Sunday 18 August 2019

Obituary: Martin Birrane

Businessman and racing driver who purchased former F1 racing car manufacturer Lola, writes Liam Collins

PASSION FOR SPEED: Martin Birrane in his Indy 500-winning Lola at Mondello Park
PASSION FOR SPEED: Martin Birrane in his Indy 500-winning Lola at Mondello Park

In his plush office in the Hop Exchange in central London, among the trophies and photographs of his family and mementos of his motor racing career, hung a framed copy of the old Irish blessing 'May the road rise with you' wishing travellers a safe journey.

Travelling was something Martin Birrane knew all about since leaving his home outside Ballina, Co Mayo, at the age of 17. His early wanderings took him to England, Switzerland, Turkey, Canada and finally back to London and Dublin. His exploits as a racing driver at the Le Mans 24-hour circuit and other race tracks brought travel of a different kind that took him around the world and lasted until he was well into his 70s.

He ended up owning a car manufacturing company in England, a team which raced for a year under the title of Team Ireland in the United States and the Mondello car racing circuit in Co Kildare. Along with businessman Martin Naughton he was also an investor in the ill-fated Sunday Tribune newspaper where he served as a director until the business went into receivership.

But it was the London-based property development company, Peer Group, which made him one of Ireland's richest men, with a fortune estimated in the Sunday Independent's Rich List, 2018 at €155m, and paid the bills for his sometimes unfortunate, if exciting and passionate excursions, into the world of motor sport. It also allowed him to live a jet-set lifestyle with imposing homes in Dublin, London and Gibraltar.

Martin Brendan Birrane, who died on Saturday, June 9, aged 82, was the son of a tailor from Corroy, between the village of Knockmore and Ballina, Co Mayo. He was born in August, 1935 and educated at St Muredach's College from which he emigrated to England immediately after completing his Leaving Cert.

After a number of menial jobs, he went to Geneva to work in hotel management and became a fluent French speaker, before working as a butler to the Canadian ambassador to Turkey. He told interviewer Hugh Oram that in his early years he did "anything and everything to keep off the dole" and that included bit parts in films, commercials and variety shows, performing in a show in Brighton before taking his new bride, Susan, to Canada in 1958.

There he worked as a property salesman until 1961 when the couple returned to London where he and his late brother John, founded an estate agency. He then went into property development with the foundation of Birrane & Partners in 1974. The company still exists within the Peer Group, in which he took a controlling interest in 1983. It has since developed historic buildings and wharfs in inner London and the company now has a commercial property portfolio in the UK and a "significant" residential joint venture with house builders Bovis.

At the time of his death Mr Birrane was involved in plans for a hotel and holiday complex in Dungarvan, Co Waterford.

But if property was the day job, Birrane's lifetime passion was cars and car racing. He competed 10 times as a driver in the famous Le Mans 24 Hours race, winning the GT class in 1985. He broke the Irish land speed record in 1990 on an unopened stretch of the M50 near the Westlink Bridge, reaching a speed of 176mph, to raise funds for his old school in Ballina. The record lasted for five years.

Using his own wealth, Birrane bought the Lola Group, one of the oldest race car manufacturers in England, out of receivership in 1997. He spent more than £20m developing the business and at one point was on the shortlist to enter the Formula 1 circuit.

But the business, which struggled to make a profit, eventually succumbed to the economic downturn and the unwillingness of its backers to keep pumping money into the company. Its two main subsidiaries went into examinership in 2012 and the business was broken up with parts taken over by a Canadian engineering firm.

"Lola was the most painful experience in business, because I was so enthusiastic about it and wedded to it," Martin Birrane told John Reynolds in an interview for the Sunday Independent in 2017. "I was playing for a big stake, which in the end was not worth pursuing."

He and his wife Susan had sold Kenah Hill, their imposing Victorian mansion on three acres of private grounds in Killiney, Co Dublin in 2004, after it went on the market for €8m. But he maintained his connection, buying a smaller property in Ballsbridge.

He had better luck with Mondello Park, near Naas, Co Kildare, where he was involved for 20 years before acquiring full control of Ireland's only racing circuit in October, 1986. He has described it as one of his greatest indulgences and spent much of his time improving Mondello and using his contacts to bring more business to the track.

He made his last racing appearance there in 2007, driving one of his Lola cars.

"In a way I lost my hobby after 43 years competing in motor racing, I spend my time either on business or with the family now," he said recently reflecting on his career.

But it also gave him time to enjoy his unique collection of 33 classic cars, including a Ferrari 348, Jaguar XK150 and valuable old Le Mans racing cars.

Among the many accolades he collected on the motor racing circuit was Life President of the Mayo & District Motorsports Club in recognition of his contribution to the sport at home and abroad.

He is survived by his wife, Susan, and their children, Lis, James, Bridget and Amanda, who is a director of some of his Irish businesses.

Sunday Independent

The Throw-In All-Ireland Hurling Final preview: Can Tipp's firepower edge clash with the Cats?

In association with Bord Gáis Energy

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport