Friday 20 September 2019

Donal Lynch: 'Frank McNamara and Theresa Lowe, and their 'unbelievable deal''

The write-down won by the celebrity couple seemed to inspire more envy than admiration, writes Donal Lynch

Frank McNamara and Theresa Lowe face years of work to repay debts. Photo: David Conachy.
Frank McNamara and Theresa Lowe face years of work to repay debts. Photo: David Conachy.

From a distance, they were enviable - a TV star and a famous composer. The day after they were married in 1987, the front page of this newspaper showed a picture of the beaming bride being kissed on the side of her head by Gay Byrne. You vaguely presumed they were wealthy, they were so well known.

A nation, gripped by Sunday night fear, turned its lonely eyes to Theresa, who seemed so much more cheerful, so much sunnier, than the teachers and bosses we were all facing the next morning. Frank was a musical director - not a field particularly known for celebrities - but it was on The Late Late Show.

It was like being in charge of only hymns - but at the Vatican. He arranged two consecutive Irish winners of the Eurovision Song Contest and seemed to be at the centre of Irish cultural life.

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She was the kind of inoffensive television personality who seemed poised for decades of background presence in your life. They had it made.

Fast forward 30-plus years and it is clear that life has not been all plain sailing for the couple.

The High Court was told last week that the couple first experienced financial difficulties in the early 2000s when McNamara was unable to collect what he claimed was almost €1m in music royalties owed to him.

They remortgaged properties and sold others in an attempt to escape what they saw as temporary financial difficulties. They owed money to Belvedere College, where their sons attended school, to Permanent TSB, Cabot Financial, First Citizen and the Revenue Commissioners. And they had accumulated more than €2m of debt on a property now worth a little over €500,000.

The mounting debt had caused them to shelve plans to extend their home in Dunshaughlin, Co Meath - Frank had wanted a room to house his music.

The US private equity firm Tanager, a so-called vulture fund, bought the couple's mortgage debt from Bank of Scotland and it dug in against attempts by the couple to have their €2.26m substantially debt written down.

The judge in the case noted, however, that bankruptcy - the couple's other option - would leave the fund even further out of pocket, and conditionally allowed for a huge restructuring of the debt, effectively a write-down of some €2.9m.

This was, of course, enough to have the long- running financial saga splashed all over the news. When Irish people are held up as having been able to secure huge write-downs on debts, the question always hangs in the air: are the rest of us meant to feel happy for them, or envious?

A few years ago, as we clambered out of the crash, it is likely that Frank and Theresa would have been held up as symbols of patriotic resistance against the venality of the banks and vulture funds, but the wind has changed somewhat since then.

Now we enviously wonder if those who secured debt write-downs were right all along. The ordeal of being pursued to the very brink through the courts would destroy many of us, but some doughty souls are up to the task.

Subject to some clarifications that the High Court has directed, McNamara and Lowe borrowed big, lost, and yet it all it seems it may have paid off in the end.

"An unbelievable deal" was how one legal source described the arrangement struck by the musical director and his famous wife.

Until recently, it had seemed a gilded passage through life for both of them. McNamara had grown up in Thurles, Co Tipperary, and been something of a musical prodigy - he was playing piano at the age of three and at 13 had won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in Dublin.

At 18, he was studying music at Trinity College and that same year won a place in RTE's orchestra.

The first time he met Lowe she was a 20-year-old student - studying English, French, and Greek and Roman civilisation at UCD - and he was already, at 23, a fairly established figure in the music world.

She auditioned for a 'new faces' slot on a music show and McNamara, who was the programme's musical director, later recalled he turned to the producer when she walked in and said: "This one will be good". His feeling was prescient. McNamara and Lowe were married in 1987 and went on to have four children, twins Frankie and Quincy, JJ and Charlotte.

To the outside world, the life of a TV presenter is glamour and fame but it can be a precarious gig, and Lowe was intelligent and ambitious enough to have a plan B. In the late 1980s she became a barrister specialising in criminal law and personal injury. She also founded her own communications company. She is a sister of Senator Joan Freeman, who was an unsuccessful candidate in the last presidential election. Lowe also has notably conservative views - she was one of a number of lawyers who signed a letter opposing the repeal of the Eighth Amendment.

McNamara also had political connections. In March 2007, he was unveiled as a candidate for the Progressive Democrats, but was not successful in getting elected to the Dail.

As a result of his foray into politics, the household income was reduced significantly and very soon afterwards the recession took hold in Ireland, greatly adding to the couple's financial difficulties.

In his lengthy ruling last week, Mr Justice McDonald dismissed a series of objections raised by the US investment fund, including the fact that McNamara will be 78 and Lowe 75 when their new mortgage term ends.

The judge pointed out that there was no retirement age for either barristers or musical directors and noted that US singer Burt Bacharach performed a series of concerts in Dublin just last month - in his 90s.

It was this little observation - that these two embattled freelancers have decades of hard work before retirement - that tempered any feeling that McNamara and Lowe had got away with something. They will still toil well into old age to repay their debts, something that will likely become the new normal in Ireland in coming years.

And for that they are to be pitied, not envied.

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