Thursday 23 November 2017

Hugh Tunney

After learning his trade as a butcher, he made a fortune in the meat industry, writes Shane Timmons

HUGH Tunney, who died last Monday, aged 83 was a butcher's apprentice who went on to build one of the most successful meat-processing companies in Ireland. He owned the Gresham Hotel in Dublin and Classiebawn Castle, Co Sligo.

Born in 1928 in the small farming village of Trillick, Co Tyrone, he was the eldest of five sons and four daughters. His father was an alcoholic cattle dealer, and Hugh left school at 14 to work as an apprentice in McGirr's of Irvingstown.

In 1953 he emigrated to London at the age of 26, where he met his wife Eileen.

He ended up working for Irish meat traders the Mollaghan Brothers and eventually opened his own live cattle export business based in Belfast. He became extremely successful in the business.

In 1976, he started leasing Classiebawn Castle in Mullaghmore, Co Sligo. Built by Lord Palmerston on the edge of the Atlantic, it was owned by Lord Louis Mountbatten, having come into his wife's family through inheritance.

In 1977 he bought the Gresham Hotel in Dublin, where he kept a suite of rooms.

It is believed that Mr Tunney was invited on the fatal fishing trip with Lord Mountbatten and his friends on August 27, 1979, but couldn't go because of prior business commitments.

In one of the most high-profile atrocities of the period, the fishing boat was blown up by the IRA, killing Lord Mountbatten, his grandson Nicholas Knatchbull, 14, and Paul Maxwell, 15, from Tyrone. The Dowager Lady Bradbourne, 83, died the following day. Nicholas Knatchbull's mother and father, along with Nicholas' twin brother Timothy, were seriously injured, but survived.

Following the assassination, Hugh Tunney bought the castle and its surrounding estate of about 3,000 acres. Although he had a sometimes fractious relationship with local people, they conceded that he turned it into one of the best farms in Ireland.

The same year he sold his British interest, UK Meats, and bought a meat plant in Clones, Co Monaghan.

Within months, he bought Abbey Meats in Belfast from Lord Vestey's British Beef Company.

Through the Seventies, Clones was supported with the addition of plants at Whiteabbey and Enniskillen to cater for the 8,000 head of cattle slaughtered weekly. In his own words, he was "on a roll".

The introduction of intervention allowed 40 per cent of his weekly cattle kill to go into storage, while he still serviced his British and European customers.

Known as 'Ireland's first meat baron', he sold Tunney Meats in 1994 to the Kerry Group for an estimated IR£10m and decided to focus on his property and hotel interests.

Hugh Tunney was an entrepreneur of the highest sense who had a natural sense to see an opportunity and go for it, while knowing when to get out. Asked once what education he had, he replied: "The University of Ardagh," a reference to the Co Longford village where the cattle-trading Mollaghan brothers came from.

Thirteen was his lucky number and he was best recognised in the Seventies driving his golden Mercedes MBI 13. All his major deals were completed and registered on the 13th day of the month. He had 13 grandchildren.

At the Beef Tribunal in 1994, Philip Smyth, who leased Sachs Hotel in Dublin from him, accused Tunney Meats of lying to the Department of Agriculture by not submitting correct profit margins.

However, the evidence -- which was adamantly denied -- was discredited and Mr Smyth was the only witness at the tribunal not to be awarded his costs by the late Judge Liam Hamilton.

For 10 years afterwards, Tunny and Smyth were engaged in expensive litigation over the ownership of Sachs hotel in Morehampton Road, Dublin.

After he sold the Gresham Hotel, Mr Tunney continued to keep a suite there but lived most of the time at Classiebawn Castle.

It is believed that he became ill about six weeks ago and spent some time at a family residence in Co Tyrone before being transferred to the Blackrock Clinic in Co Dublin, where he died.

Hugh Tunney liked to keep to himself and rarely gave interviews. His close friends remember him saying that one of the happiest days of his life was the day that he could afford the curtains for his small flat in London that his wife had wanted.

His funeral mass last Thursday was celebrated by his cousin Fr Gerry Fern, and he now rests at Magheralough Cemetery, Co Tyrone.

He is survived by his wife Eileen, his children Nuala, Mauretta, Hugh, James and 13 grandchildren.

Sunday Independent

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