'Johnno was a very proud man... the man everybody would ask for advice'
Daragh Sharkey writes about his uncle, Galway property developer John O'Dolan, whom he lost to suicide
WHEN the Galway-based developer John O'Dolan took his own life in February 2009, the accepted narrative was that the sheer size of the financial risks he had taken in the boom had simply overwhelmed him in the bust.
Indeed, for many people he was known quite simply as the tycoon who led the consortium that bought the island of Ireland in The World development in Dubai and followed the purchase up with the acquisition of England a short time later.
To those who knew him well, however, John O'Dolan was a hardworking businessman who despite his ambition never abandoned his sense of fairness or his sense of humour in any of his dealings. He was also generous to a fault – to the point where his door remained open to those looking for advice on their financial problems right up to his own tragic and untimely end.
Here Mr O'Dolan's nephew and former business partner, Daragh Sharkey, writes of the terrible loss the developer's family still feel acutely to this day and implores those under financial pressure to do what his uncle didn't do by talking to somebody about it.
"EVERY time you read of somebody's tragic death, it brings you back. You always wonder. These people think what they're doing is the right thing. If somebody was able to stand back and show them the devastation they were leaving behind, they would know it wasn't worth it.
"When I look back, I can see it. And I suppose everybody around me could see it too. But we were ignorant to the fact that these things could happen. Johnno was a very proud man and he was one of the big guys in Galway, the man who everybody would ask for advice.
"I remember people coming up to the office asking him how they should approach the problems they were facing with their banks who were being extremely aggressive at the time. They had been shut down effectively and now they were looking for blood. There was a frenzy out there and people were coming to Johnno looking for someone to share their burden with, someone to understand what they were going through.
"I think he felt that he didn't have somebody he could talk to about his own financial worries or what was going on with the business. You could see the pressure mounting – and I suppose it's one of the main reasons I'm writing this. Because this pressure goes on and on and it's so important that people realise that there's always somebody somewhere to take that pressure off your shoulders. If Johnno had seen that, who knows, circumstances might have been different.
"Before the crisis struck, he was one of the most gregarious, outgoing and lively, happy people that you ever could meet. He wanted the best for everybody and always believed in leaving money on the table for somebody else. Johnno never tried to screw anybody else financially. He started off as an auctioneer and he had the personality for it. You have to have a personality for that business. He established himself slowly but he always had great ambition and massive drive. He was tremendously capable. He knew what he was at.
"Like everybody else in the development business, you can look back and see that there were certain things he shouldn't have done, but at the time they seemed like the right decisions. The World in Dubai was the culmination of many years in the business.
"Everything changed in 2008 with the financial crisis. Up until then, Johnno had never fallen out with anybody. He honoured his commitments to the banks and his relations with all of them were very good."
[Following Mr O'Dolan's death, the Bank of Ireland pursued his estate for the recovery of monies he had owed them, while the former Anglo Irish Bank, AIB and Bank of Scotland (Ireland) took legal proceedings against his widow, Eileen, in an effort to recover debts relating to his business interests.]
"They were actually quite respectful when they were looking for their money and chasing the estate. They had every right to do it, but it took the death of a man for them to do that. But they were respectful of the family and there was very little aggression from the main institutions following the death of Johnno. If that's giving credit [to the banks] then I'm giving credit but it's unfortunate if it takes the death of a man to show compassion and understanding.
"But how many more deaths will it take for banks to understand that certain people out there are very vulnerable? Some people can take a lot of flak and they can give a lot, but everyone is being lumped into the same category and the banks just get aggressive and try to get what they can. There has to be an understanding that there are people with families involved here. There has to be respect.
"Of course people are culpable, but the pain should be shared across the board. The idea of forcing a situation as much as you can; the result will be a testament to failure. Borrowers may have been wrong in what they did, but the banks were wrong too.
"Irish society has given the banks money and that money has given them time. Now the banks should give the people some time in return to repay their debts. The vast majority of people want to repay their debts and meet their obligations.
"Money is money, but the death of somebody in a situation where they are under financial pressure has a terrible ripple effect. It tears not only the family that has been left behind but the person's extended family and the wider community to a devastating degree.
"Believe me, no problem is insurmountable. More people are talking about the issue of suicide now and there's more understanding about what is happening in society. The likes of Noel Smyth and the work he does with Turn The Tide of Suicide (3Ts) has really helped to generate massive public awareness. The main thing is to talk to somebody, and there are people to talk to.
"There is nothing heroic about taking your own life."
In conversation with Ronald Quinlan
*Turn The Tide of Suicide (3Ts) operates a 24-hour suicide prevention helpline. Anyone seeking help related to suicide or self harm for themselves or another should call the 1Life freephone number 1-800-24-7-100. For text support, text HELP to 51444 (standard text message rates apply)