Wednesday 20 February 2019

Meet the Irish villagers who count Donald Trump as a local hero

Graham Clifford reports from the Co Clare village where the controversial and brash US Presidential hopeful is a local hero... and a man they hope can bring more jobs and prosperity

Way out West: Journalist Graham Clifford explores the grounds . Photo: Noel Gavin/Press 22
Way out West: Journalist Graham Clifford explores the grounds . Photo: Noel Gavin/Press 22
Doonbeg Lodge
Graham Clifford watches Trump's presidential campaign at Doonbeg.
Graham Clifford in one of the hotel's luxury suites. Photo: Noel Gavin/Press 22.
Donald Trump with his wife Melania: The leading Republican candidate has had a difficult week even by his own controversial standards. Photo: AP Photo

Graham Clifford

At the bar, two local farmers lament the dip in sale prices for suckler calves while nursing their pints of plain.

Outside the window a full moon illuminates the still Atlantic waters which separates an owner from his jewel. This is Trump's resort in Doonbeg - lavish, luxurious but an Irish offering in its own right rather than an over-the-top tribute to its controversial, divisive and sometimes outlandish tycoon proprietor.

Locals mingle with well-dressed visitors chatting in far-off accents, while young giddy couples gaze adoringly across tables into each other's eyes as the flames of the open fire gather height.

On a large flat-screen TV, a news report on a protest outside a Donald Trump rally in New York attracts little attention.

There's a contradiction in terms present in this corner of West Clare. Doonbeg is your quintessential rural Irish village, complete with its little streams, farms, bridges, old-style pubs and houses from which plumes of smoke wind their way into the evening sky. It is picture-postcard stuff. So any five-star resort claiming to be part of this community must keep the bling, pomp and 'hero' worship to a minimum - and for the most part, Trump's troops have.

That strong possibility, which keeps many awake at night, that Trump could well be the next President of the United States excites locals in West Clare, who believe it's not within their right to look a gift-horse in the mouth.

Way out West: Journalist Graham Clifford explores the grounds . Photo: Noel Gavin/Press 22
Way out West: Journalist Graham Clifford explores the grounds . Photo: Noel Gavin/Press 22

"We've had so much publicity so far but imagine if he got into the White House, that publicity would jump 10-fold and be great for the place," reckons John O'Dea, chairman of the Doonbeg Community Development group.

It's like the Charlie Haughey-Dingle love affair all over again - no matter what the 'great' one does or says, he'll always find a welcome in his west of Ireland hideaway!

But Trump's perceived anti-Muslim and anti-migrant rhetoric led to the hotel receiving a number of anonymous phone calls from some criticising his unrepentant stance on these issues. I was told, though, that most were thought to have been "prank calls".

'The Donald' picked up the Doonbeg resort for a steal in 2014 at a knock-down price of just €8.7m and over the last year has invested heavily in both the resort and the redesign of the golf course, originally styled by Greg Norman. Conservatively, the entire complex is valued at €23m today.

Graham Clifford watches Trump's presidential campaign at Doonbeg.
Graham Clifford watches Trump's presidential campaign at Doonbeg.

And if An Bord Pleanala and Clare County Council see fit, Trump will invest a further €10m in erecting a rock-barrier defence system along the beach at Doughmore Bay to prevent coastal erosion and protect his resort and golf course.

"The approval and completion of these works are very important to the long-term viability of the business. If the coastline continues to erode, it will have an undoubted negative effect on our 'core business asset', the golf course, to a point that it may in time become no longer playable. It is that serious. Consideration must also be given to the number of people employed at the golf course, the impact the business has on the immediate region in economic and social terms plus the fact that these works will also protect many homes and farms," Trump Doonbeg's General Manager Joe Russell told Review.

As I walked the 18th fairway this week, I found white wooden markers placed to show the edge of the rough that had fallen, with the sandy ground beneath them, into the beach below. It's clear that without some form of protection, a section of the course will gradually become part of the sea bed.

The timing of this proposal and Trump's bizarre statements outlining his vision for a wall to separate Mexico and the US were unfortunate from Doonbeg's point of view.

Immediately, international media ran with stories that Trump was planning to "build another wall" - this time along Ireland's coast - and the threat that if planning was not given, he might "pull out" of Doonbeg altogether.

Critics said he was using the same bully-boy tactics in Ireland that he used previously in Scotland.

But everyone I met in Doonbeg was keen to point out that the design of the proposed sea defences were in keeping with the natural terrain of the area and would not resemble a wall in the slightest.

One local told me: "If the council and planning bodies turn Trump down, he'd be entitled to pack up and leave but it would be a very dark day for everyone living around here. Sure the development won't cost the council or taxpayer a cent. We'd be foolish to stand in the way of it."

Environmentalists have criticised Trump's plans.

"The conservation objective of a designated dune system like Doonbeg is to maintain natural mobile processes. The objective of coastal protection is to stop them. Therefore, the two objectives will always be mutually exclusive," Tony Lowes of the Friends of the Irish Environment group has said.

But farmers and landowners in the area, at least those that I spoke to, are keeping their fingers crossed that full planning permission is granted as they, too, will benefit from the protective works.

And locals believe this commitment by the Republican Party front-runner to spend on sea defences means he's here to stay - despite the fact that the billionaire called his Irish Investment "small potatoes" at a campaign rally event in February.

"I bought it (Doonbeg) a number of years ago and during the downturn in Ireland I made a good investment. It is an incredible place. We spent a lot of money on making it just perfect and now it's doing great. But I don't care about that stuff anymore. It is like small potatoes, right.

"I'll let my kids run it, have fun with it, let my executives have a good time, but I don't care about it. I care about making America great again. That's what I care about."

And it's his sons who've been seen most frequently in these parts. While Donald Junior mainly focusses on project acquisitions, his 32-year-old brother Eric takes a hands-on approach to the running and future direction of the properties and business ventures.

"Yes, Donald Junior popped in here for a pint around the time they bought the resort, lovely man," says Bridget Tubridy, who runs the popular Tubridy's Bar and Restaurant on the main street in Doonbeg.

As the resort has grown in popularity, the Tubridy family business, which she runs with her husband Tommy and children, has benefited, too. A shuttle bus brings guests staying at the resort into Doonbeg each evening where they can dine, drink, chat with locals and enjoy traditional in-house music sessions. "Sure it's been fantastic for us and the other businesses in the village. On a Wednesday night during the summer, our place is packed as we have a good band and loads of the guests from the resort come down for the night. Even during the winter, the lads who were working on the golf-course redesign were eating and drinking in the village and gave us a great boost during quiet times," says Bridget.

"He (Trump) is spending a lot of money up there (at the resort) and has plans to build conference facilities and a swimming pool but getting the all-clear to combat the coastal erosion is key and I hope he gets that."

I ask her though about Trump the man. Surely there are those locally who'd rather the Atlantic winds hadn't blown him their way. Those who cringe when they hear some of his utterings.

"I don't know, to be honest, you can't say how someone is thinking but I know for us, it's been hugely beneficial and I just hope he stays here," says Bridget. "Trump is Trump and there'll always be those who don't support him, I suppose. But as business people here, we'd be happy if he became President, though if he did he probably wouldn't be allowed have anything to do with the resort for a while."

In another hostelry in the village, a young couple have divided opinions on Trump and his indirect presence amongst them.

"The man is dangerous, perhaps the most dangerous man in the world, and for me we've crossed a line by having his likes here. We rolled out red carpets and would do anything for his money, I really don't agree with it at all," says Jerry, but his girlfriend Siobhan disagrees.

"Look, there are over 200 people employed by him here, and otherwise so many young people would have to leave. It's all well and good to talk about politics and the White House, but people here need to keep the bills paid and a roof over their head. Trump's money keeps them in West Clare. I don't like him but, like most locals, I like his money."

I, cheekily, ask if the couple have ever considered tying the knot and having their wedding reception at Doonbeg. The resort is hosting 28 weddings this year.

Jerry doesn't need to give a verbal answer. The scowl on his face tells me it's unlikely he'll be toasting to his beautiful bride under the massive Trump Clock that stands at the edge of the golf course.

Meanwhile, Doonbeg Community Development group's John O'Dea tells me: "Other than Moneypoint (the power station), the Trump Doonbeg resort is the biggest employer in West Clare. Without it, so many would have to leave the area and our communities would shrink. It's having a very direct impact in keeping West Clare going."

As I leave the village in the direction of the resort, my tyres rotate smoothly on the newly laid tarmac. Nobody knows for sure, but locally there's a consensus Trump paid for this road upgrade, too.

As long as he continues to spend and pulls in the wealthy punters, he'll always be well-received in these parts it seems.

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