Cleary, Eamon (1960–2012), businessman, was born Edward Joseph Cleary on 28 August 1960 in Ballybay, Co. Monaghan, the eldest of six children of Bernard Cleary, a small farmer of Drumlane, Tullynahinera, near Castleblayney, Co. Monaghan, and his wife Mary Ellen (née McBennett). Due to his father's poor health, he left school aged eleven to work the nineteen-acre family farm, and on becoming an apprentice block-layer for a local builder in 1976, continued milking his cows before and after work. Setting up his own building business two years later, Cleary travelled to work sites in a donkey and cart, starting a line in pre-cast concrete and reinforcing steel after another three years. He married Catriona Daly circa 1982; they had six daughters and two sons.
In early 1984 he bought a five-acre site at Lishenry, outside Ballyjamesduff, Co. Cavan, with a house for his family and a disused factory. In these rough and ready surrounds, he sold steel, coal, timber, fertiliser and a cornucopia of household and farming goods. Much of his competitively priced stock came from beyond the nearby border. As he spent the rest of the decade developing one of Ireland's largest agricultural supply operations, he was prosecuted unsuccessfully for selling unlicensed goods and fined small sums for minor infractions relating to motor insurance, labelling, keeping business records and selling veterinary medicines without prescription.
He is believed to have prospered by being one of the first traders to exploit the demand for cattle growth promoters. When these were banned, he was prosecuted in October 1988 for having five hormone implanting guns in his shop. The charge was dismissed in Ballyjamesduff District Court in January 1990 because the relevant search warrant, which the judge described as very tightly worded, did not cover the shop. In 2010 Cleary refused to comment on rumours that he had dealings with the Revenue Commissioners and the Criminal Assets Bureau regarding his involvement in the thriving late 1980s, early 1990s black market for illegal cattle growth promoters.
He accumulated 125 acres in scattered plots, which he used for sheep farming, before selling these properties in 1988 to finance his £560,000 purchase of a prime 230-acre farm at Johnstown, near Navan, Co. Meath, that had previously failed to sell at auction. Lacking the means to restock this former dairy farm, he sold its 85,000-gallon milk quota for £215,000 and used the site for sheep auctions and his agricultural supply business. He moved to Navan, eventually developing a herd of 200–300 cows on his farm there. The purchase repaid itself more than fifty times over when the by-then rezoned land was sold for residential development in 1998. He donated some of the land for a national school.
Upon selling his supply business in 1991, he visited New Zealand where radical free market policies had made the country open for and attractive to foreign investment while forcing small farmers off the land. Impressed by the efficiency of New Zealand's unsubsidised, export-oriented dairy sector, he immediately bought a farm at Te Kauwhata in the Waikato region and moved to New Zealand circa 1993, gaining citizenship circa 1999. He also separated from his wife in the early 1990s, later divorcing her. From his base in Auckland, he bought farmland on the North Island, borrowing eighty per cent of the value initially to establish heifer-rearing operations before progressing to the heavier investment in plant and machinery required for dairy farming.
With land prices in the traditional northern dairy provinces spiralling, he switched to buying cheaply available sheep and beef farms in Southland on the South Island for conversion to dairy. Realising that cattle grazed in Southland produced more milk, he got better value from buying cows in the North Island for transportation south. As his purchasing and amalgamation of holdings into industrial-scale milking operations intensified, he led the transformation of a landscape formerly dominated by sheep farms, becoming Southland's biggest dairy farmer ahead of a sustained rise in world milk prices from the late 1990s. The value of his farms soared accordingly.
Amid a booming New Zealand property market, he had by 2002 built substantial housing developments in Hamilton, Napier and Auckland and owned commercial properties and development land across the country, mainly in the South Island's Otago region. Basing himself more in central Otago, he had a retreat near Queenstown where a series of purchases during 1999–2002 made him the biggest commercial landlord just as the city blossomed into a major tourist destination. He dismayed local traders by pushing up rents aggressively. In 2004 he endowed a chair of Irish studies at the university of Otago, which formed the nucleus of what became the largest Irish studies department in the southern hemisphere.
During the mid 2000s he attempted to subvert a covenant restricting large-scale residential development on a prime site he had bought near Wanaka, Otago, and became embroiled in a high profile legal battle with the wealthy owner of the adjoining property. If successful, this ploy would have significantly undermined New Zealand's building restrictions legislation, but he lost the case in the supreme court in 2008.
Further controversy arose in 2006 when it emerged that three historic miners' cottages in his ownership in Arrowtown, Otago, had been allowed fall into disrepair with a view to arranging their demolition as unsafe, thus enabling a housing development. Heedless of the ensuing public protests, he threatened legal action against a carpenter for repairing the cottages without permission and served an eviction notice on a tenant who spoke out about the cottages' condition. The local municipal authority responded by making clear that the requisite planning permission would not be forthcoming so he sold the site for a marginal profit in 2007. Immediately afterwards, wrangling involving Cleary in his capacity as the site owner of Arrowtown's petrol station led to fuel supplies being withheld, forcing the residents to drive 17 km to refuel their cars.
From 2001 he spent much of his time in Argentina, exploiting its sovereign debt crisis to buy cattle ranches at depressed prices; Argentinian land values had trebled by 2010. In 2004 he sold a quarter of his New Zealand properties, realising huge gains, which he reinvested in Argentina and Chile, accumulating farming, telecommunications, hotel and commercial property assets as well as a 1,200-acre farm outside Buenos Aires for his stable of prize polo horses. He invested in biofuels and developed business interests in Ireland (he had a residence at Navan), Australia, Germany and Hungary. From 2007, New Zealand's National Business Review magazine put his wealth at NZ$1 billion to NZ$2 billion (🗴 million to ԁ billion), listing him at one point as the third richest man in the country.
Running his business empire without the use of elaborate corporate structures or hired executives, he relied on his mobile phone and a photographic memory, while delegating liberally, offering his farm managers opportunities to share in the profits and the prospect of eventually buying him out. He had little interest in management and was always moving on to the next deal in the next country, visiting Ireland several times a year. Latterly he was a tax resident of Malta. Shunning the limelight, he gave only a handful of guarded interviews wherein he came across as unpretentious, straight-talking and affable.
A keen follower of National Hunt horseracing, who never missed the Galway Races, he bred horses on his farm in Navan (until he sold it) and owned a small number of jumps horses, generally in partnership, for training in Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. His main involvement in the industry lay in buying foals for resale as yearlings, initially doing so in Ireland from 1987 and then also in New Zealand. In 2000 he made headlines by buying New Zealand jumps horse, Rand, for an undisclosed sum believed to be comfortably the highest price ever paid for such an animal (i.e. well over NZ$200,000). Rand went on to win prestigious races over hurdles and fences in 2000–01 in New Zealand, Japan and the USA, as well as a chase in Ireland at Gowran Park in 2004. Cleary enjoyed further notable jumps successes in New Zealand and Australia during the early to mid 2000s with his horses Real Tonic and Rags to Riches.
Following the 2008 financial crisis, he bought assets in North America at distressed prices, including a collection of high-class broodmares for the Clearsky Farms thoroughbred breeding operation that he founded in 2009 at Lexington, Kentucky. He owned eighty thoroughbreds by 2010. An avid student of pedigrees, he authorised the mating of his mare Bubbler with Unbridled's Song, which produced Arrogate, the world's best racehorse, in 2016. He knew he had a limited lifespan upon being diagnosed with cancer in 2010, but maintained a busy schedule, concentrating on establishing Clearsky and on arranging his sons' succession to his worldwide business interests.
He died in his residence at Lexington, Kentucky, on 21 September 2012. After a funeral Mass at the Church of the Nativity in Johnstown, Navan, his remains were buried in Glasnevin cemetery, Dublin. Clearsky Farms flourished under his sons' management, outperforming larger rivals to become North America's top thoroughbred breeder (in terms of racetrack winnings) in 2017.