Tuesday 22 October 2019

Liam Collins: 'Rise and fall of the Baron of Ballsbridge'

Sean Dunne and Gayle Killilea's story of fame, fortune and failure took a new twist in a US court, writes Liam Collins

GILDED LIFE: Sean Dunne and Gayle Killilea enjoying the racing at Punchestown in 2006 when the Celtic Tiger was still roaring. Photo: Steve Humphreys
GILDED LIFE: Sean Dunne and Gayle Killilea enjoying the racing at Punchestown in 2006 when the Celtic Tiger was still roaring. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

A home on Shrewsbury Road in Dublin 4 is recognised in property and social circles as the pinnacle of financial success, and it was there, in a house called Ouragh, that Sean Dunne and Gayle Killilea disported themselves in some splendour as the property bubble inflated towards bursting point.

The name of the house comes from the townland in Co Carlow where ''The Dunner'' was born, although he grew up in the modest surroundings of a council house on the Dublin Road in Tullow. But if Ouragh was named fondly for the place of his birth, the trophy home on Shrewsbury Road he shared with his beautiful young wife Gayle Killilea, revelled in the excesses of Ireland at the beginning of the 21st century.

Built between the end of his first marriage and his honeymoon with Gayle, it came with marble halls, an oak staircase, ballroom and a ''party'' jacuzzi in the master bedroom. Staff including gardeners, maids and a dog groomer bustled about and fresh bouquets of flowers appeared in the big front windows almost every other day.

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In between their ambitions to transform nearby Ballsbridge, Sean and Gayle managed to fit in a 14-day celebrity-studded wedding celebration costing an estimated €1.5m aboard the former Onassis yacht, the Cristina O. "If it was good enough for Jackie Kennedy, it is good enough for me," the Killiney-raised Gayle told the Sunday Independent in July 2004.

By then, her new husband had shed his rugby-club nickname The Dunner for the more aristocratic sounding title ''The Baron of Ballsbridge'', and when not disporting themselves on Shrewsbury Road, the couple went on exotic holidays and jet-setted to prestigious destinations, living out the dreams espoused in the Financial Times' lavish magazine, How to Spend It.

They had a special fondness for Thailand, where in 2005 Sean Dunne allegedly drew up an unwitnessed handwritten document, transferring more than €60m worth of assets to his new wife, Gayle.

In an added twist to the exotic romance that blossomed in the infamous tent at the Galway Races, Gayle, now called Killilea Dunne, had morphed from gossip columnist to a queen of social diaries herself. But as time went on, Sean Dunne, who usually got his way in the court room or otherwise, saw his grand €600m plans for Ballsbridge turn to dust, thwarted by rivals such as Bernadette Doyle who beat him for the Jury's hotel site, objectors such as billionaire Dermot Desmond and planners who didn't share his vision for a 37-storey high-rise future for his six-acre site at the heart of D4.

And all the while, the Celtic Tiger was edging towards the precipice.

But it wasn't the lavishly appointed Dunne home, Ouragh, with its fabulous excesses, that came to symbolise the couple's fall from grace, but the mysterious ownership of a large gloomy red-brick house a few doors down on the same side of Shrewsbury Road called Walford.

Long owned by the Duggan family, beneficiaries of the wealth generated by the Irish Sweepstakes, the house at the Donnybrook end of the exclusive tree-lined avenue made international headlines when it was sold in 2005 for €58m.

Its sale marked the high-tide of the boom and became a benchmark for unrealistic expectations that, like a virus, infected every corner of Irish life in those turbulent years.

And there in the full glare of the spotlight was Gayle Killilea, the former social diarist with modest qualifications, who suddenly found herself at the heart of one of the great mysteries of the Celtic Tiger.

She was a beautiful young woman with a vivacious outlook on life who set out to chronicle the lives of the rich and famous. Looking back now, she did it very well, and those who knew her in those frenetic times recall a young woman of poise driven by what was known to some as ''blonde ambition''.

In the newspaper office, she was solicitous but steely. You could drop her into any company and Gayle could hold her own. She became the girlfriend of the painter Graham Knuttel, holding court in his Georgian home in central Dublin, before moving from the artistic milieu to the heart of Ireland's new rich when she found love with Sean Dunne.

Their gilded life together was a mish-mash of conflicting emotions, she becoming a mother of three young children, Sean Dunne, clinging to the multi-millionaire persona of small-town boy made good. He boasted to a New York Times reporter in 2009, "I am never too proud to pick up a penny from the floor," as he stooped to pluck the coin from the floorboards of his favourite pub, Doheny & Nesbitt in Dublin.

That was part of the reason he called his home in Shrewsbury Road Ouragh, to recall his humble beginnings, but also to distinguish it from the phony neo-colonial names of some of his neighbours.

He was the local boy made good. The guy who never really let his left hand know what his right hand was doing, the guy who wanted to be a top-notch rugby player, but when a coach was sent down from Dublin to Tullow, insisted on telling the coach what he was doing wrong. Dunne knew best.

Walford, empty and brooding, came to epitomise the way the ''Baron of Ballsbridge'' did business. If the price was well-publicised, the ownership was wrapped in mystery and safely locked away in the vaults of a Dublin legal firm. Except Dublin is a small town where mysteries are always mulled over and it was well known Walford had been bought by Sean Dunne, even if the detail stayed secret.

But after the abortive tilt at transforming Dublin 4, and a "wine-soaked" meal in 2009 when he all but admitted to a reporter that he was bust, the house of cards began to come tumbling down. By 2013, he had filed for bankruptcy in Ireland and the United States with debts of €690m.

While other developers stayed to fight and, in many cases, rise again, the Baron of Ballsbridge and his lady Gayle chose a nomadic lifestyle, flitting between a high-profile mansion outside London and homes in the United States, with occasional trips to Ireland for Sean to attend rugby matches.

As their lives become mired in litigation, Gayle, who had since taken a law degree, and Sean must have recalled the words of Longfellow that were learned by children at school: ''Though the mills of God grind slowly, Yet they grind exceeding small''.

Certainly, when Sean met an old friend at a rugby match, he knew exactly where he stood. "I'll be in court for the rest of my life," he said with a defiant smile.

In 2017, a court in Dublin was told that the couple were legally separated but lawyers for the bankruptcy trustee claimed they went so far as to feign marital discord as part of a ruse.

Civil legal proceedings ended last week in a New Haven courthouse in the US when a jury decided that Gayle Killilea (44) should repay €18.04m, transferred to her by Sean Dunne (64), to their many creditors. The bulk of it, €14.25m, came from the sale of Walford by a Cypriot-based Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) to a trust connected with billionaire Dermot Desmond.

In court, Gayle's attorney Peter Nolin pointed out that in 2005, the year he bought Walford, Sean Dunne made profits of €189m from his development companies.

Some people, he said, might regard spending €58m on a house for his wife as "extravagant" before adding: "That is what husbands sometimes do".

Sean Dunne's counsel Brian Spears said the transfer of more than €60m occurred before his business hit the rocks. "His intention was to provide for Ms Killilea and his family."

Gayle Killilea has now conceded that she owned Walford "since at least October 2006" although the New Haven jury found that it had been transferred to her by Sean Dunne on March 29, 2013.

In a statement issued after the US jury made the award in favour of Dunne's bankruptcy trustee Richard Coan, Gayle said that the jury had awarded "substantially less than the €100m the trustee was claiming". They found against Gayle Killilea on eight counts before the court, and for her and Dunne on 10 counts. One claim remained unresolved and there were no findings of misconduct or fraud against her.

Yesterday, Shrewsbury Road was unusually quiet. The bulldozers and heavy lifting equipment that have razed Walford to the ground over the last couple of weeks were silent behind the tall hoarding that keeps prying eyes from the demolition work and will protect it as a fashionable new super-mansion rises from the rubble.

A couple of doors down, the stone plaques engraved with Ouragh on either side of the impressive red-brick gateway are gone. The house has been renamed Clahane by its new owner, the multi-millionaire aviation tycoon Domhnal Slattery, who recently moved in with his family, after a favourite beach in Liscannor, Co Clare, where he comes from.

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