Monday 14 October 2019

'I tried to wear the chain in bed but my wife wouldn't let me...' - Lord Mayor Nial Ring

Dublin's Lord Mayor has opened up about the despair of almost losing his home to the bank, writes Niamh Horan

DOWN TO EARTH: New Lord Mayor Nial Ring wearing his chain of office. Photo: David Conachy
DOWN TO EARTH: New Lord Mayor Nial Ring wearing his chain of office. Photo: David Conachy
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

The distinctive tinkle of solid gold echoes around the room as the Lord Mayor of Dublin pulls his 22-carat chain over his head and lets it fall into place around his neck.

"Please tell me you've had some fun with that chain since you've gotten into office or else, what's the point?" I rib him. He laughs: "I did attempt to wear it in bed one night - but my wife wouldn't let me."

Nial Ring is Dublin's newest man in the Mansion House. Not the typical character to grace these hallowed halls, he is a keen boxfit enthusiast and - although he is only second in command in Dublin to the President - he shares the same ''no-airs-or-graces'' vibe as his close friend Bertie Ahern.

Although the quip about his wife is tongue-in-cheek (I think), he shares a funny memory about cooking a full Irish fry-up for his wife and kids one Saturday morning, wearing nothing but his shorts and the heavy gold chain.

Born and raised in Dublin's north inner-city, he grew up in a two-up-two-down terraced house in Ballybough. His father was a CIE worker, his mother a pork butcher, and his childhood memories are from a more innocent time before the surrounding areas were beset by drugs and gangland crime.

"We used to play football on the street and at noon an old lady would come out from one of the houses and gather us round to say the Angelus."

Lord Mayor Niall Ring having tea with his mum Pauline. Photo: David Conachy
Lord Mayor Niall Ring having tea with his mum Pauline. Photo: David Conachy

His only memory of guns were in his father's legendary tales. His grandfather, a skilled carpenter and fighter in the War of Independence, built secret compartments around the house - including the sewing machine - while his grandmother hid a revolver down her drawers when the Black and Tans came banging on the door.

It was only in primary school that discrimination between the north and south side of Dublin, the haves and the have-nots, entered his consciousness. "We had to go to St Canice's primary school because we couldn't go to the nearby O'Connell's private school," Nial recalls, "the locals couldn't afford it."

His recollections of his time at the public alternative are stark.

His memory of one particular teacher stands out: "This lay teacher had a reputation for being able to make you faint. He would use a psychological build-up before hitting a pupil. He would tell the pupil: 'You know you are going to faint when I hit you.' Then he would send another child out of class, over to the chemist, to get smelling salts, all the while telling this guy 'I am going to hit you so hard you're going to [need these salts to become conscious again]' and of course as soon as the first slap came the guy would faint because he was already psychologically [broken down] by being told this was going to happen."

The idea that he and his public school classmates would go to college was "never even contemplated". It was only working as a teller for AIB bank that Nial received a scholarship from his employers to study accounting and finance in DCU. That put him on a road to become director of finance at Bankgesellschaft in the IFSC and a career in which he accumulated a valuable property portfolio and impressive sums of shares in oil and gas companies. Not bad for a boy from Ballybough.

It was at university that he met his wife Joyce and they have been married for more than 30 years. They have four sons together.

He shows me around his private apartment upstairs in the Mansion House. It has three en-suite bedrooms, a fully stocked bar downstairs and a plush living room overlooking Dawson Street. In the midst of the housing crisis, it would make anyone yearn to move in. And yet, save for the crumpled bedsheets - "a buddy of mine stayed here at the weekend" - it shows no signs of life.

Declining to take up residence, each night Nial heads to his family home in Clontarf in time for dinner. His Christmas dinner will also be enjoyed, as always, in the same small room in his mother's terraced house - as will his 60th birthday later this year.

It was his own family home, however, that he came close to losing to the bank last May.

"I used to hate hearing the letter box and wondering what is coming through today?" He explains: "I was paying the bank €10,000 a month but they kept coming after me." On the public nature of his struggle, he says: "Suddenly your vulnerability is open for all to see. You feel that you are 'a failure' on a human level". And on a private level, he says: "You just feel in despair. You also have a sense that you are letting your family down. That - as a provider - you are not doing what you should be doing and that you have taken risks, some of which didn't work out."

He has managed to appeal the order and save the home by selling other assets. And now in his seat of power, Nial is not removed from the struggles facing those still in his childhood area.

One notable occasion occurred when Gareth Hutch, a nephew of notorious criminal Gerry 'The Monk' Hutch, came to ask his help. He wanted an apartment with CCTV protection because his life was in danger. "He said he was resigned to the fact that they were going to get him," says Nial. "It was almost like a living will. He was more anxious it didn't happen in front of his seven-year-old son."

The mayor rang Dublin city council and arranged a meeting for 10am the next day. But the man was shot dead en-route.

Speaking about the crime lord, he says: "Everyone knew Gerry because he did a huge amount around the area and was very high profile at sponsoring local clubs."

Describing 'The Monk' as "a very human being" who was "a bit of fun", he says he doesn't believe he was involved in drug crime. "It doesn't sit with the person I know or with the work he did with the inner-city."

Do you know where he is now? Has he reached out to you for help?

"I'd have to say no," Nial smiles, before mouthing 'stop asking me questions'. Although keeping schtum, he is optimistic progress is being made behind the scenes to call a truce in the Hutch-Kinahan warfare.

"In the background there are things happening that I know will have a positive conclusion," he says.

In addition to his dealings with gangland, he also has friends in high places. Part of Bertie Ahern's inner circle, he is keen for the former Taoiseach to get involved in public office again: "I would love to see him go for President," he says. "It's not going to happen this time but maybe next. If he wanted it he could go. He is still young enough. Probably some part of him knows he could [do it]."

But other high-profile figures he has less time for, most notably Bob Geldof. "I have very little in common with Bob Geldof or 'Sir Bob' as he likes to be called," he says, rolling his eyes humorously.

He has no intention of giving him back the Freedom of the City. And, unless something "extraordinary" happens, he also has no intention of putting forward any name himself this year because "it should only be awarded once in a blue moon".

The man he is keen to see get it next year, however, is Dublin football manager Jim Gavin - if he secures "the five in a row" All-Ireland championships.

But what about women? Much criticism has surrounded the fact that only five have received the honour in 140 years.

"Yeah, but if you take it up to 20 years ago, it was always going to be male. Now things are changing but name me some women who should be given it?"

Does he feel there are any?

"No. Not at the moment. I don't think there is anyone out there who immediately springs to mind."

For the moment, he is back to his day job, including bringing his mother this weekend to see the Pope.

Before he goes, I pick up the large heavy gold medallion hanging from the his chain and spot a familiar figure.

"Is that William of Orange," I ask. "Do you not resent wearing that?"

"Quite the contrary," he chuckles.

"I love bringing him to Gaelic matches and Irish clubs and all the places I know he would be spinning in his grave."

From the mayor's bed to a meeting with the Pope, it sounds like quite the afterlife.

Sunday Independent

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