Friday 24 November 2017

Society wife now lives a quiet life after husband's huge betrayal

She was not party to her other half's crimes but Fiona Nagle is paying a high price, writes Julia Molony

You won't see Fiona Nagle on the social pages, or in Miranda's Diary these days. The time for hobnobbing and posing for photos has long since passed for her. Very occasionally, she makes rare appearances at low-key, family-and-friends-type events, but even these, for the estranged wife of Ireland's answer to Bernie Madoff, are a liability.

She's uncomfortable, and edgy, say those who have had the chance to observe her at close quarters. Relations with acquaintances and friends are strained, to say the least. After all, in a social scene as intimate as ours is, Nagle's fall from grace, wasn't just public, it was very, very personal.

Her husband Breifne O'Brien was famously exposed as the operator of an elaborate pyramid scheme in 2008. He'd spent years recruiting investors for the scheme from his well-heeled social set. Unfortunately for Fiona, many of her friends in high places, whose support she could certainly do with now, were themselves victims of the ruse.

Perhaps it doesn't help, admits one former colleague, that she still arrives to social occasions driving a big 4x4. For even though Nagle is innocent of the financial fraud for which her husband may now atone in jail, she's become a symbol of boomtime excess.

Certainly, she didn't do much to curry the sympathy vote when in 2009, as the full extent of O'Brien-gate began to unravel under the intense glare of the media, she took herself off to court and appealed to the judge to unfreeze enough of her husband's assets to cover household expenses, to the tune of €4,000 per week.

This piece of information, alongside a now infamous quote given to Image magazine about her love for designer clothes and expensive jewellery, quickly became the catch-cry of the media and an angry public. Feeling betrayed by the politicians and banks, they found something alluring in the scapegoat figure of an icily beautiful socialite, whose taste for luxury had been funded by her husband's deception and criminal activity.

Nagle has always credibly maintained she knew absolutely nothing of her husband's nefarious activities. He'd started his Ponzi scheme before the couple got together. Soon after it was exposed, she sought a legal separation and began pursuing him in the courts for her share of the assets.

"She did not know what he was up to and feels humiliated and angry about what he has done to his family as well as to their friends," a close friend told another newspaper soon after the scandal broke.

"How on earth do you think she feels? The person she fell in love with and married all those years ago is today somebody very different. She feels conned."

Nagle had experienced first-hand life as a single mother after her first marriage collapsed. She'd married estate agent Gerard Hoban and had two children with him before they split. Though she was raised in comfortable Cabinteely, and though her brother is a classically trained musician and one of the three Irish Tenors, her ascent to Irish high society wasn't automatic. Nagle started her career as an administrator in PR. When she met O'Brien, it must have felt as if, through her association with him, she'd been elevated into a different world.

With her remote beauty and assiduously maintained hair and figure, she was slim,

doll-like and self-possessed, and at public occasions she seemed comfortable inhabiting the role of society wife. She busied herself with organising charity events. Together, she and Breifne were a terribly well-connected couple, and she drew on those connections to support her role in public relations, through which she organised the annual Sinatra Ball.

The rewards of her second, seemingly well-made marriage were great. She holidayed at the world's most expensive hotels, the seven-star Burj Al Arab in Dubai was a favourite. The christening of their son Oscar was the apotheosis of Celtic Tiger Ireland -- a veritable who's who of guests included Mary Hanafin and Michael O'Doherty, and the marquee in the garden of their family home was decked out like a vintage speakeasy.

As the good times rolled, so too, it seemed, did the relationship between the two. Within three years of their lavish wedding at Carrigrohane Castle, it was all over. With her fantasy life in tatters, Fiona could no longer bring herself to share a bed with the man who, under false pretences, had encouraged her to believe in it.

In the immediate aftermath, Fiona certainly showed her mettle. Christmas Eve 2008 was the peak of her annus horribilus. The banks closed the overdraft facility at Blackrock Cabs, the company from which Breifne O'Brien had operated all his scams. At it was her only source of income, Fiona was forced to borrow €20,000 from her mother in a frantic bid to keep the business going. She then threw herself into the management of operations there, working all hours and drawing down a small wage.

While her attempt to breathe life back into Blackrock Cabs ultimately failed, Nagle struggles on, taking care of her five children as best she can, and keeping as low a profile as possible. In 2009 she hit the headlines again after gardai issued a warrant for her arrest over non-payment of parking fines.

Her name may be mud, but Nagle has thus far maintained a strict omerta on all things relating to her husband. Where once she gushed publicly of her love for clothes and jewellery, lately she has broken her silence only once -- and then it was to appeal to the press and the public to respect her privacy for the sake of her children.

Sunday Independent

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