Monday 16 December 2019

Obituary: Jennifer Guinness

August 22, 1937 - January 23, 2016

Kidnap: Jennifer Guinness with her husband John at a news conference following her release on April 18, 1988. She had been held for eight days. Photo: Frank McGrath
Kidnap: Jennifer Guinness with her husband John at a news conference following her release on April 18, 1988. She had been held for eight days. Photo: Frank McGrath

Jennifer Guinness, who died last weekend, became famous after being kidnapped in 1986. She was held captive for eight days by a criminal gang, but survived unharmed and drew huge admiration from the public for her fortitude, courage and even good humour, during and after her ordeal.

When asked during a post-rescue press conference what had kept her going for those eight days, she said: "A certain amount of anger, a lot of determination and just a conviction that they weren't going to get to me."

She even made reporters laugh when, in reference to her husband John - distantly related to the iconic brewing family - she quipped: "I kept saying (to the kidnappers), 'You've got the wrong branch of the family. John's a banker, but two million is not our style of life.'"

On her release, she thanked the public "for its tremendous support, for thinking of me; it made me feel like I had so many friends". Jennifer later became chairwoman of the voluntary organisation Victim Support.

She was born Mary Jennifer Hollwey on August 22, 1937.

She came from a maritime family: her father, Colonel JB Hollwey, was both a leading figure in Dublin Bay sailing and a shipping pioneer. His company, Bell Lines, was to the vanguard in developing containerisation for international shipping.

From an early age, Jennifer was immersed in sailing, and was soon experienced and proficient. She would go on to become one of the most accomplished Irish amateur sailors of her generation. She was a member of Howth Yacht Club, which announced her death on its website, paying tribute to their "esteemed" colleague.

In April 1959, she married merchant banker John Guinness, with whom she had three children: Ian, born in 1961, Gillian (1962) and Tania (1966). She was to be predeceased by her husband - chairman of the Guinness Mahon bank - who died two years after the kidnapping, in February 1988, following a tragic mountain-walking accident in Snowdonia.

After marriage, they had taken up residence in Ceanchor House in Howth, set on 20 acres and overlooking Dublin Bay and the Wicklow Hills. They sailed from the local harbour in a series of colourfully named vessels: Sharavoge, Sule Skerry, Deerhound. John served, at different times, as Commodore of Howth Yacht Club and Commodore of the Irish Cruising Club - but Jennifer's interests lay less in administration than in tackling the open sea.

She raced in a variety of boats, earning renown as a helm in the International Dragon Class, and cruised far and wide, from Spain to Scandinavia. In May 1986 - not long after the kidnapping - she was a crewmember on Robin Knox-Johnston's catamaran, which set a new round-Ireland record. Jennifer was also a member of the Irish Admiral's Cup team in 1975.

She was abducted on April 8, 1986. This was a tumultuous period in Irish criminal history, with a series of notorious kidnappings for ransom over a decade or so, including Tiede Herrema in 1975, Ben Dunne (1981) and Don Tidey (1983). The champion racehorse Shergar was also abducted, reportedly by the IRA, the same year.

Three masked men, armed with an Uzi sub-machine gun, burst into the family home in Howth, pistol-whipped John and told him he "would not see her alive" unless a £2m ransom was paid.

Jennifer was bundled away and held captive for over a week, being moved roughly every second day to a different location, five in all. At different stages of her ordeal, she was forced into the boot of a car and a cardboard box, chained to a tree and a bed, and handcuffed to one of her captors.

She later admitted: "I had no doubt at all, most of the time, that my life was in danger." But, she added: "I couldn't afford to allow myself to lose hope… They kept reassuring me that I wouldn't be harmed and that I was safe. But obviously the most dangerous time was when we were moving house."

Jennifer said she had been "treated well" by what she believed to be "five or six" masked men, and did her best to establish a rapport with them. "I had an idea that if we could talk and communicate," she recalled, "then I had a better chance of survival. You don't shoot people you talk to."

Investigating Garda Superintendent Frank Hanlon afterwards praised Jennifer's bravery, describing her as "a considerable asset toward the ending of this incident through her advice to all parties." Jennifer was eventually rescued by gardai from a house on Waterloo Road in Ballsbridge, Dublin, following an all-night stand-off with the kidnappers. A special garda taskforce surrounded the house and, after five hours of negotiating, persuaded her abductors to surrender.

Scenes reminiscent of an action movie began around 1am when gardai surrounded the house, having been alerted by the nearby presence of a car that had been rented by the gang. One of the kidnappers made a break for it and, after exchanging shots with officers, was captured.

Several hours later, another two criminals gave themselves up. Acting on garda instructions, they threw their weapons from the window of the house, inside plastic bags.

Fifteen minutes later, Jennifer walked to freedom, accompanied by a detective.

Brothers Michael and John 'The Colonel' Cunningham were later convicted of the crime, getting sentences of 14 and 17 years respectively. The pair had strong links with Martin 'The General' Cahill, and were behind a string of armed robberies in the 1970s. A collaborator, Anthony Kelly, was also sentenced to 14 years. He died in 2005 and Michael Cunningham last January.

Jennifer had been battling cancer for some time and, faced with a terminal diagnosis, showed her quintessential courage and good cheer by throwing what was described as a "truly magical" Christmas party last month for her family, friends and shipmates.

She died peacefully at home, surrounded by her children and husband Alex Booth.

Her son, Ian, said: "She had been sick for a long time.

"We will remember her as a most loving mother."

Jennifer is survived by her husband, children and grandchildren.

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