Thursday 20 June 2019

The Baron and Baroness of Bling: How Sean Dunne and Gayle Killilea epitomised the spirit of the Celtic Tiger

In the Celtic Tiger era and the crash that followed, Sean Dunne and Gayle Killilea were portrayed as a Baron and Baroness of Bling, the Dublin version of the Trumps. But this week a US court ordered her to pay €18m. Kim Bielenberg reports

The lord of the manor: Sean Dunne with Gayle Killilea at their home in Ballsbridge. Photo: Derek Speirs
The lord of the manor: Sean Dunne with Gayle Killilea at their home in Ballsbridge. Photo: Derek Speirs
Gayle Killilea leaving the Four Courts in 2017. Pic: Collins Courts
The couple with former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern at the Punchestown Festival in 2008. Photo: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland.
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

When the Irish economy boomed in the years of the Celtic Tiger and the exuberance then quickly turned to bust, nobody seemed to epitomise the spirit of the age more than the buccaneering developer Sean Dunne and his wife, Gayle Killilea.

For her thirtieth birthday in 2005, Dunne rented out the five-star Park Hotel in Kenmare for a lavish party - where everyone came as characters from Pirates of the Caribbean. Tycoons flew in by chopper for the great bash, and Dunne himself was appropriately dressed as the admiral.

Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.

Log In

Dunner, as he is known by friends, had made a fortune building homes in the suburbs and satellite towns close to Dublin as prices continued to spiral ever upwards during the boom.

Killilea had been a gossip columnist, who chronicled the glitzy lifestyles of the rich, the famous, and not so famous legends in their own lunchtime.

But then she became the subject of gossip column fodder herself as a mover and shaker who was part of the socialite set.

While other builders claimed to live modest lifestyles, Dunne and Killilea were portrayed as a Baron and Baroness of Bling, the Dublin version of the Trumps.

They threw lavish parties, including a two-week wedding celebration on board a yacht. They lived in a rarefied opulent world where participants took helicopter rides to race meetings to feast in hospitality tents. It was a time when the Fianna Fáil of Bertie and the builders were in their pomp, living it large and building it even bigger.

Dunne and Killilea met at the Galway Races and he was a fixture in the notorious Fianna Fáil tent, sitting close to Bertie Ahern.

Gayle Killilea leaving the Four Courts in 2017. Pic: Collins Courts
Gayle Killilea leaving the Four Courts in 2017. Pic: Collins Courts

Metropolis in the sky

The ascent of Dunne and Killilea culminated in a Trump-like plan to build a 37-storey metropolis in the sky in Ballsbridge after Dunne shelled out €375m of mostly borrowed money for the Jury's Hotel and Berkeley Court sites.

The story goes Dunne was in a hotel in Hua Hin in Thailand when he submitted the bid for the Jury's site. As the deadline for the tender approached, his solicitor phoned him looking for his final offer. He reportedly asked his wife Gayle to pick a number between 253 and 275. Unaware of what it was for, she chose 275. He then asked his solicitor to bid €275m.

Hoping to turn the D4 enclave into Dublin's Knightsbridge, Dunne presented a plan sculpted like a diamond with a luxury hotel, apartments, underground mall, embassy complex, office block, ice rink, and art galleries.

The unveiling of plans for the flash, jewel-like skyscraper almost had the well-heeled residents of Dublin 4 reaching for the smelling salts. One objector rudely described Dunner's bold plan as a "massive bent erection".

Peter White, a resident of nearby Wellington Road, said at the time: ''These plans seek to introduce a Dubai-style Arabian Nights theme in the midst of the most wonderful Victorian landscape... they are totally insane."

The couple with former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern at the Punchestown Festival in 2008. Photo: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland.
The couple with former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern at the Punchestown Festival in 2008. Photo: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland.

On the plus side, Dunne won some support from well-known figures such as Bill O'Herlihy. But by the time the plans for Dunne's Knightsbridge-on-the-Dodder were going through a tortuous planning process, the irrational exuberance of the Celtic Tiger was already giving way to despair.

The developer and the country at large were saddled with massive debts. After the crash, Dunne found himself owing a fortune and the couple moved to New Haven in Connecticut.

Since then, they have been involved in lengthy and convoluted legal cases over the debt, which culminated in a decision in a court case in New Haven this week.

The case hinged on how and when Dunne transferred a great slice of his fortune to Gayle and whether he was doing so to shield himself from creditors.

A jury found against Sean Dunne and his now-estranged wife over the transfer of some of the developer's assets to put them beyond the reach of creditors.

Jurors awarded Dunne's US bankruptcy trustee, Richard Coan, €18m, finding that the developer had fraudulently transferred certain property, cash and other assets to Killilea.

The award includes the €14m from the 2013 sale of Walford, the gloomy Ballsbridge mansion which Dunne bought for €58m in 2015, and a €3m cash transfer from him to Ms Killilea in 2008 from a Credit Suisse account.

Transfers of other properties (in North Wall Quay in Dublin) and assets from Dunne to Killilea made up the rest of the award.

However, the jury found in favour of the defendants in relation to a number of other transfers.

In a statement after the verdict, Gayle Killilea described the verdict as a "mixed result". Overall, the court found against Dunne and Gayle Killilea on eight counts and for the defendants on 10 counts. They were split on one decision.

Gayle's legal statement said: "There was no finding of any misconduct or fraud by Killilea."

Malahide suburbs

Killilea grew up in the suburbs of Malahide and Killiney in Dublin. Her father Thomas was first cousin of the late Fianna Fáil TD Mark Killilea and she is a friend of Bertie Ahern. But she said recently her mother is "staunch Fine Gael".

She attended the fee-paying school Holy Child in Killiney before going on to study journalism in DIT, where her classmates included Claire Byrne.

One of her classmates from that time said that Killilea stood out from the crowd, and was confident and ambitious.

As a gossip columnist for the Sunday Independent and Ireland on Sunday, she was regarded as a diligent journalist. Since that time she has also qualified as a barrister, after studying law at Trinity College.

Dunne met Gayle Killilea at the annual Fianna Fáil outing, the Galway Races, in the lobby of the Radisson Hotel in 2002. Dunne was already separated from his first wife, Jenny Coyle, originally an Aer Lingus air hostess, and sister of the Tayto crisp baron Raymond Coyle.

Dunne grew up in humble circumstances in a council house in Tullow, Co Carlow. During a famous interview with The New York Times, he picked up a penny off the floor of Doheny and Nesbitt's pub and remarked: "I grew up with nothing and I know the value of money."

He started out building council houses, before building a private property empire across much of Leinster.

He was renowned for his parties. Often, he threw them at his house, overlooking the 16th hole at the K Club.

The celebration of his wedding to Killilea in 2004 on board the Christina O, once owned by Aristotle Onassis has gone down in Celtic Tiger lore. They had married in Thailand a few months earlier, but flew friends to Italy for the two-week party. Bertie Ahern and Charlie McCreevy could not attend but their congratulations were heard over loudspeakers. Among those joining the happy couple were then-rugby international Ronan O'Gara, Michael 'Fingers' Fingleton, fashion designer Karen Millen and theatre impresario Michael Colgan.

To give just a taster of this marathon event, one of the dinners was a 10-course affair cooked by a Michelin star chef after a Champagne reception.

Killilea later appeared to have a Marie Antoinette moment when she remarked of the ostentatious bash on board the Christina O: "If it was good enough for Jackie Kennedy, I thought it's good enough for me."

Dunne built the home of Charlie McCreevy in Kildare and was particularly close to Ahern, flying the then-Taoiseach to Cardiff for the Heineken Rugby Cup final in 2002.

When Ahern addressed the US Congress in Washington ahead of his resignation in 2008, Dunne and Killilea were among a small number of luminaries invited by the Taoiseach to sit in the gallery. She described the trip as "one of the most inspirational occasions of my life".

When boom turned to crash, developers such as Dunne quickly became a lightning rod for public anger about the recession, particularly when they left for the United States.

Just as the clouds began to darken in 2008 and the future of Dunne's dream of a metropolis in the sky began to fade, the developer warned of an "Irish disease".

"Jealousy and begrudgery are still alive and well in Ireland, and whoever eradicates them should be prime minister for life," he said in his interview with The New York Times. "It's part of the Irish psyche and it is the result of 800 years of being controlled by other people, of watching everything the master or landlord is doing."

Property prices had tumbled by the end of 2008, but Dunne had lost none of his cockiness, confident that he could ride out the storm.

"You have to have steel in a certain part of your body to do this job, and as one of my bankers recently said to me, 'Sean, the only thing that will take you out is a stray bullet.'"

With the economy going belly-up, he talked as if he was almost indestructible.

"This is the way God made me, with heavy shoulders and an ability to carry a great load," he said. "Failure is not an option for me."

Dunne might have been hopeful that his fortunes would quickly turn around again, but it must have been humiliating to be ribbed by no less a figure than Eamon Dunphy.

According to one account, Dunne and Killilea were visiting Residence, a plush Dublin club when in walked the voluble football pundit.

Reaching into his pockets, Dunphy pulled out some crumpled banknotes and threw them at Dunne, shouting, 'Here, Dunner! Here, Dunner! You need the money.'"

In 2009, Killilea became an unlikely discount shopkeeper when she opened the D4 Stores on the Ballsbridge site. When the then-TD Lucinda Creighton criticised the shop on planning grounds, Killilea said she would "give her a job stacking shelves, when she loses her seat in the next election".

One of the great extravagances of the couple had come in 2005, when they secretly bought Walford, an unremarkable seven-bedroomed house on two acres on Shrewsbury Road, for a staggering €58m.

Highest price

It was by far the highest price ever paid for a residential property in Ireland. Dunne and Killilea never lived in the house. They eventually sold the home for €14m, less than a quarter of what they had originally paid; by that time the gardens were unkempt and the interior was in poor decorative order.

The ownership of the house was at the centre of the recent trial in Connecticut, with the couple contending that Gayle Killilea always owned the property.

To back up their claims they produced an unwitnessed agreement from 2005, where he promised her a large share of his wealth. The couple said they wrote out the document by hand during a 2005 holiday in Thailand.

"This transfer of money/assets is to secure the financial independence of my wife & children and to secure their independence from my property investments," the document said.

During the trial, lawyers for the couple said Dunne had transferred assets into his wife's name out of love for her and their children, not to thwart creditors' demands for repayment.

The couple were not idle when they moved to Connecticut. She was reported to have set up development companies in Connecticut and neighbouring New York State.

The protracted legal saga of Sean Dunne and Gayle Killilea may not be over yet.

Gayle Killilea has been ordered by a jury to pay more than €18m to a bankruptcy trustee, but lawyers for the defendant say she may pursue an appeal

 

The Dunne and Killilea CV

Why they are in the news: A court in Connecticut has ordered Gayle to pay €18m to a bankruptcy trustee.

Gayle Killilea

Born: Gayle Reyna Alison Killilea in Dublin in 1975

Profession: Former gossip columnist and shortlived shopkeeper, barrister and property developer

Education: Holy Child, Killiney; DIT Journalism. Law in Trinity

Family: Her father's first cousin was the late Fianna Fáil TD Mark Killilea. She has three children with Sean Dunne.

Quote: "If it was good enough for Jackie Kennedy, I thought it's good enough for me."

Sean Dunne

Born: Tullow, Co Carlow, 1955

Profession: Property developer. In 2008 his fortune was estimated at over €100m

Education: Patrician Brothers, Tullow, Vocational School, Tullow, Bolton Street College of Technology. BSc Trinity College in construction economics

Family: Son of a town clerk. From his first marriage to Jenny Coyle, he had three children. He has three children with Gayle Killilea.

Quote: "This is the way God made me, with heavy shoulders and an ability to carry a great load."

Indo Review

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News