last remaining remnants of the old gasworks were still in place when the Crosbies relocated. While it felt isolating at times, they had a window seat to the changes wrought by the Celtic Tiger. Nowhere in Ireland captures more the arrival of money and cosmopolitism.
Crosbie is not short of money, despite — according to a 2013 Irish Independent report — being in debt to the tune of €450m, post-crash. It was then that the National Asset Management Agency took control of what he described at the time as the “jewels in the crown” — the O2 (formerly the Point and now the 3Arena) and the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre.
In 2016, Nama won a court order seeking to recover a €77m debt from Crosbie and in 2018, it was reported that he had exited Nama after striking a deal with the agency in which he paid up €7m.
Irrespective of those troubles, he is proud of what he achieved. He says he had no interest in building offices and apartment blocks. “Anything that I do, I tried to do it properly. And — this is going to make me sound sanctimonious — but anything I did, I tried to do right.”
He says that when he was 40, in the mid-1980s, he was at a crossroads in his life and he decided he would try to truly leave his mark on Dublin.
“I’m not a spender. I lead a quite modest life — I’ve an old car, and no mortgage, so I didn’t need any more money. I knew that I had a unique set of circumstances to build the infrastructure that the city needs — taste, drive, money, culture, knowledge.”
Planning laws were against him, as was a conservative mindset. “It wasn’t easy, but if it was easy, everyone would be doing it.”
He says he will not write a memoir. “It’s a f***ing boring name-drop thing… ‘And then Mick Jagger said to so-and-so’. It’s not interesting — it’s a pain in the hole. I don’t want to read those kinds of books and nor does anyone else.”
Undernose Farm Revisited is published by The Lilliput Press. All author proceeds go to the Peter McVerry Trust