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Thatcher's tycoon pal buys Ashford Castle

SHE is a glamorous South African businesswoman whose husband was close friends with the late Margaret Thatcher.

But Beatrice Tollman has her sights on a picturesque Irish village after purchasing Ashford Castle in Co Mayo.

Ms Tollman's hotel group bought the world renowned property for €20m and plans to give it a major facelift.

The South African-born hotelier is now expected to visit her new business venture in the small village of Cong.

She and her husband hit the headlines in 2002 after they were embroiled in a major court battle to avoid extradition to the US on charges relating to bank fraud and tax evasion.

They successfully fought the extradition attempt through courts in the UK.

The couple, who are both in their late seventies, have lived in the UK since 1984 and were guests of former US president Ronald Reagan at the White House.

Ms Tollman's husband, Stanley Tollman, is a former director of Chelsea football club and was close friends with the late British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

The South African tycoon is the latest high profile woman to make a major investment in the Irish hotel market.

Russian billionaire Elena Baturina bought the Morrison for €22m last year and spent €7m on renovation.

She said that the hotel was a pilot project for further investment in Ireland.

Ms Baturina (50) is now believed to be looking at at more purchases in the capital, including the NAMA-controlled Trinity Capital hotel, the Clarion IFSC and the Clarion Airport hotels.

And it appears that Beatrice Tollman is also willing to invest further in her new asset in Co Mayo.

The hotel was purchased by Ms Tollman's firm, Red Carnation Hotels, for a cut- price fee of €20m.

The property sold for €50m just five years ago – but its value has plummeted since the property crash.

Ms Tollman's firm aims to secure 160 jobs in Mayo with the investment, said managing director Jonathan Raggett.