Gallagher, Matt (1915–74), businessman, was born on 15 February 1915 in Cashel, Curry parish, Co. Sligo, the second son and one of fourteen children of Matthew Gallagher, small farmer of Cashel, and his wife Margaret (née Reilly). He attended Moylough national school and spent his youth working on the family farm and playing Gaelic football, winning the 1930 Sligo minor championship with Curry and being selected for the Sligo minors. Chagrined at reaping a paltry £17 profit from a two-mile road works contract, he left for England in summer 1932.
Mending war Starting as a farm labourer in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, he lived the arduous and nomadic existence of the tramp navvy, working on building sites from 1934. Much of his earnings were remitted to Cashel, which he visited every few years, returning to England with a younger brother in tow. In early 1939 the British government's frantic preparations for war prompted Matt and his brothers Joe, Dan and Hubert, soon joined by James (qv), to use their savings to make a down payment on two old trucks and begin transporting materials needed for building air raid shelters, runways and factories. Initially basing themselves in Liverpool, when the systematic bombing of Britain's cities commenced in 1940, they leased a shale pit in Lancashire and split into different areas, hauling landfill to bombsites.
Matt once continued working on a site during an air raid, withdrawing only when the bombers were directly overhead. Such acts inspired his brothers' awe, and James lauded him as 'the king of our family and the king of Ireland as far as I'm concerned' (Ir. Times, 10 December 1981). The fleet grew to ten trucks enabling the Gallaghers to secure an eighteen-month government contract transporting farm labourers. In 1944, they had one hundred trucks, ninety on hire, and moved into London as V1 and V2 rockets targeted the city, switching from delivering materials to engaging directly in reconstruction. By 1945 they were poised to exploit a seemingly imminent housing boom, completing one of the first private developments after the war at St Albans.
Although the Labour government soon prohibited private homebuilding, there was still work on public housing contracts and in pulling down air raid shelters. In 1946 Matt met an English woman, Patricia Sheeran, marrying her six weeks later in Manchester. They lived in Tottenham along with Matt's brother James and his wife, above a restaurant they owned. The siblings shared an unrelenting work ethic but their progress also owed much to unscrupulous ingenuity and a willingness to cut corners. Matt later reminisced that having learned nothing in school except that the English had screwed the Irish, he determined on screwing the English to make his fortune. Yet he confessed a grudging admiration for the English, noting they were less envious and more reliable than his compatriots.
Return to Ireland; a premature retirement After an economic crisis in Britain halted all building work in 1947, the brothers tentatively entered the Irish housing market, committing themselves to it by 1949. With Dan having died, Hubert, Joe and the youngest brother, Charles (qv), remained in London to carry on the business there, while James took charge in Dublin. Matt commuted between the two cities before settling in Dublin around 1950, living first at Santry, Co. Dublin.
In Ireland, Matt and James formed a partnership with two other builders, trading as Messrs Gallagher, Roarty and Furlong. Beginning with some small local-authority housing contracts in Dublin, the Gallaghers built their first private development at Santry, undercutting competitors and improving Irish housebuilding standards by virtue of their greater professionalism and introduction of more advanced techniques. Operating mainly in the capital, the Gallaghers supplemented their private developments with local-authority contracts, but preferred owning the land they worked on, thereby seeking capital gains as well as building profit.
Partly to relieve supply problems, Matt and James diversified into ventures ancillary to construction, establishing a joinery company, Gowna Wood Industries, at Tubbercurry, Co. Sligo (c.1950), and a plumbing and heating firm, P. J. Matthews Ltd, in Dublin in 1952. More ambitiously, during 1955–6 they opened three factories manufacturing builders' hardware at Tubbercurry. Matt surprised his brothers by quitting in 1957, selling them his 51 per cent share for £250,000. The Irish building sector was in the doldrums, but he may also have harboured misgivings about the increasingly unwieldy family conglomerate and particularly about the Tubbercurry factories whose establishment owed more to James's political ambitions than to commercial logic.
He retired to a large farm and £50,000 mansion ('Hollywood Rath') at Mulhuddart, Co. Dublin, where he bred cattle, but his restless presence irritated his wife who ordered him back to work. In 1958 he took over Paramount Builders Limited, the genesis of the future Gallagher Group, and resumed housebuilding, concentrating on the Dublin metropolitan area. During 1958–64, he built houses around the established suburbs, catering as before to middle-class purchasers.
Making friends Their industrial and construction activities had brought the Gallaghers into contact with politicians, and particularly with the Fianna Fáil minister for industry and future taoiseach, Seán Lemass (qv), under whose influence James pursued a political career, serving four terms as a Fianna Fáil TD. Matt ran unsuccessfully as a Fianna Fáil candidate in the 1965 senate elections, but was too impatient for the time-consuming cultivation of grassroots supporters incumbent on an Irish political career.
Instead, he was a Fianna Fáil party donor and confidant to Lemass's son-in-law Charles Haughey (qv). Their friendship dated to the late 1950s when Gallagher and a number of businessmen apparently began financing the young politician's extravagant lifestyle. This claim, advanced much later, may represent a retrospective simplification of a more gradual process, given that Haughey was then a minor figure. But he was precociously able and clearly bound for high office. Moreover, his economic progressivism and relative freedom (pre-Arms Crisis) from republican ideology commended him to Gallagher, who, while self-identifying as an Irish nationalist, was uncomfortable with how the most ardent proponents of that cause brooded obsessively over past wrongs and denigrated conspicuous wealth as cultural treason.
Haughey solicited the financial backing of business and professional figures while despising many of them for their bourgeois prudishness. His relationship with the hard-drinking and gregarious Gallagher had a different dynamic. Scornful of what they saw as the sanctimonious moralism that enveloped Irish society and revelling in an attitude of worldly and grasping cynicism that subordinated means to ends, they regarded themselves and like-minded, similarly self-made entrepreneurs (political, artistic and commercial) as the vanguard of an assertively materialistic and more prosperous Ireland. Gallagher formed a boisterous drinking circle with Haughey, another rising Fianna Fáil politician, Donogh O'Malley (qv), and the influential, Fianna Fáil-aligned journalist John Healy (qv); they dined at the Gresham before retiring to the bar at Groom's Hotel.
The accountancy firm in which Haughey served as a sleeping partner, Haughey Boland, handled the accounts for all the Gallagher Group companies, while Haughey's brother Jock (qv) was a long-serving engineer within the Gallagher Group. Gallagher was part of a clique of property developers, also including John Byrne and P. V. Doyle (qv), that orbited Haughey and employed Des Traynor (qv) as financial adviser, Christopher Gore-Grimes as solicitor, and Desmond Fitzgerald (qv) as architect. (In the early 1970s, Traynor facilitated Gallagher's avoidance of estate taxes by vesting his assets in a Cayman Islands resident trust.)
As Gallagher Group director, Traynor advised him on the establishment in 1961 and subsequent operation of a car hire-purchase business called Merchant Banking Limited, which evolved into a bank for small depositors. Initially its customers were predominately Irish emigrants in Britain and America at a time when many such emigrants deposited their savings in Ireland to avoid the attention of tax authorities in their adopted countries. Residents of the Republic did not like paying taxes either, so in 1971 Gallagher opened a subsidiary, Merchant Banking Northern Ireland. Irish banks were then virtually unregulated, enabling Gallagher to use depositors' money to finance his housing developments and the lifestyles of family members and retainers.
Home ownership and planning This funding accretion helped him to exploit a momentous shift in government policy in the early 1960s when Fianna Fáil sought to relieve a housing crisis, not solely by building council houses but also by stimulating private developments and encouraging property ownership. On cue, Gallagher announced his intention in 1964 to provide a new type of housing stock for the upwardly mobile working classes who formerly were priced out of property. Meanwhile, the introduction of comprehensive planning legislation in 1963 permitted well-connected developers to control the housing market by suborning a relatively small number of politicians and local-authority officials. A key instrument of Fianna Fáil's new housing strategy, Gallagher had a knack for buying undeveloped sites and arranging their residential zoning, which enabled him to become the wealthiest and most powerful homebuilder in Dublin. The capital windfalls arising from the scarcity-value of land zoned under a planning regime meant Gallagher and other developers could generously reward their political allies, furthering Fianna Fáil's renewed electoral dominance.
In 1966 he helped establish Taca, a Fianna Fáil fund-raising organisation in which businessmen (overwhelmingly construction-industry magnates and property professionals) gained access to leading party figures in return for a hefty annual subscription. One of Taca's biggest contributors, he was intimately involved in its administration, to which he devoted one day a month. Furthermore, he built 169 houses gratis, mainly for employees, but also for business associates, such as Traynor, and for politicians, such as Neil Blaney (qv), who as minister for local government (1957–66) was the final adjudicator of planning appeals. In 1964 Blaney excluded 101 acres held by Gallagher at Kilbarrack from a Dublin Corporation compulsory purchase order. Having bought this land cheaply when it was earmarked for the local authority, Gallagher built 800 homes there, which he sold to Dublin Corporation at open-market value.
He also cultivated planners, retaining Pat Treacy, former draughtsman for Dublin Corporation, to serve as conduit with corporation officials, particularly the long-time head of planning, George Redmond. Redmond admitted to advising Gallagher on his planning applications and appeals, and beginning in the mid 1960s to receiving some £10,000 to £15,000 per annum from Matt and his brothers James and Hubert at a time when his annual salary was about £10,000. He also revealed that the Gallagher Group paid for his family holidays and built his home.
Suburbia blooms However grubby, these dealings allowed Gallagher to ring Dublin with housing estates, making good on his pledge to provide affordable, adequately sized suburban homes for young families within the city's swelling lower-middle classes as they moved in from the country or out from the centre. His functional residences offended bourgeois sensibilities – and accusations of jerrybuilding should be appraised in that light – but were valued by their working-class occupants. He also continued in more upmarket developments; that at Castleknock in the late 1960s was the first to appreciate the attractiveness of a park-side setting and transformed a previously marginal locale into a prestige address. Thanks to his efforts and despite Dublin's runaway population growth, house prices in the metropolitan area remained comparable to those prevailing in towns and provincial cities.
His business being based on high turnover, his operations expanded exponentially into the early 1970s amid a prolonged private-housing boom within the capital. Its duration and intensity meant he could plan ahead with confidence, amassing land and generating a longstanding corps of expert craftsmen capable of training new recruits at a time when skilled labour was in short supply. As his business grew, so did his dependence on the larger banks: the 1966 credit freeze sparked a short-lived crisis within the Gallagher Group. He worked his men hard, but paid them generously, his gruff, earthy persona and hearty virility commanding their respect and loyalty – an important consideration in an industry where workers tended to be footloose. Gallagher's skill at choosing sites and his engineers' ability to overcome the challenges posed by difficult terrain meant he was repeatedly vindicated when selecting locations from which other developers shied away.
He did not, however, build satisfactory estates, being one of many developers who reneged on assurances to provide trees, playgrounds, parks and sufficiently wide roads. Openly bragging of the impunity conferred by his financial patronage of Fianna Fáil, he said of complainers: 'Give them fuck all and very little o' that' (Sunday Independent, 22 November 1981). Furthermore, he exploited Ireland's archaic urban land laws, which vested him with residual property claims over his estates, permitting him to levy ground rents upon unwitting house purchasers.
Accordingly, he was regularly embroiled in legal and planning disputes in which he almost always prevailed, seldom having to bow to public pressure and superior political clout. The catholic church's success in 1972 in forcing him to sell it land on which to build a church in Donaghmede for only £25,000 – he first asked for £150,000 – is the exception that proves this rule. Although he took to donating land to be used for hospitals, schools, churches and even for an extension to the Phoenix Park racecourse, these were tactical concessions rather than expressions of philanthropy.
Mountjoy Square Gallagher's most controversial development was in Mountjoy Square, a once sublime Georgian square that had declined into squalid tenements. During 1963–4, Gallagher acquired twenty properties on the square, including half of the south side, snapping up some sites for as little as £400. Immediately, he set about undermining, through neglect and more pre-emptively, the fabric of the buildings in disregard of corporation by-laws. By these means, the tenants, many of them elderly widows, were induced to leave. Those proving obdurate were liable to have a sack of starving rats released into their attic. As the buildings sank into dereliction, the corporation ordered their demolition, and chunks of the south side of the square were levelled to make room for an intended office development.
However, his actions aroused the opposition of local residents and of wealthy preservationists associated with the Irish Georgian Society, particularly Desmond and Mariga Guinness (qv), who thwarted him in early 1964 by buying a house in the middle of the south side of the square. After Gallagher demolished the houses on either side, exposing it to a risk of collapse, the Guinnesses secured a high court order compelling him to provide supports. Meanwhile other preservationists acquired strategically situated properties on the square. Directly descended from a sibling of Marie Antoinette, Mariga Guinness laid bare the thinly concealed caste animosities by branding Gallagher an uncouth peasant; for her and others, his bullying tactics exemplified the crass commercialism that was laying waste to Dublin's working-class communities and architectural heritage. His supporters retorted that he was trying to revive a neglected area, and characterised the preservationists, disproportionately consisting of remnants of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, as eccentric and elitist dilettantes, who, detached from economic realities and motivated by notions of socio-cultural superiority, were effectively perpetuating a slum.
In 1967 the RTÉ current affairs programme Seven days televised an exposé on Gallagher's activities in Mountjoy Square. Having failed to induce the show's producers to desist by offering them a free house, Gallagher agreed to an interview in which he was visibly discomfited. This broadcast provoked a row between the government and RTÉ, prompting special branch detectives to seize the programme's footage. Under political pressure, he sold his Mountjoy Square properties to the Irish Georgian Society for a handsome profit in 1969, but due to this imbroglio he missed out on the office-development boom. Mountjoy Square remained in a disfigured state until the mid 1980s.
Buying respectability His notoriety intensified when in 1969 he purchased land in north county Dublin from Haughey for £204,000, thereby fulfilling a promise he had made ten years earlier when he convinced Haughey to acquire this site for £13,000. This transaction became a major political issue during the 1969 general election, and Gallagher featured regularly in dáil debates as opposition TDs accused the government of being in the pocket of rapacious developers. Gallagher, Haughey and their cohorts deflected criticism by interpreting their personal success and wealth as representing the advent of an indigenous capitalist class and as such a further consolidation of Irish independence. In particular they believed themselves to be making good on the abject performance of the catholic professional classes who, having toppled the old ascendancy, shrank from assuming the responsibilities of social leadership, particularly with respect to wealth creation, thus perpetuating economic stagnation and class privilege.
The new breed of entrepreneur-patriot sought to dispel a national inferiority complex by appropriating aristocratic ostentation and thereby serving as stylish exemplars of meritocratic achievement. They wanted to live in the 'big house', not burn it down, rather discrediting the enduring canard that developers such as Gallagher were driven by a republican anti-aesthetic in their ravaging of Dublin's colonial-era architecture. Hollywood Rath boasted servants, wine cellars, tennis courts, swimming pools, a fleet of luxury cars and a grand ballroom, which hosted some of Dublin's most raucous parties. As well as riding with the Ward Union Hunt, Gallagher established a stud farm at Mulhuddart in the late 1960s, and in 1970 had twelve racehorses (both flat and national hunt). In 1972 his horse Noble Life won the Gloucestershire Hurdle at the Cheltenham festival. These genteel trappings accentuated rather than camouflaged an inherent crudity, manifested most visibly by his menacing and physically imposing entourage. He also retained a residual small farmer's frugality, purchasing his cars second-hand.
Encouraged by his political associates, Gallagher strove to redeem his (and by implication their) reputation, engaging from the late 1960s in high-profile charitable endeavours such as giving £10,000 towards a new administration building for the Meath Hospital. His shrewdest philanthropic act was his decision in 1969 to build a gallery and headquarters for the resource-starved Royal Hibernian Academy at Ely Place, for which Ireland's cultural worthies hailed him as a latter-day Medici. He had been prompted in this by Haughey, who was cognisant of the financial pliancy of the Irish art scene and of the usefulness of cultural patronage in bestowing respectability.
Gallagher's unease within this artistic milieu dissipated when he grasped the pitiless commercialism and bitter politicking underlying its lofty veneer. He commissioned Raymond McGrath (qv) to draw up ambitious designs for the 12,250-square-foot Gallagher Gallery, insisting that no expense be spared. Beginning in March 1972, the project ran dramatically over budget, but his commitment never faltered. His sculpted head by Oisín Kelly (qv) was to feature prominently in the completed gallery.
Waterloo Following Haughey's dramatic expulsion from office in 1970, Gallagher provided him with company cars and financial support as he crisscrossed the country and rebuilt his political career. As one of the biggest private builders in the country, directly employing some 750 workers and another 900 on contract, Gallagher remained in good standing with the Fianna Fáil leadership. He built a shopping centre at Donaghmede as a precursor to more ambitious commercial developments and expanded his housing activities into the provinces, throwing up estates in Waterford, Galway, Cork, Limerick and Sligo. In 1973 he finished 1,000 homes. Envisaging his businesses as a building conglomerate, he bought timber suppliers W. and L. Crowe in 1972 and considered floating the Gallagher Group on the stock exchange. He also owned four Dublin pubs, opening the Merrion Inn near Ballsbridge in 1965 as one of the first of a new type of luxury pub suitable for family, wives and girlfriends.
Having borrowed heavily to acquire choice sites at spiralling prices, he was stricken by the 1973–4 oil crisis and an ensuing property-market crash brought about by high interest rates and a dearth of mortgage financing. At 18 per cent interest (instead of a projected 7 per cent) his debts were insupportable, particularly with house sales drying up. Furthermore, from the start of 1973, the Central Bank pressured Merchant Banking to reduce its involvement in Gallagher developments to 20 per cent of its deposit book and warned against taking more deposits. He responded by covertly seizing control of a small building society, the O'Connell Benefit, such societies being less subject to regulation.
The Central Bank's stringency proved a disguised blessing, as it constrained (possibly by design) his ability to borrow at the climax of a property bubble. Crucially, in summer 1973 he sold his pubs at the top of the market and disposed of his prize stallion Yellow God. These deals probably saved his business, but the strain of keeping the banks and regulators at bay took its toll and he died unexpectedly at Hollywood Rath on 7 January 1974. An admirer of Napoleon, history's quintessential self-made man, he reputedly uttered the word 'Waterloo' with his final breath.
With his wife he had three sons and four daughters. He was succeeded as head of the Gallagher Group by his second son, Patrick (qv) (1951–2006), who led the business into a spectacular bankruptcy in 1982 and subsequently served a year in jail in Northern Ireland for the fraudulent administration of Merchant Banking (Northern Ireland). The Gallagher Gallery development stalled after Matt's death and was completed in 1989 thanks to donations from the state and private individuals, most significantly from Matt's youngest brother, Charles.
Assessment Matt Gallagher is remembered mainly as the archetypal 'Tacateer', a corruptor of Irish public life who subverted the planning process and fashioned Fianna Fáil into the political wing of the construction industry. There is another narrative: that of the returning exile made good, inspired by his immersion within a more advanced society to further a long-delayed process of modernisation, for good and for ill. Doing so entailed undermining, mainly by co-option, a hidebound and repressive social system controlled by a small, self-perpetuating middle class happy to connive at the mass emigration of the underclass from which he was drawn. It was predictable that this role fell to a member of the British building diaspora, an occupation and setting that provided an uneducated manual labourer with one of the few means of financial advancement and of returning home to a position of influence.
His methods were unashamedly disreputable and his contribution towards Dublin's sprawling and poorly serviced suburbs has been amply decried. Yet he met a widespread need for affordable ownership of basic family housing units, and proceeded with the tacit approval of a public indifferent to aesthetic and suburban planning considerations and happy to be spared further forays into faddish architectural utopianism such as produced the Ballymun flats. Moreover, much of the criticism directed against him savours variously of snobbery, existing homeowners' wish to pull the property ladder up after them, and a desire among doctrinaire leftists to preserve the working classes in a state of unpropertied purity.
He led a process of social engineering whereby the country became substantially suburbanised and owner-occupancy the norm in towns and cities, as it had been in rural Ireland since the turn of the century. Unlike the earlier shift to mass peasant proprietorship, which cast society in stone for two generations, the creation of a nation of non-farming homeowners had transformational but ambiguous consequences. Certainly, the responsibilities of property ownership underpinned a pronounced economic conservatism that might otherwise have withered in a non-rural environment. But a generational shift from settled farming and urban working-class communities to a newly created suburban setting – inhabited by young families freed from the oversight of their elders – coalesced with wider changes to act slowly but inexorably as a solvent upon seemingly intractable cultural and religious sensibilities: absorbing much of the lower classes recast the Irish bourgeoisie in a more demotic and socially liberal mould. In this sense, Gallagher shaped Irish society in his image, his dreary, monotonous housing developments reconceived as crucibles of modernity.