Wednesday 19 June 2019

Charlie's champagne days (and nights) on Celtic Mist

As the late Taoiseach's boat moves on, John Costello recalls a life on the ocean wave

Not so plain
sailing: Haughey
on Celtic Mist
Not so plain sailing: Haughey on Celtic Mist

Charlie Haughey may have plundered like a swashbuckling pirate when it came to funding his lavish lifestyle, but on board his yacht, the Celtic Mist, he preferred to see himself more as the prince of tides.

Now the seafaring monument to the indulgences of the disgraced former Taoiseach is setting sail for its final assignment, after the Haughey family donated it to the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group where it will see out its final years as a research vessel.

But as the boat continues to ride the waves off the west coast of Ireland it will forever be associated with the shenanigans of 'Champagne Charlie'.

"My work was my life. There was no room for an extravagant lifestyle," Haughey famously told the McCracken Tribunal in 1997. Yet, one glimpse of his seafaring lifestyle would have shown otherwise.

Even though he earned a relatively modest £5,000 as a TD back in 1974, he still managed to buy Inishvickillane, the most southerly of the Blasket Islands, for the tidy sum of £25,000.

But despite forking out five times his annual salary, Haughey had no intention of slumming it on this 171-acre rocky Atlantic outcrop, notable for its Christian monastic oratory and a seabird colony.

He promptly built an architect-designed single-storey ranch-style house, with the help of a fleet of leased helicopters which carried the construction materials across the nine-mile stretch of ocean.

When the splendours of his island paradise began to emerge, Haughey was jokingly asked if he would declare it a republic. His reply was swift if unsubtle: "No, it would be a monarchy".

The lavish lifestyle he had created in his personal kingdom, where he entertained the likes of French president François Mitterrand, hit the rocks when his boat, his now favourite mode of transport, came a cropper off Mizen Head in 1985. And so, his dream of ruling the high seas was temporarily left high and dry.

He remained desperate to replace the vessel, even though on his Taoiseach's salary of £51,036 he could not even support his £9,000-a-week lifestyle, full of Charvet shirts, vintage wines and racehorses, without a steady flow of brown envelopes.

But it just meant crafty Charlie had to look for more creative ways to get his dream back afloat.

In the autumn of 1987, while he was warning the Dail the country was on a slippery "slide to disaster", he was soon to prove he was still very much intent on living well beyond his means.

A solicitor friend had spotted the Celtic Mist while holidaying in Palma, Majorca, and Haughey promptly dispatched his eldest son Conor to inspect the yacht, then called La Tina of Hamble.

The money to meet the £167,000 price was magically conjured up by Des Traynor, and the three Haughey sons sailed the boat home from Gibraltar to Kinsale in the summer of 1988.

However, Haughey decided the 17-metre motorsailer ketch, with her spacious decks, elegant saloon, steel hull and long keel to ensure a comfortable cruise, was not yet fit for a king and the following summer brought it to a boatyard in Crosshaven, Co Cork, for a £75,546 makeover.

After hearing of Haughey's wishes, a rich business friend commanded Ron Holland, a noted yacht designer from New Zealand with a worldwide reputation, to oversee the project. This has been compared to asking the head designer of the Ferrari Formula One team to prepare the family saloon for the NCT.

The re-fit included a mahogany and teak interior for the main interior deck, replete with celtic motifs at Haughey's request. Haughey's personal cabin, dominated by a large mahogany bed and polished brass, was marked 'Admiral'.

But the Taoiseach didn't trouble himself with the invoices. They were simply sent directly to his rich businessman friend to take care of.

Soon, Haughey, decked out in his natty navy nautical blazer, jaunty cap, sleek slacks and check shirt -- handmade of course -- became a regular attraction off the Kerry coast cruising en-route to Inishvickillane via Dingle.

The boat, which employed a professional skipper, was always well-stocked with lobster, Champagne and vintage wine, and ready to provide the perfect escape to paradise for Haughey and his mistress, Terry Keane.

"Every summer, we went sailing on the Celtic Mist, usually to Brittany," Keane revealed after she finally acknowledged their affair on the Late Late Show in 1999. "Once, it was moored in Concarneau and Charlie set off to buy some Champagne, which he eventually found in some little backstreet shop. He bought the most expensive bottle and the lady shopkeeper applauded as he was leaving. Whereas in Ireland, of course, she would have been muttering 'Who does this flash git think he is?'"

But while the rest of the country turned a blind eye to cheeky Charlie's "flash git" lifestyle, loyalist terrorists had taken note. In a bid to avenge the death of Lord Louis Mountbatten, whose vessel had been blown-up off the Sligo coast in 1979, a three-man hit squad from the Red Hand Commando terror group planned to put a stop to Haughey's shenanigans.

They intended wiring the Celtic Mist with explosives and placing the detonator in the yacht's radio, which would explode when switched on, according to convicted UDA killer Michael Stone.

Luckily for Haughey, the plan was scuppered after two members of the group were arrested trying to rob a bank a week before the attack was scheduled to take place.

Other potential hitmen may have been scared off by the sight of Haughey holding a BSA double-barrelled shotgun as he stood proudly on board his vessel docked in Dingle. This was part of his commitment, spanning 50 years, to fire the opening shot as part of the annual regatta.

Indeed, even when Haughey was getting a wide berth in political circles, he was treated like royalty in Dingle, where a 1.8-metre stone topped with a bronze bust of him stands in thanks for his help in transforming the harbour.

But it isn't just the population of Dingle who remain grateful to Charlie and Celtic Mist. At least four others are also very thankful for his love of sailing, regardless of who funded it.

In August 1998 he picked up a distress call from a pleasure boat, which had developed engine trouble. The vessel was in danger of being swept out to sea but Haughey relayed the Mayday to Valentia and acted as a conduit between the four people on board and their rescuers, who eventually towed the stricken vessel to safety. For his troubles, Charlie received a bottle of expensive Champagne from the grateful French owner of the vessel.

However, as his financial affairs began to unravel under the glare of the McCracken Tribunal, Haughey would soon realise the dream was over.

He even considered chartering the Celtic Mist and attempted to rent his island for £10,000.

Potential clients were wooed by promises of being able to "live like a noble Celtic chieftain for a week" while getting "away from the real world" in "a mystical atmosphere surrounded by a Celtic mist".

As for Charlie, the harsh winds of reality would soon see his paradise slip away as the mist surrounding his finances finally lifted.

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