Hughes, Pat (1924–99), prospector and businessman, was born Patrick Joseph Hughes on 14 March 1924 near Keady, Co. Armagh, the only son of three children of Charles Hughes, a building contractor of Keady, and his wife Mary. When he was around 10, his catholic family moved to Newry, Co. Down, where he attended Newry CBS. After his father's death (c.1940), he struggled to support his mother and sisters, regularly engaging in smuggling.
He moved to Canada in 1949 and worked in the western provinces as a bricklayer and then a contractor, while carousing and brawling in Edmonton between jobs. Becoming a foreman and notably militant trade unionist at the Port Radium mine in the Northwest Territories, he saw opportunities in mining. He acquired rudimentary skills from a geologist during another mining job, and went prospecting at weekends with three Irish friends, Joe McParland, Matt Gilroy and Mike McCarthy. In 1952 they pooled resources to join the uranium rush in Saskatchewan's Lake Athabasca region.
When the government opened 700 square miles of uranium-bearing land there to all comers in August 1952, Hughes made headlines worldwide by registering the first claim after travelling on foot and then by motorboat and airplane before parachuting near the recorders' hut at Uranium City. Hughes's team roamed north Saskatchewan in partnership with indigenous Chipewyans, selling uranium claims amounting to over Can. $600,000 (1953–7). Taking over a quoted exploration company, they attracted investment and hired geologists for more advanced forms of mineral exploration than uranium detection.
During visits home, conversations with the head of the Geological Survey of Ireland, Murrough O'Brien, strengthened Hughes's conviction that Ireland, contrary to received wisdom, harboured untapped minerals. In 1955 he persuaded his associates and some Canadian investors to finance Irish-based prospecting centred on abandoned mines. The search grew more wide-ranging in 1959, as his Canadian geologists introduced new geochemical sampling techniques capable of penetrating the glacial clay covering most of Ireland. He was running out of money by late 1961.
The Geological Survey had long tried to interest mining concerns in lead traces near Tynagh, Co. Galway. Only Hughes obliged, and as geochemical sampling there produced exciting results in autumn 1961, he arranged that the retrospectively conferred prospecting licence be awarded to him, not his company. Once drilling revealed plentiful lead just below the surface at Derryfrench, the share price of Hughes's corporate vehicle, Northgate Exploration, rose twelve-fold on the Toronto stock exchange between December 1961 and early April 1962.
Hughes raised several million dollars from share issues and thwarted a hostile takeover in June 1962 by persuading the reclusive mining magnate Thayer Lindsley to provide funding and expertise. Other Canadian-based mining partners then came on board, as did some friendly Irish investors. Despite the London stock exchange's ban on dealings in Northgate over undue speculation, Hughes spread gossip that developed a 'grey' market for the share in Britain and Ireland.
Driving hard bargains in effecting the required land purchases at Tynagh, Hughes averted trouble by encouraging influential locals, the key property owners especially, to buy Northgate shares: many made a financial killing. Taoiseach Seán Lemass (qv) admired Hughes, regarding his venture as exemplifying Ireland's openness to foreign industry and investment: this was crucial, given that the state owned most of the Tynagh mineral rights and compulsorily acquired those held privately. Hughes breathed confidence, undaunted by the considerable technical challenges and the difficulties encountered in securing the international loan financing.
While waiting for production to start, he attended the Haileyburgh School of Mines, Ontario, and went out on claims in North America. In September 1965 he fell down a crevice and nearly died. His arm was in a sling that October for the opening at Tynagh of the first new mine in Ireland or Britain for 100 years. Representing the largest private industrial investment yet made in Ireland, the mine repaid its £4.6 million debt within eighteen months and earned bonanza returns to 1975 amid buoyant world metal prices. It closed in 1981 with an estimated £85.5 million overall profit. Northgate also owned a smaller, marginally loss-making copper mine at Gortdrum, Co. Tipperary, that was discovered by a Hughes-led consortium in 1963 and operated from 1967 to 1975. Hughes's success also encouraged Canadian companies to scour Ireland and bring two more mines into operation.
By fomenting divisions within the Tynagh labour force, Hughes's management imposed tough working conditions and wages that were low relative to profits. Further skimping during the initial opencast mining phase caused lead to disperse, poisoning livestock. Northgate compensated local farmers and avoided making site restoration commitments. In 2010 Tynagh was branded Ireland's most toxic mine with the cost of purifying the 2,000 contaminated acres put at tens of millions of euro.
No taxes were paid during Tynagh's bumper period, because in 1967 Hughes persuaded Minister for Finance Charles Haughey (qv) to exempt profits earned in a mine's first twenty years. (In 1971 Haughey held shares in two Hughes-controlled companies worth £20,000.) When this was rescinded in 1974, Department of Finance officials left loopholes and indulged Northgate's questionable tax accounting. Likewise, the government failed to collect the full royalties due under the generous mining lease. Hughes reciprocated by spending far more on Irish exploration than his rivals. He was friendly with, and employed relatives of, various senior politicians, mainly in the long-ruling Fianna Fáil party.
The Northgate share soared (1967–9), peaking at $15 after trading at $0.70 in 1961. Hughes floated assorted Northgate-backed mining ventures on the Toronto exchange, using this funding and Tynagh's profits to develop exploration and mining interests in the late 1960s spanning Ireland, Europe, Greenland, North America and Australia. Most of his shareholders were Canadian, but his Canberra-listed Australian vehicle, Whim Creek, lured British and Irish investors, who were deterred by currency-control premiums from buying into his Canadian resident companies. The Toronto exchange's non-disclosure of stock turnover helped him to elicit serial share-price spikes from ultimately fruitless prospects by leaking information to his main Toronto market sponsors and to small Irish speculators. His skilled manipulation facilitated share issues and personal profiteering while creating a mania in Ireland for Canadian and Australian mining stocks, particularly in areas where he and his confederates had roots, such as Newry, Cork and Galway.
Northgate's principal investors cashed out in the late 1960s, whereupon Hughes and his associates fortified their position through overlapping shareholdings between his companies. Although his personal stake was relatively small, the wider Hughes interest held effective control, which, together with Canada's lax regulations, facilitated connected party transactions that benefited him and his cronies at the expense of outside investors. He was first among equals within Northgate's 'Newry mafia', composed of old pals McCarthy, McParland and Gilroy, and recent additions such as the Murphy brothers, Hugh and Pat. The Murphys' building firm got Northgate contracts, as did drilling, construction and road-haulage companies jointly owned by Hughes and his crew.
A prodigious whiskey drinker, Hughes relaxed by trekking in the Canadian wilderness, and looked every inch the hardy prospector, incurring the disdain of Dublin's financial establishment with his rustic manner and gregarious flouting of boardroom decorum. Undoubtedly mercurial, bored by administration, and tongue-tied around journalists, Hughes nonetheless excelled at raising money and at recruiting and motivating management. He inspired loyalty, being a shrewd judge of character who allowed his staff leeway. Maintaining yachts, racehorses and a holiday home in Co. Galway, he lived from the mid 1960s near Northgate's modest headquarters in Clontarf, Dublin, with his wife Loretta (née McConville); they had one son, who became a priest, and five daughters.
Benefiting from advance notice of a government survey indicating significant mineralisation in the area, his company Tara Exploration found a rich zinc-lead deposit at Nevinstown, near Navan, Co. Meath, in November 1970. Unusually, the property owner, Patrick Wright, held the mineral rights and, after Hughes refused him equity in the intended mine, Wright sold the land in March 1971 to Bula, a company backed by construction magnate Tom Roche (qv). Although the government then announced that it had already compulsorily acquired the mineral rights, Bula overturned this in the courts (1972–4), depriving Hughes of 7.5 million to 10 million tons of mineable ore.
Yet Tara's share rose from $0.50 in 1970 to $29 in 1974, as drilling revealed one of the world's largest zinc deposits, extending far beyond Nevinstown and estimated at 77 million tons of mineable ore (to Tynagh's 12 million). What should have completed Hughes's revival of Irish mining instead undid much of his work by provoking an outbreak of resource nationalism. Mining became a major political issue, as the previously lionised Hughes was decried for plundering Ireland's apparent mineral riches on behalf of foreigners.
While his political allies procrastinated, Hughes began developing the Navan mine on the strength of written assurances given by the Fianna Fáil government in 1971 that Tara would eventually be leased, the state-owned minerals comprising most of the ore body. His main bankers suspended their financing pending the lease, so as costs spiralled he drew on short-term credit, the Northgate companies, his trusted coterie of backers, and outside investment, including a consortium headed by Ireland's premier businessman, Tony O'Reilly (b. 1936).
Following the election of an unsympathetic Fine Gael–Labour coalition in 1973, the socialist minister for industry and commerce, Justin Keating (qv), abolished the mining tax exemption. The ensuing fall in Tara's price allowed three international mining giants to accumulate shares and induced O'Reilly's sell-out to two of them (February 1974), who then made a joint bid. Hughes had primed the third company, Noranda, which thwarted the takeover by buying floating shares and advancing loans to him and his loyalists for doing likewise. He stayed nominally in charge with Noranda enjoying effective control. The bidding drove Tara's share value to unrealistic heights, complicating Hughes's efforts to extract a mining lease from Keating without sacrificing overmuch in equity, royalties and taxes. They formed an instant mutual loathing once negotiations began in July 1974. Hughes pressurised Keating in August by suing the state for withholding the lease and by halting work at Navan, dismissing 400 workers. He had a cast-iron legal case, but Keating spun out the court proceedings and lease negotiations until the banks tired of rolling over Tara's debts and forced Hughes to accept tough terms in September 1975.
Having lost Noranda's confidence, Hughes resigned immediately from Tara's operating company and, along with his associates, lucratively sold his shares to Noranda. Northgate's 10 per cent stake went cheaply in 1986 after the Navan mine struggled through its first nine years due to low zinc prices. With no further discoveries occurring in Ireland, Hughes curtailed his operations there in the late 1970s, spending the cash generated by Tynagh on buying and developing foreign gold mines. He suffered from poor health and delegated the running of his Northgate companies to university-educated Irish protégés.
Northgate flirted with bankruptcy in the early 1980s before becoming a significant North America gold producer, gaining the backing of Canada's most powerful financial conglomerate, the Bronfman Group. Elsewhere, Whim Creek blossomed into Australia's fastest-growing gold-mining concern, while Hughes's Dublin-listed exploration vehicle, Ennex, recovered from its disastrous 1984 flotation by discovering promising gold prospects at Curraghinalt, Co. Tyrone, and Cononish, Scotland.
Hughes's last years were marred by his ousting from Whim Creek in a 1988 boardroom coup, shareholder protests over asset transfers between Northgate companies, and his ruinous gamble on the Colomac gold reserves in the Northwest Territories. Requiring the construction of Canada's largest gold-processing facility, the overly ambitious Colomac venture foundered in 1991, crippling Northgate. By then Ennex was similarly moribund, its deposits in Tyrone and Scotland rendered unviable by collapsing gold prices and prohibitions on the use of explosives for mining in Northern Ireland. Hughes resigned as chairman of Northgate (1992) and Ennex (1995). He died on 27 January 1999 at St James's Hospital, Dublin, and was buried in St Fintan's cemetery, Sutton, Co. Dublin.