Sunday 21 January 2018

Obituary: Austin Darragh

Doctor and businessman who was linked to one of the most notorious kidnappings of the 1980s

Enormous energy: Professor Austin Darragh
Enormous energy: Professor Austin Darragh
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

Austin Darragh, who was buried in Rathfeigh Co Meath last Wednesday, was not only a highly-qualified medical doctor, but a businessman, broadcaster, writer, equestrian enthusiast and closely involved in one of the most notorious kidnappings of the 'Troubles' when he was the target of the notorious terrorist Dessie O'Hare.

He was also at the centre of controversy as a result of the death of young man during drug trials at his once highly-successful Institute of Clinical Pharmacology (ICP).

Professor Austin Darragh, whose name was dwarfed by the number of academic letters that followed it, was born in April, 1927 and attended Trinity College Dublin where he qualified in 1954 with honours in various medical disciplines.

Of his many ventures into medical economics the most successful was the Institute of Clinical Pharmacology (ICP), which was founded in 1980, listed on the New York Stock Exchange four years later, and was put into liquidation in 1990.

He was better known to a wider audience as 'the doctor' on the Gay Byrne radio show an immensely popular slot in the 1980s which, like the programme itself, tackled difficult and even taboo subjects in Irish society. He spoke directly to his audience at a time when the medical profession was largely aloof from its clients.

However he achieved much unwanted publicity over the events surrounding the death of Niall Rush, the son of an Irish diplomat in May, 1986. Mr Rush, who was educated at Gormanstown College in Co Meath and suffered from schizophrenia, was a participant in drug trails, for which he was paid £20 a day (the dole was £30 a week). He was administered a slow acting tranquilliser for depression and drank three pints of lager before signing into Sir Patrick Dun's, the former hospital, where ICP operated its drug trials.

The following morning a trial drug to regulate the rhythm of the heart was administered and Mr Rush was found dead at 10.15am. There was a public outcry about the circumstances of his death and calls for regulation of the industry.

Austin Darragh, who was originally from Co Kildare, had married a fellow medical student Marie Therese Roddy (Terry). When their children were young the couple lived between Killiney, Co Dublin and their country estate Tarabeg, a house built by Lord Powerscourt near the Hill of Tara in Co. Meath. The house was the scene of many social and musical gathering at which Austin Darragh would recite and sing, often to the accompaniment of invited musicians and his daughter, Ed who is an accomplished piano player, singer/songwriter and producer.

The house had 26 acres of land, much it laid out in paddocks with stabling for horses. Darragh had a passion for horses and was Master of the Ballymacad Hunt and the Meath Hounds. Paul his eldest son, became an internationally-renowned show jumper and, along with Eddie Macken, the mainstay of the Irish International team. He died suddenly in early January, 2005 of a heart attack. His other son David is a documentary film maker and runs Darragh Equine with his partner Helena Walsh.

The Darragh family were again thrust into the glare of international publicity when the son-in-law of Austin Darragh, was kidnapped after a notorious gang of kidnappers broke into the family's Cabinteely, Co Dublin home on the evening of October 13 1987. The house was registered in Austin Darragh's name but occupied by his daughter Marise and her husband, well-known dentist John O'Grady and their three children.

The family were subjected to a vicious, violent and terrifying ordeal for 12 hours before the gang left the house bringing O'Grady with them.

It soon became apparent that Austin Darragh, who now lived in a luxury apartment in the Hazledene complex off Anglesea Road, was the real target of the gang led by terrorist Dessie O'Hare, the self-styled leader of the Irish Liberation Army.

During the next 32 days he was held in the basement of a house in Parkgate Street, Dublin, a shed in Carricktwohill, Co Cork and later a house in the Dublin suburb of Cabra. When the ransom of £1.5 million was not paid O'Hare used a hammer and chisel to chop off two of the dentist's fingers and left them behind a statue in Carlow Cathedral with a note saying: 'It has cost John O'Grady two of his fingers, now I am going to chop him into bits and pieces and send fresh lumps of him every f***ing day if I don't get my money fast."

Detectives eventually discovered the whereabouts of the gang and O'Grady was rescued following a gun battle. On November 27, after yet another chase and gun-battle, O'Hare was captured and his fellow terrorist Martin Bryan was killed. Dr O'Grady has never spoken publicly about the terrifying ordeal although he did resume his practise as a dentist.

Meanwhile the Institute of Clinical Pharmacology appeared to be a huge success, with a string of offices in Dublin, Tokyo, London, Nashville and New York. Its board included Sir Peter Frogatt and Tom Hardiman and as its largest shareholder Austin Darragh appeared to be one of Ireland's wealthiest men. As such he went out and bought Staffan House and 300 acres from the bust developer Patrick Gallagher for a reported £2.8 million.

Although it lost £2 million in 1987, ICP fortunes appeared to be changing and it had earnings of £11 million in 1988, largely due to its drug trials in Dublin. However the company was burdened with enormous costs and became financially over-stretched and was put into liquidation by Bank of Ireland in 1990. Austin Darragh described the banks as "an organised cartel of loan-sharks." Straffan House was sold to tycoon Michael Smurfit and turned into the K-Club golf resort.

Dr Darragh, who later appeared at the Flood Tribunal as a shareholder, in a joint venture with Jackson's Way, of lands in Carrickmines, Co Dublin, would later say that he had been the subject of a demand for £1.5 million from a "political organisation." He told the Tribunal that he had made political donations and paid lobbyist Frank Dunlop over £2,000 to organise the re-zoning of the lands and £10,000 as his third of a 'success fee' when the venture was approved.

He described himself by the old fashioned term of 'physician' and over the years he acquired a myriad of medical and business appointments and honours. In 1963 he started Conquer Cancer. His enormous energy was poured into business, books, and essays in both medical journals and elsewhere. His most recent 'The Facts of Light' was a learned dissertation on how the advent of electricity has interfered with peoples lives. He was also Adjunct Professor at the University of Limerick's Chemical and Environmental Science department as a result of his knowledge in recycling technologies and solar power.

After the death of Terry in 1992, Austin Darragh married Anna (Longdon) McDonnell, a farmer, who is described in company documents as British-born. He is survived by his wife and his surviving children Marise, Dave, Ed and Ruth, as well as two step sons.

Sunday Independent

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