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Smurfit bows out of classy K Club

Completion of the €65m sale of the K Club represents the end of an era for Michael Smurfit, writes Liam Collins

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EVERYTHING MUST GO: A reported condition of sale was that Smurfit (pictured in his K Club home) would leave no trace behind. Photo: Mark Condren

EVERYTHING MUST GO: A reported condition of sale was that Smurfit (pictured in his K Club home) would leave no trace behind. Photo: Mark Condren

The K Club

The K Club

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EVERYTHING MUST GO: A reported condition of sale was that Smurfit (pictured in his K Club home) would leave no trace behind. Photo: Mark Condren

Watching Michael Smurfit drink a glass of wine from his £600 bottle of Chateau Petrus as Taoiseach Charles Haughey officially opened the K Club in July 1991, Ireland's privileged elite knew that they had at last found a home from home.

Behind impressive manorial gates, high walls and even higher membership fees, the new breed of plutocrats, developers and businessmen could disport themselves among their own. At the time Ireland had nothing comparable. This was new money saying loud and clear 'we have it made'.

The president's dinner, at which Smurfit presided, was the social occasion of the year and the pecking order was the most discussed topic of the night, where the guests were seated, how close to the podium, what car parking space had been allocated for their chauffeur and where they had houses in the ground.

Through his money and dedication, Dr Michael Smurfit (the Dr is honorary) had lifted the mythical "curse" that had befallen Straffan House in the previous decades and turned his golf club into a byword for luxury as Ireland shook off the recession of the early 1980s and hurtled towards the Celtic Tiger era.

It hasn't changed utterly in the last 30 years but other glamorous resorts like Luttrellstown Castle, Adare Manor or Doonbeg, owned by Smurfit's one-time golfing partner Donald Trump, have come along to provide alternative playgrounds for the rich and famous. The K Club hasn't so much faded as seen its social cachet overtaken by the lure of exclusive resorts at home or a quick hop away by private jet.

A three-bedroomed house for less than €500,000 or an apartment for €175,000 in the Lady Castle development in the K Club no longer indicates "exclusive", now that boom is once again getting 'boomier'.

Last Wednesday it was announced that Smurfit (83), the man who took a paper mill in Clonskeagh on the outskirts of Dublin founded by his father Jefferson, and turned it into Ireland's first multi-national company, had finally bowed out of his famous plaything, set in a rolling estate on the banks of the River Liffey, near Straffan, Co Kildare.

"The completion of the sale of the K Club represents the end of an era for me and my family," said Smurfit as the sale, believed to be worth between €65m and €70m, to nursing home and hospitality magnate Michael Fetherston was completed after months of negotiation.

The "imposing" Straffan House, combining Italianate and French chateau styles was build by the Barton wine family as its Irish retreat, when political turbulence troubled their security in France. The last Barton, Captain FB, sold it to John Ellis in 1949.

It subsequently became at different times the home of millionaire Stephen O'Flaherty (who had the VW franchise), of film director/producer/writer Kevin McClory (who invented the film persona of James Bond and made the film Thunderball), of Iranian general Nader Jahanani (executed by Islamists after the downfall of the Shah in 1979)... until eventually the colourful property developer Patrick Gallagher bought it.

In 1988 the Jefferson Smurfit Group, flush with international success, purchased Straffan House in Co Kildare for €3.5m and soon added the nearby Lyons Estate, outside Celbridge, once the home of Lord Cloncurry. Smurfit later sold Lyons to Ryanair founder Tony Ryan, with the proviso that it was to be used as a family home and would not compete with his new golf course, hotel and housing development on the other bank of the Liffey.

So began the arduous process of turning Straffan House and 550-acre estate into his dream venue. In 1988, Charles Haughey had appointed Michael Smurfit as Ireland's Honorary Consul in Monaco, where the businessman had a home and sometimes kept his luxury yacht. Unusually he also granted him a diplomatic passport.

Although Haughey presided at the opening of the K Club, relations between himself and Dr Smurfit deteriorated at the end of 1991 over the sale of a site in Ballsbridge to the then phone company, Telecom Eireann, of which Dr Smurfit was chairman. When it emerged that he also had a stake in the prospective headquarters' site for the State company, Haughey requested during a radio interview that he stand aside while the matter was investigated.

Smurfit, whose extensive property interests at the time included the Setanta Centre, said he was unaware that his investment company was involved in the complex deal, but resigned his position in Telecom Eireann forthwith.

When the Smurfit Group was sold to US private equity firm Madison Dearborn in 2002, the K Club went with it. But there was a clause inserted that he could buy it back at a price to be agreed anytime before 2007. In 2005 he enforced this clause and with financial backing from the Irish Nationwide Building Society, he and "the man in the hat", developer Gerry Gannon, bought the K Club for €115m.

Gannon, like most of the other major developers in Dublin, was a member of the K Club. A former block-layer from Co Roscommon, he held 490 shares in the new company Bishopscourt Investments, while Smurfit held the majority stake of 510 shares through his Isle of Man registered investment company, Bacchantes Six.

The K Club's finest hour probably came in 2006 when it hosted the Ryder Cup - the golf competition held every two years which pits European and US golfers against each other. It was "the place to be" for the golfing and the social fraternity, with private jets streaming into Dublin and helicopters and limousines ferrying fans to and from the course. Its champion, Michael Smurfit, basked in the reflected glory of European victory.

"From our perspective, it certainly paid its way," Dr Smurfit told golf correspondent Dermot Gilleece last year. "Nothing I can think of compares with the Ryder Cup. It's the ultimate golfing spectacle. Despite walking into the worst recession in living memory, we still managed to get a premium for our course because of the Ryder Cup, attracting a lot of American visitors."

But the recession he talked about led to his partner Gerry Gannon going into Nama and the demise of the Irish Nationwide Building Society - though the loans to Smurfit and Gannon's Bishopscourt Investments were fully paid back in 2012.

By 2015, Smurfit had become sole owner of the K Club through his family investment company Bacchantes Six, with his son Michael Jnr and friend Arthur French as directors. But age and failing health meant he was no longer able to play golf there or take the two-hour walks through the parkland he once enjoyed.

While the K Club has lost €3m a year over the last two years, its new owner is by contrast making a profit of the same amount in one of his companies, TLC Centre.

Michael Fetherston, whose holding company is private, has interests in nursing homes, bars and property.

"It took me a while to get used to the idea of selling it," Smurfit told Dermot Gilleece in the same interview for the Sunday Independent last August. "The place is very close to my heart and I am so very proud of it. To some extent, however, I've had to give up my travelling and I haven't been there for a year now because of health problems."

When the deal was sealed this week, it marked yet another milestone in the ever-changing Ireland on which Michael Smurfit left such an indelible mark.

Sunday Independent