Byrne, John (1919–2013), property developer and ballroom impresario, was born on 5 March 1919 in Upper Tullig, Kilflynn, near Tralee, Co. Kerry, the third child of seven sons and seven daughters of Michael Byrne, a farmer, and his wife Bridget (née Flaherty). After attending CBS Tralee, he sold turf by donkey and cart. He went to London in the early 1940s, where he impressed as a foreman directing clean-up operations on bombed sites. Tall and broad-shouldered with sandy hair, he was personable, yet quiet-spoken and guarded, abjuring the heavy drinking common among Irish building workers. In the late 1940s he became associated with a firm that built office blocks; he leased the basements and converted them into dancehalls for Irish immigrants. By 1957 he was living in Bayswater, London, and operating seven large Irish dancehalls, owning some of them: he had three in London, three in Birmingham and one in Coventry. Resolute in advancing within a trade that put him in rough company, his blacklisting of bands for playing rival venues gave him a near monopoly of the best Irish music acts in Britain. His halls also hosted boxing and wrestling matches, beauty pageants, wedding parties, bingo nights and Irish dancing classes.
His most famed venue was the Galtymore Ballroom in Cricklewood, London, which he bought and renovated in 1952. It held up to 7,000 customers and boasted two cavernous dance halls, one for traditional Irish music, the other first for big bands, then for showbands in the 1960s, and finally for ‘country and Irish’ acts from the 1970s onwards. Byrne’s first coup was to persuade the tenor Josef Locke (qv) to perform there at the height of his fame in the 1950s. Business boomed amid mass Irish immigration throughout the 1950s and 1960s and the Galtymore remained the main meeting place for Irish immigrants in London into the 1990s. He wound down his ballroom operations from the 1980s, though the Galtymore remained open until 2008.
As the annual Festival of Kerry in Tralee developed in the late 1950s, Byrne became the main organiser of its fundraising in Britain. His ballrooms staged regional qualifying events for the festival’s centrepiece, the Rose of Tralee, a quasi-beauty pageant open to women of Irish birth or descent. He sponsored the Rose of Tralee for decades, serving as one of its judges during the mid to late 1960s. In 1965 he married Ciara O’Sullivan, the 1962 Rose of Tralee winner, who was from Clonskeagh, Dublin. They lived in Byrne’s luxury apartment in Simmonscourt Castle, Ballsbridge, Dublin, before accommodating their growing brood of five daughters and three sons by moving into Simmonscourt Lodge, the next-door mansion standing on four acres.
By the early 1960s Byrne was focusing on Ireland, leaving the running of his ballrooms in England to several of his brothers. Encouraged by the Irish government, he was to the fore in the 1960s resurgence of a Dublin commercial property development sector that had been dormant since independence, forcing businesses and the civil service to operate from rundown Georgian townhouses. During 1957–61 he cheaply assembled a prominent site in the centre of Dublin at O’Connell Bridge where he demolished Carlisle House, a dignified late Georgian edifice. Abetted by the planning authorities, he raised in its stead O’Connell Bridge House, a 145ft-high slab of concrete, steel and glass that – although aesthetically tolerable in isolation – destroyed the unity of the surrounding streetscape. It also worsened traffic congestion by making no provision for car parking.
Completed in late 1964, it was among the first of Dublin’s modern office blocks and the city’s first high-rise, and powerful interests, architects especially, hailed it as an augur of modernity amid the predominating dereliction. It was still being built in summer 1964 when the state guaranteed the scheme’s financial success by taking a thirty-five year lease of the 45,000 sq ft of modern office facilities. The seven-year rent review clause protected Byrne from the galloping inflation of that era, though there were times when the giant advertising sign on the front was earning as much as the rest of the building. The top floor was originally a restaurant, which he converted in 1966 into his penthouse office.
From there he could almost literally oversee his growing property empire, as he finished a block of fifty-one luxury flats in Donnybrook in 1966, annexed the two buildings adjoining O’Connell Bridge House for an office redevelopment completed in 1968, and built another seven office blocks in central Dublin: D’Olier House (1972); 157–64 Townsend Street (1974); 13–15 Parnell Square (1983); Ashford House, Tara Street (1993); Phoenix House, Smithfield (2000); 16 Parnell Square (2002); and Kings Building, Smithfield (2008). None were high-rise, the excesses of O’Connell Bridge House having prompted the re-imposition of height restrictions. Almost all his office blocks were substantially, if not wholly, occupied by state entities on twenty to thirty-five year leases with regular rent reviews.
Developing only some of the property he acquired around the city centre, he neglected the listed buildings he owned to facilitate getting permission to demolish them. He was prepared to spend years on achieving the best planning terms, tweaking his designs upon each refusal, making the least allowance possible for aesthetics and urban coherence; even then the finished article might include unauthorised features. Until the mid-1980s, he used the controversial architect Desmond Fitzgerald (qv) who specialised in drab office blocks in the austere post-war European idiom. Thereafter Byrne’s developments were blandly rather than offensively utilitarian.
Rather unusually, he could afford to retain all the office blocks he built, encouraging speculation that he was backed by anonymous, well-connected investors. Abetted by his republican views – which were rooted in lingering civil war animosities within his native Kerry – he joined an inner circle of property developers that donated to the dominant Fianna Fáil party. In the early 1960s he formed a lasting friendship with the young government minister Charles Haughey (qv), who from 1972 used Byrne’s London apartment for liaisons with his mistress Terry Keane (qv). Byrne’s wife also grew close to Haughey’s daughter, Eimear.
Like many of Haughey’s business associates, Byrne employed James ‘Des’ Traynor (qv) of Guinness & Mahon Bank (G&M Bank) as his financial adviser. Traynor orchestrated a sophisticated tax evasion scheme for his wealthy, politically connected clients with Byrne the most financially significant. During 1971–2 Traynor established what were initially legitimate tax arrangements by transferring Byrne’s British and Irish assets into two separate Cayman Island trusts with Byrne retaining control, but not ownership, of his Irish companies. After foreign exchange restrictions introduced in 1972 prohibited Byrne from accessing his offshore funds, Traynor circumvented this by disguising the withdrawals as loans from the G&M Bank in Ireland. These loans were covertly secured on the undeclared funds held in the Caymans.
In partnership with two brothers, Tom and Michael Clifford, Byrne built on a site in Tralee, first in 1965 a 1,500-capacity ballroom, which being the only sizeable music venue in the region became a magnet for showbands; and then in 1966 the 100-bedroom Mount Brandon Hotel, which turned north Kerry into a significant tourist centre. He handled the construction and financing while the Cliffords ran the hotel. A further seventy bedrooms were added in 1970 with facilities being modernised at regular intervals thereafter. (Spotted wielding a sledgehammer during one such renovation in 1980, he remained lean and fit into advanced old age.) The Rose of Tralee was held in a giant marquee in the hotel car park from the 1970s and inside the hotel for about a decade from the late 1990s. In partnership with the Cliffords, he bought and redeveloped the Central Hotel in Ballybunion, Co. Kerry, in 1972, but it never flourished and was sold in 1985.
He visited Tralee frequently, owning a fine seafront abode with a 40-acre estate in nearby Fenit, Co. Kerry. A keen racegoer, he sponsored the race meetings held at Ballybeggan, outside Tralee, and at Listowel, Co. Kerry, also being a shareholder of Ballybeggan racecourse and a long-serving member of the executive boards of the Ballybeggan and Listowel racecourses. In 1969 he participated in the consortium that founded Kerry Airport at Farranfore. He had previously travelled home in his private airplane, having two of them written-off in crashes, one on take-off from Kilflynn (May 1964), the other, when he was piloting, on landing at Ballybeggan (August 1966); he broke his arm on the latter occasion. Undaunted he went on to fly his own helicopters.
From the late 1950s he normally had several racehorses in training. His best horse, the Paddy Sleator-trained Another Flash, was bought in 1959 for £4,000 as a successful five-year-old and went on to win prestigious flat and hurdle races, including the 1959 Irish Cesarewitch and 1960 Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival. Byrne was a good enough equestrian to participate in a club hunters’ showjumping event at the RDS in 1963. He spent three five-year terms on the Racing Board (1965–75 and 1980–85), appointed each time by Fianna Fáil governments, and was a member of the Turf Club, serving as a senior steward in the early 1980s. In 1968 he joined Haughey in the consortium that bought Simmonstown Stud, Co. Kildare. From the 1970s Byrne owned Ballymadun Stud, Co. Meath.
Half-hiding beneath a wide brimmed hat during public appearances, he kept a low profile, but his association with Haughey intermittently embroiled his building projects in political battles. He fared relatively poorly under Fine Gael–Labour governments and even, in the late 1970s, under a Fianna Fáil government dominated by Haughey’s enemies. During 1978–9 the minister for finance, George Colley (qv), thwarted Byrne’s efforts to secure a state tenant for Seán Lemass House, an office block on St Stephens Green he had bought newly renovated. Byrne eventually sold it for a small profit.
After accumulating a 500-acre green belt centred on the disused Baldoyle racetrack in north Co. Dublin, Byrne sought permission in 1974 for 3,250 houses. Opposition from local authority planners and wealthy residents defeated his first Baldoyle campaign (1976–7) amid rumours that Haughey had a financial interest in the scheme. In 1979 Haughey told his bankers confidentially that he stood to gain £200,000 from its fruition. The true figure was more like £10 million, as Byrne proposed building a sewage system that would have provided enough capacity for over 20,000 new houses, thereby freeing up for development 450 acres owned by Haughey along Dublin’s northern outskirts.
In 1982, during Haughey’s second stint as taoiseach, Byrne submitted a modified Baldoyle plan that was rejected by Dublin County Council in October after Fine Gael leader Garret FitzGerald (qv) took the unusual step of ordering his councillors to follow the planners’ advice. Haughey’s government fell the next month, but not before he elevated Fianna Fáil placemen to the statutory board responsible for determining planning appeals. Amid scenes of high acrimony in the dáil, the succeeding Fine Gael–Labour government broke with political convention by passing legislation to reconstitute the board. The new board rejected Byrne’s appeal in 1984.
He distanced himself from the Baldoyle scheme by selling options on parts of the site to the controversial businessman Jim Kennedy and to a consortium headed by the lobbyist Frank Dunlop. Fianna Fáil deputy Liam Lawlor (qv), the main orchestrator of the widespread corruption then pertaining to planning votes on Dublin County Council, brokered both options, emerging with a small stake in the Baldoyle development. Neither Kennedy nor Dunlop made much progress. Later investigations by the planning tribunal found that Byrne was not implicated in Dunlop’s bribery of county councillors as part of the failed 1993 rezoning attempt. In the late 1990s Byrne escaped his Baldoyle quagmire with £13.8 million, though not the lion’s share of the spoils, after Ballymore Homes took an option on the site and successfully developed it. Lawlor received £335,000 for his stake.
Following the exposure of Haughey’s corruption in the late 1990s, the Moriarty tribunal established to investigate payments made to politicians found that Byrne-controlled companies transferred £310,000 in 1987 to an account used to fund Haughey’s lifestyle and £47,500 in 1992 to a company owned by one of Haughey’s sons. Circumstantial evidence also pointed to Byrne being the benefactor who paid Haughey £150,000 on the day he became taoiseach in 1979. Haughey-led governments had conferred urban renewal tax incentives on two of Byrne’s sites: the first designation, in 1988 for the Mount Brandon Hotel, allowed Byrne and his partners to build a conference centre; the second, in 1990 for the Dublin Tara Street Baths site, revived an office development long in abeyance. In testimony before the Moriarty tribunal during 1999–2000, Byrne denied ever bribing a politician, stressing that he had granted the by-then deceased Traynor considerable discretion in managing his finances.
He adopted similar stonewalling tactics when interviewed in 2001 by inspectors investigating the tax evasion conspiracy operated by Traynor. The inspectors concluded that the two trusts, despite theoretically being administered independently of Byrne, were operated in a manner enabling him to apply the funds held offshore as he saw fit. In 2002 the inspectors’ published report, known as the Ansbacher Report, exposed him to a large tax bill by naming him as the beneficial owner of an illegal offshore account. Byrne challenged this in the courts and transferred control of his Irish companies to his wife. In 2011 the supreme court overturned the Ansbacher Report’s findings against him on a technicality.
For all that, he secured long-term state leases for the two office developments he completed in the early 2000s. The main private beneficiary of the state’s policy of stimulating office developments by leasing rather than owning its accommodation, he was latterly drawing annual rents of around €6 million from the exchequer and stayed solvent throughout the 2007–9 property crash. He died on 29 October 2013 in his Ballsbridge residence and was buried in Shanganagh Cemetery, Co. Dublin. The relatively transparent accounts submitted for 2018 indicated that his estate’s Irish companies held properties with a book value of €267 million while carrying loans of €76 million.