Thursday 17 October 2019

David McWilliams: master of the gold coast money game

How on earth does a 'celebrity economist' invent themselves? Liam Collins on the David McWilliams show

David McWilliams. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins
David McWilliams. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

Everything he's touched hasn't actually turned into gold, but David McWilliams, who could be seen striding confidently around Dalkey last weekend, has done very well for himself. He has flooded the picturesque town on Dublin's ''gold coast'' with celebrities, and just how well his Dalkey Book Festival is doing is starkly illustrated by the programme in the Gutter Bookshop with "sold out" scrawled over most of the events.

Through his connections he's attracted a concoction of authors and celebrities from Bono, Stephen Fry, Deborah Levy, Chris Patten and film producer David Puttnam to home-grown figures like PJ Gallagher, Julia Kelly, Sinead Gleeson and Kevin Barry.

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For someone who is voluble on any subject, the economist and journalist is coy about moving from Killiney to his home in Dun Laoghaire. Mr McWilliams was off to his holiday home on an island in Croatia last week and didn't want to talk about his own property dealings, which involved moving from the ''gold coast'' of Killiney to a multi-storey property in the nearby seaside town.

When the columnist and his wife Sian Smyth decided to move from Killiney in 2016 they by-passed Dalkey, with which he is identified, buying - according to Land Registry documents - a harbourfront home on Crofton Road, Dun Laoghaire, for €1.25m.

"As he speaks, the trappings of McWilliams's success are all around us in his resplendent home," the Sunday Business Post, for which he was a long-term columnist, gushed last November. "Fire blazes in an impressive marble fireplace in the upstairs sitting room... Sash windows look out over Dun Laoghaire Marina. This is the home of a successful man who - with his two children and wife Sian Smyth - has carved out a multi-hyphenated career like few others: economist, entrepreneur, broadcaster, public speaker."

As well as the Dalkey Book Festival, he was co-founder of the Kilkenny-based comedy/economic event Kilkenomics and more recently founded an online academy called Economics without Borders.

But when asked about his, well relatively new abode, the economist didn't want to talk about what he described as "a family move".

The Dalkey Book Festival is owned by McWilliams and his wife through their company Dalkey Book Festival Services Ltd, but it is through their main company, Iconic Media that the celebrity couple generate most of their wealth, with retained profits of €628,000 in their last set of accounts.

Part of his success is that while most economists can be insufferably dull when talking in public or writing (it's a different story when you meet them in a pub), McWilliams has an approach that owes more to stand-up comedy than dull academic research.

The result has been a series of books and TV programmes with catchy titles, from The Pope's Children, The Generation Game, Follow The Money, through to his most recent Renaissance Nation (How the Pope's Children Rewrote the Rules for Ireland), each peppered with anecdotes and research. Of course, when he joins up the dots he sometimes doesn't let a good story get in the way of the facts.

His contention that that ''Sliotar Mom'' spearheaded the rise of hurling among the middle-classes in south Dublin ignores the fact that Cuala in Dalkey and Kilmacud Crokes in Stillorgan have been among the strongest hurling clubs in the country for 50 years or more and their success has more to do with migration from rural Ireland and visionary leaders than anything else.

Of course latching on to "The Pope's Children", "Breakfast Roll Man" and other cleverly named characters was a stroke of genius, which helped David McWilliams become one of our leading cultural commentators and has made him lots of money to boot.

But there have been missteps along the way. Publicly ''outing'' the late Brian Lenihan in his book Follow The Money, after the finance minister called to his home after midnight at the height of the financial crisis seeking his advice and saying he didn't trust his officials while chewing garlic, was regarded by many as reprehensible and described by other economists as "mean" and "despicable".

He later explained: "On reflection, I think revealing it like that wasn't the right thing to do... I think maybe I let down people who trusted me as an independent commentator."

He also managed to upset TV presenter Miriam O'Callaghan, with a claim that she was "flirting" with him on the set of Prime Time, while those who know her are well aware that she generally has an engaging manner while not shirking the hard questions.

"I never meant to suggest that she in any way used her sexuality in pursuing her career, or that it overshadowed her skill at what she does. I'm very sorry about that," he told Patrick Freyne soon after.

As Dalkey teemed with celebrities last weekend, you might have caught a glimpse of Mr McWilliams making his way along Sorrento Road towards the ''secret garden'' (a Victorian pet cemetery at the back of Chris de Burgh's house) where he doubles as the ringmaster of the book festival and earnest interviewer. He has cleverly managed to blur the lines between expertise and entertainment while at the same time furthering the McWilliams brand.

In his favour it could be said that he stands by his friends in their hour of need. As others in the financial world rush to distance themselves from besieged fund manager Neil Woodford, McWilliam's website loyally declares that "in the money world David advises Neil Woodford of the Woodford Funds with €16bn under management".

Among the talks he was involved in last weekend was ''How to write a TV blockbuster like Deutschland 83.'' It's a genre McWilliams has already cracked, but it can't be long before he is back on the bookshelves or the small screen with a catchy title to reflect the changing face of Ireland from a very south Dublin perspective.

Sunday Independent

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