| 10.7°C Dublin

O'Donnell family's gilded lifestyle revealed in bankruptcy documents

LAST Sunday was the O'Donnell children's final day at Gorse Hill. It was their family home for 15 years, built by their parents, Brian and Mary Pat, with stone lions, a swimming pool and breathtaking views over Killiney Bay.

Time was when a Daimler, a Morgan sports car and a Bentley were parked in the driveway, the walls were hung with art and antiques filled the rooms. The cars were seized long ago, the furniture has been carted off to go towards paying off their bankrupt parents' debts of €71.5m, racked up to Bank of Ireland from their boom-time property investments.

After a protracted and acrimonious legal battle, a Supreme Court ruling in December cleared the way for the bank to repossess Gorse Hill. The couple's four adult children, Blake, Bruce, Blaise and Alexandra, had until noon last Monday to move out.

The court order didn't apply to their parents, because they now live in England, and anyway, they say they don't own the house, but their children do, through a company, Vico Ltd, which holds it for their benefit. The children, except Blake who also lives in London, spent Sunday packing, watched by their parents who were back in Dublin for one of their myriad debt-related court cases. Everyone was naturally upset.

Later that evening, Jerry Beades got on the phone to the O'Donnells. A builder and former Fianna Failer who is fighting his own battles with the banks, he is also spokesman for the New Land League, a roving anti-eviction crack squad that swoops in to support people whose homes are about to be repossessed.

"I said 'do you want a bit of support?'," said Beades. "I talked to the lads. The lads said 'look, we'll be out there at 8am'."

And so began the siege of Gorse Hill.

By the time the Land Leaguers took up duty outside the black gates of Gorse Hill on Monday morning, Alex, Blaise and Bruce O'Donnell had left.

Their parents stayed indoors, as the Land Leaguers stood guard at the gate. By 10am the media got wind of it and the peaceful blockade escalated into a spectacular stake-out that lasted for the next three days.

Brian and Mary Pat O'Donnell were holed up inside, having groceries dropped off because they felt they couldn't go out. Their eldest son, Blake, a solicitor like his father, was in the High Court seeking an injunction to stop the repossession, while Bank of Ireland accused Mr O'Donnell and his wife of trespassing.

On Thursday, Brian O'Donnell finally emerged to attend the High Court, where he complained: "We have more than 65 journalists outside our house. There are satellite trucks outside the house. We can't get in or out. It's a circus. We have people invading our house. We have people running down the driveway."

But Bank of Ireland regarded this as an orchestrated "tactical manoeuvre". They "flew in from their permanent home in England to take up occupation at the Vico premises where they must have known that the Vico property must be surrendered to the court and their children had no right to reside there," the bank's barrister, Cian Ferriter, told the court.

Daily Digest Newsletter

Get ahead of the day with the morning headlines at 7.30am and Fionnán Sheahan's exclusive take on the day's news every afternoon, with our free daily newsletter.

This field is required

The Gorse Hill stand-off is now on pause, having garnered headlines all week. It ensured a blitz of welcome publicity for the New Land League in its campaign against the rising tide of repossessions but not so welcome for the O'Donnells.

During one of a plethora of related court hearings last week, one barrister found it "ironic" that a group modelling itself on the 19th-century organisation that campaigned for tenant farmers should support someone who was "ultimately a member of the landlord class".

To outsiders, they certainly seemed to enjoy a gilded lifestyle.

Mr O'Donnell, a successful corporate lawyer, and Mary Pat, a psychiatrist, quietly and quickly built up an impressive property portfolio during the height of the boom. It was valued at €1.1bn and got the couple onto Ireland's rich list.

Their portfolio stretched from Dublin to London, Stockholm and Washington. They owned a chalet in Courcheval, the upmarket French ski resort. They bought and restored Gortdrisagh House, a Victorian pile in Oughterard, Co Galway with its own private harbour.

And of course they also had Gorse Hill. The O'Donnells bought it in 1998 for €1.4m as their family home and later acquired a piece of land next door for €1.5m. The site was redeveloped into the home it is now. Valued at €30m in its heyday, it is now worth an estimated €7m.

When the credit crunch hit, the debt that fuelled their wealth stood at around €900m. The couple started selling off properties and restructuring debts. They agreed a settlement in March 2011 with Bank of Ireland, but nine months later the bank secured a judgement against them for €71.5m claiming they failed to honour repayments promised under the deal.

By then, Brian and Mary Pat O'Donnell had moved full-time to London and applied for bankruptcy there, hoping to walk clear of their debts after a year, under the UK's more lenient system. But the judge didn't believe their main centre of business was in the UK.

In 2013, Bank of Ireland had the couple declared bankrupt in Ireland. The children stepped in, taking a High Court challenge to stop the bank from repossessing Gorse Hill. It had emerged that the property belonged to a company called Vico Ltd. The shareholding in Vico was owned by the discretionary trust set up by the O'Donnell parents in favour of their children.

Mr Justice Brian McGovern found that the ownership of the house was vested in the company, Vico Ltd, and the children's beneficial interest was in the company, rather than Gorse Hill. The bank was entitled to repossess the property.

The Supreme Court ruled against their appeal last December, clearing the way for the bank's order to vacate which finally came last week.

Even with the highest courts in the land against them, and no one representing them but themselves, the O'Donnell family seem determined to fight on, even while new battle fronts open up.

The latest is with Chris Lehane, official assignee of Brian and Mary Pat O'Donnell's bankruptcy, who mounted a dawn raid on Gorse Hill last month. In an affadavit filed in January, Mr Lehane claimed he was "concerned" that items may have been "concealed, removed or about to be removed" and claimed to have uncovered €1,500,000 worth of "personal chattels" that were unaccounted for. The affadavit records that Mr O'Donnell said the majority of items were part of a settlement with his children. They included a painting by Leo Whelan, entitled Waiting, bought for €306,593 in 2007. There were also gifts to his children over the years, worth €142,295, according to the documents.They included a first edition of Ulysses bought for €42,500. The documents also show that the company that leased the Bentley to Mr O'Donnell in 2008 for a hire purchase price of €147,450 was looking for it back.

The O'Donnells will deny Mr Lehane's claims. Mr Brian O'Donnell is going to the High Court tomorrow seeking to have his bankruptcy annulled raising questions over the legality of the bank's petition.

Gorse Hill isn't finished with either. When he appeared before the High Court last Thursday, Mr O'Donnell showed no signs of flagging, with a string of arguments supporting their "right to reside" at Gorse Hill. He tried to get the judge, Mr Justice McGovern, to withdraw from the case, he claimed that the bank that loaned them "all the money" - Bank of Ireland Private - didn't have a banking licence.

But the bank has the law on its side, as barrister, Cian Ferriter, pointed out. The O'Donnells do not. It all boiled down to human frailty, he suggested: "He's either unprepared or unable to accept the fact that he has these liabilities, he has no right to reside in Gorse Hill, and the game is up."

Not quite yet. Until Mr Justice McGovern delivers his reserved judgement, the O'Donnells remain in Gorse Hill, wounded but still on the pitch.

Most Watched