Darragh, Austin (1927–2015), doctor and businessman, was born in the family home in Heytesbury Street, Dublin, on 27 April 1927, the sixth of nine children of Alexander Darragh, a mathematics teacher, and his wife Frances (née McDonnell). He grew up in Terenure, Dublin, and spent his primary and secondary schooling at the Catholic University School (CUS), Leeson Street, Dublin. A keen sportsman, he was a hard charging back for the CUS rugby team, gaining selection for the Leinster schools’ team in 1944. Finishing at CUS with a mediocre leaving certificate, he was rejected by the Air Corps due to his short stature before joining the Royal Air Force, and was based in Northern Ireland.
After his demobilisation in 1948, Darragh studied medicine at Trinity College Dublin (TCD). The British government contributed towards his university fees, but he paid his way also by working in Butlin’s holiday camp at Mosney, Co. Meath; by writing articles on motorcycle racing for Speedway magazine; and by commentating from 1952 on important rugby matches, internationals included, for Radio Éireann (RÉ). At TCD, he met Teresa (Terry) Roddy, from Terenure Road, Dublin, and married her in 1950; together they had three daughters (Marise, Adrienne (Ed) and Ruth) and two sons (Paul (qv) and David). Darragh graduated Bachelor of Medicine (MB), Bachelor of Surgery (B.Ch.) and Bachelor of Arts in Obstetrics (BAO) in 1954, and Master of Arts (MA, also from TCD) in 1955, and started a general practice at Dundrum, Co. Dublin, supplementing his income by writing rugby reports for the Evening Press; he also kept up the rugby commentary with RÉ into the early 1960s.
DRUG DOCTOR, CONQUERING CANCER
General practise work bored Darragh, excepting that with hay fever and asthma sufferers. After training in allergy testing in London, he established Dublin’s first allergy clinic in Sir Patrick Dun’s Hospital, becoming fascinated by the operation of hormones. He continued his general practice for a time and in 1957 treated an injured pharmaceutical executive, Konstanti Scheunert, who wanted to set up a pharmaceutical manufacturing company in Ireland. Darragh advised him on finding a multinational partner, plumping for a Danish company, Leo Pharmaceutical Products, because it researched hormones. Scheunert concurred and hired Darragh; the health authorities’ disapproval of his involvement in the drug sector eventually obliged him to resign from the allergy clinic.
As part of the lobbying for a manufacturing licence, Leo Pharmaceuticals funded medical research in Ireland with Darragh identifying suitable recipients. Encouraged by Leo Pharmaceuticals, which was developing diuretics, he received a clinical research fellowship at the Rotunda Hospital, Dublin, to investigate a diuretic treatment for toxaemia. In 1961 he published a paper on the treatment of 1,000 toxaemia cases with oral diuretics; this along with his research into the functioning of the hormonal system formed the basis for his masters’ thesis in pharmacology (the study of the effect of drugs on the human body). He graduated Doctor of Medicine (MD) from TCD in 1963, going on to publish more than 120 research papers.
In 1962 Leo (Ireland) Ltd officially opened Ireland’s first pharmaceutical manufacturing (as opposed to compounding) factory in Crumlin, Dublin, with Darragh as its medical director. The medical profession was then so segregated from the pharmaceutical industry that Darragh was the only qualified doctor in Leo Pharmaceuticals’ worldwide operation. Appointed its deputy managing director of clinical research for Britain and Ireland, he also helped set up clinical trials in the United States. His engagement, as part of Leo’s research spending, with studies of cancer treatments impressed upon him that about 100 Irish people were dying every year of easily curable skin cancer and that cancer research in Ireland was wholly dependent on funding from foreign foundations. Drawing on his flair for publicity and facility for bringing people together, he was the main mover behind the establishment in 1963 of the Conquer Cancer Campaign (later the Irish Cancer Society (ICS)), a charity that raised money for increasing cancer awareness and for cancer research and treatment. As the charity’s director of information, Darragh gave presentations nationwide throughout the 1960s and 1970s: exuding dynamism, he talked in abrupt bursts, being voluble, outspoken and boundlessly self-confident, yet affable for all that. Twice the ICS president (1975/6 and 1988/9), in 1988 he oversaw the inaugural annual ‘Daffodil Day’, which became its flagship fundraising initiative. He gradually reduced his involvement though remained on the ICS’s executive committee into the 1990s, by which time it was established as the national cancer charity.
In 1963 most doctors believed that Darragh’s anti-cancer campaign was unnecessarily alarming their patients, bringing misgivings about his pharmaceutical role to a head. Irish doctors boycotted Leo’s drugs, and he quit in 1964 when his superiors demanded that he either resign from the Conquer Cancer Campaign or accept a posting to London. He sold his house in Killiney, Co. Dublin, moved into rented accommodation at Delgany, Co. Wicklow, and began a gruelling commute to work in Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda, Co. Louth. There he established himself as a consultant endocrinologist (a specialist in hormones) by tapping the demand within the pharmaceutical industry for more clinical research. In 1964 the Swiss drug company Hoffman La Roche agreed to finance a small endocrine unit at Drogheda, where he conducted clinical drug trials on patients and healthy volunteers. Much of the work was done for Hoffman La Roche, but he also pursued his own research and treated patients who were referred to him for specialist care.
His attempts at finding an alternative to the contraceptive pill for regulating women’s ovulatory cycle involved him in treating women suffering from anorexia – a condition that caused ovulation to cease. (He thereby gained an expertise in managing weight that led, from the late 1960s, to a useful sideline in helping jockeys and other wealthy clients, including the former queen of Romania, to get trim.) He developed a blood test for early detection of pregnancy, bringing contracts for trialling new human fertility drugs and, because his pregnancy test worked on mares, business with stallion masters, particularly Tim Rogers (qv) who built a laboratory for Darragh near Lucan, Co. Dublin.
Darragh’s involvement with the equine world went deeper still. In addition to playing rugby for Palmerstown and hockey for Newmines, he had become a hunting enthusiast by the early 1960s. Riding with the South County Dublin Hunt, serving as its joint master for several years in the early 1970s, he was on the executive committee of the Show Jumping Association of Ireland in the 1960s and 1970s, acting as medical officer, judge and commentator at showjumping events. He kept horses, which were looked after by his wife Teresa; despite her husband’s scepticism, she encouraged their son Paul’s development into one of Ireland’s top showjumpers.
In 1969 he relocated his clinic to St Kevin’s Hospital (St James’ Hospital from 1971), Dublin, as part of University College Dublin’s (UCD) department of psychiatry, which sought to investigate whether certain psychiatric disorders were hormone related. With Hoffman La Roche committing to £300,000 in financing for five years – the largest medical research grant given to an Irish institution – he secured a bank loan for building prefabs on the hospital grounds and opened the Psycho-Endocrine Research Unit in September 1970; its equipment that was among the most modern of its type in the world. Leading Irish endocrinologists, however, were jealous of Darragh’s resources, disparaging of his knowledge and suspicious of his links with the pharmaceutical industry, causing his clinic to suffer from idle capacity and budget shortfalls.
Instead of imposing cutbacks, in 1972 Hoffman La Roche allowed him to put his private patients through the clinic and to seek business from other drug companies (UCD contributed little financially before disengaging in 1977). In 1973 US pharmaceutical company Squibb commissioned him to administer experimental drugs to healthy volunteers and monitor any side effects. He had been doing such work, known as phase one drug testing, for years on behalf of Hoffman La Roche, but Squibb dispatched a stringent twenty-page protocol, which formed the basis for all his subsequent drug testing. His clinic thereafter focused on phase one tests for pharmaceutical companies, recruiting volunteers who received £20 per day, plus bed and board, for trials lasting up to twenty-six days. Initially, the volunteers were mostly students, though the unemployed became more prevalent, as the dole paid £30 a week.
This work more than made good the clinic’s budget deficit, developing into a money-spinner for Darragh, who from 1975 channelled most of the contract revenues into a Swiss bank account, which he used to buy new equipment and to pay himself dividends. During the 1970s he developed a riding school and stud at Marlay Grange, Co. Dublin, and acquired a luxury apartment in Ballsbridge, Dublin, along with a large house at Brennanstown Road, Foxrock, Co. Dublin. By 1981, his clinic had 100 staff, and additional facilities in Stillorgan, Co. Dublin. He successfully pressured his employees against seeking trade union representation, while rewarding his best scientists well. The clinic also treated conditions such as anorexia, hormone imbalances, obesity, premenstrual tension, depression and infertility. Doctors tended to refer their cases to him when all else had failed, on account of his interest in unusual illnesses and treatments. His patients, who were mostly public and often long-suffering, praised him for his readiness to listen, take time and look past the obvious.
For twenty years from the late 1970s, he had a regular slot as medical expert on the Gay Byrne radio show. A natural broadcaster, with arresting, cogently articulated views, his bugbears included smoking, processed and genetically modified foods, excessive caffeine-drinking, the over-prescription of drugs, lack of sleep and overexposure to artificial light. His prejudiced attitude towards homosexuality, which he hoped to cure through hormone treatments, has naturally incurred retrospective condemnation, particularly for his ungenerous comments on the AIDS epidemic within the gay community. (His brother Neil, a member of the Knights of Columbanus, was a prominent anti-pornography, anti-abortion and pro-censorship campaigner, with Austin sharing his religiosity in diluted form.)
A BUMP IN THE ROAD
After thwarting another Dublin hospital’s attempt to poach his Hoffman La Roche funding, he started the phased buyout of his increasingly apathetic paymasters from 1977, forming a company in 1978 that assumed the clinic’s running costs and paid for the spare capacity. In January 1982 he completed the management buyout of the clinic, emerging as the seventy-five per cent owner of the renamed Institute of Clinical Pharmacology (ICP). He did so with help from the Industrial Development Authority (IDA), which generously backed his high-tech, export-driven venture with grants. Similarly, the authorities treated ICP’s foreign earnings – and almost all its business came from abroad – as deriving from manufactured exports, making them tax exempt; so too were the attendant dividends.
He expanded aggressively, opening an office in New Jersey (America’s pharmaceutical heartland) in 1982 and a clinic in the New York Medical College in 1983, becoming adjunct professor of medicine and pharmacology at the college. This was just as stricter regulations induced US drug companies to outsource their phase one testing. The lack of statutory controls in Ireland meant Darragh could guarantee greater confidentiality around new products as well as quick completions; the National Drug Advisory Board readily sanctioned the drug trial protocols that Darragh voluntarily forwarded for approval, allowing him to proceed within days rather than months. ICP thrived accordingly, achieving outsized profit margins from conducting some eighty trials a year in Dublin, with about ten volunteers for each.
He needed funds to pay for the construction of larger corporate headquarters, but Irish bankers and stockbrokers shied away, bemused by the esoteric nature of his operation. Prompted by the IDA, a New York stockbrokers’ firm, Moore and Schley, convinced him to market twenty per cent of ICP on New York’s science-oriented NASDAQ exchange. Preparations for the stock flotation were underway when a volunteer, Niall Rush, died while participating in an ICP trial on 29 May 1984. The ensuing public inquest heard testimony that ICP volunteers drank alcohol and smoked cannabis during drug trials. An unrepentant Darragh contested this and skilfully defended his safety record, as the inquiry revealed that Rush had failed to disclose that he was on anti-depressants, the interaction between them and the experimental drug proving fatal. The furore in Ireland had no bearing on the flotation, which raised £7.6 million (after expenses) from American investors that November.
As the market for phase one drug testing was small and exposed to new cut-price competitors, he advanced into the more lucrative later phases involving thousands of hospital patients across multiple locations. In 1986 he concluded a joint venture agreement with the Hospital Corporation of America, which conferred access to a large pool of patients spanning more than 450 hospitals. Signing all-inclusive testing contracts (i.e., incorporating post phase one testing) with American and Japanese pharmaceutical giants, he employed more than 300 people (half in Dublin) while opening offices or clinics in the UK, Switzerland, Japan and Nashville, and buying Sir Patrick Dun’s Hospital, Dublin, in 1987 to serve as his new corporate headquarters. ICP put on clinical pharmacology training courses for Irish nurses and part-financed the Irish Journal of Medical Science; Darragh also invested in the Sunday Tribune newspaper.
The value of his shareholding peaked in 1987 at over £40 million, though it would have been hard to realise anything like that in practice, given the small volume of trading on ICP’s stock. (There were less than 300 shareholders, and the market for the share was tightly controlled by Moore and Schley; US authorities later prosecuted seven Moore and Schley partners for profiting illegally from inflating ICP’s share price.) Instead, Darragh rewarded himself with tax-free dividends amounting to £1 million for 1983–4. He lived extravagantly, being chauffeured in a Rolls Royce. Occasionally, he travelled home from New York by ocean liner, drafting his clinical reports en route.
In 1984 he bought, and later extended, Tarabeg, a house with formal rooms on the Hill of Tara, Co. Meath. There, he hosted regular parties where he sang accompanied by invited musicians or by his daughter Ed (Adrienne), an accomplished musician and producer. Tarabeg lay close to the Waterside Stud, which he part-owned with his son Paul, and his residence there also facilitated his joint mastership of the Meath Hunt (from 1980) and of the Ballymacad Hunt (from 1989). He curtailed his travel schedule during the hunting season when he rode at least twice weekly. His love of the chase withstood several bad falls, including one that broke his leg in 1989, and he took pride in the resulting facial scars.
In autumn 1987 the renegade republican paramilitary Dessie O’Hare attempted to kidnap him for ransom, but failed to realise that Darragh no longer lived in his house in Brennanstown Road. Upon forcing entry there on 13 October, O’Hare’s gang found the family of Darragh’s daughter Marise in situ and abducted his dentist son-in-law, Dr John O’Grady. Most accounts have Darragh alerting the Garda Síochána immediately, though in 2002 a garda superintendent stated that he hesitated for fifteen hours. Tensions quickly surfaced publicly between an agitated Darragh, who was keen on ransoming O’Grady, and the authorities, who were bound by an official policy that precluded this. Darragh also feared that some of the information being released was endangering O’Grady. From late October, he defended the gardaí from media criticisms of their handling of the case, reserving his public censures thereafter for journalists.
A miscommunication by the kidnappers caused Darragh to miss the 3 November deadline for paying £1 million in sterling and £500,000 in punts. O’Hare severed two of O’Grady’s fingers and forwarded them (along with the photographic evidence) to Darragh, threatening further mutilations. Determined to comply with O’Hare’s renewed ransom demand, Darragh had a heated meeting with Taoiseach Charles Haughey (qv) and the minister for justice, Gerry Collins, wherein they sanctioned the payment but stipulated that gardaí monitor the delivery. Acting at Darragh’s request, the well-known priest, Brian D’Arcy, was en route to the drop off with the money on 5 November when gardaí discovered and freed O’Grady.
THE COLLAPSE OF ICP
ICP, meanwhile, outgrew Darragh’s capacity to manage it. Profits shrank as spending soared, particularly on the opulent renovation of Sir Patrick Dun’s Hospital. A workaholic who was incapable of meaningful delegation, he overstretched himself further in the late 1980s by serving terms as president of ICS and of the National Council for the Blind of Ireland. Later, he acknowledged that ICP remained too permeated by a scientific research outlook and that he should have hired and empowered a team of professional business managers. He might also have tapped the stock market rather than trying to finance onerous capital commitments through cash flow and borrowing. Once ICP plunged into losses in the second half of 1989, he was slow in taking remedial action and soon at the mercy of Bank of Ireland, whose executives doubtless recalled his earlier criticisms of Irish financiers.
In May 1990 ICP’s Irish operating company went into receivership, from which it emerged much diminished and in American hands; the new owners moved the remnants of the business abroad in 1991. The receiver pointed to the contracts lost amid test approval delays arising from the Control of Clinical Trials Act (1987), but the government disputed this while financial analysts and ICP staff blamed mismanagement. Darragh exited with a payout worth three years’ salary, as out-of-pocket US shareholders denounced him for keeping them in the dark. Two laid-off ICP workers, Ronan Lambe and John Climax, ultimately vindicated Darragh’s vision by developing their startup, ICON plc, into a world-leading, Irish-headquartered contract research company capable of handling all phases of clinical drug testing.
Further financial embarrassment arose from his investment in the European College of Aeronautics (ECA), an aircraft pilot training college established in Cork Airport in 1989. Undone by its failure to reach the training standards required by the state airline Aer Lingus, ECA closed in 1992. A twenty-five per cent shareholder, Darragh, who lost £250,000 in equity and loans, had not been involved in ECA’s management but drew most of the criticism, partly because he chaired the board of directors and subsequently engaged in public recriminations with Aer Lingus and the aviation regulators.
IRREPRESSIBLE TO THE LAST
From the early 1990s, Darragh practised as a doctor in the exclusive Blackrock Clinic, Co. Dublin, coming to specialise in seasonal affected disorder (SAD) and in myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME; also known as chronic fatigue syndrome). In 2011 he was on the panel that drew up the consensus criteria for ME published in the Journal of International Medicine. That year, he raised eyebrows by suggesting in a radio interview that antibiotics were a principal cause of ME.
In 1994 he set up a biomass energy research company in partnership with University of Limerick (UL) scientists and bought the rights to the Vi-Aqua system, which used electromagnetic energy to charge water for the purposes of stimulating plant growth. Abetted by state grants, his company developed Vi-Aqua for marketing to farmers and gardeners from 2001. Vi-Aqua received endorsements, most notably (albeit temporarily) from Kew Royal Botanic Gardens in the UK. Studies by the farm research authority Teagasc concluded, however, that Vi-Aqua was inappropriate for grassland farming in Ireland and made no difference to growing tomatoes, carrots and lettuce. Most experts, moreover, dismissed the underlying science as bogus.
In 1978 he had joined Gerard Kilcoyne and Brian O’Halloran in paying £130,000 for a twenty-two-acre green field site at Carrickmines, Co. Dublin. O’Halloran largely undertook the campaign to have this land rezoned for development, latterly as part of a joint submission with the owner of the adjoining site, Jackson Way Properties Ltd. In May 1997 Darragh’s consortium hired lobbyist Frank Dunlop, who also represented Jackson Way Properties, and paid him his £30,000 success fee after he procured a partial rezoning of both sites that December. The Darragh–O’Halloran–Kilcoyne site sold for a reported €32 million in 2003. Later, the tribunal of inquiry established to investigate corruption in the planning process determined that Dunlop had, with the connivance of Jackson Way Properties, bribed politicians to secure the Carrickmines rezoning. The tribunal accepted that neither Darragh nor his two partners were privy to this, while noting the lack of satisfactory evidence regarding a £50,000 payment made by O’Halloran in 1997 on behalf of their consortium.
Troubled by arthritis throughout the 1990s, he regained much of his vigour from 1999 following one hip and two knee replacements. In 2003 he became an adjunct research professor in the biomass research centre attached to UL’s department of chemical and environmental science. In 2010 he published The facts of light, a collection of accessibly written essays on science and philosophy that advocated harnessing solar power for humanity’s energy needs. He was still giving media interviews and public talks in 2013. Austin Darragh died on 4 October 2015 in the Hermitage Medical Clinic, Co. Dublin, and his remains were buried in the graveyard at Rathfeigh, Co. Meath. After the death of his wife Teresa in 1992, he married Anna McDonnell (née Langdon) in 1998. Two of his children unsuccessfully took high court proceedings querying his 2011 will, which left his €2.5 million estate to his second wife.