The millionaire Temple Bar publican with a Keane edge

Publican Martin Keane on the stalled Iveagh Market project

 

Martin Keane, the publican and developer at the centre of the stalled €100 million Iveagh Market regeneration project, radiates the rare auld times. He has an irrepressible demeanour, a glint that is as Dublin as can be.

Maybe it comes from the graft and guile, the street smarts of a man who started as a pageboy 55 years ago and now owns probably the most profitable – and expensive – pub in Ireland, the Oliver St John Gogarty in Temple Bar. He also owns nearby Blooms Hotel and a property portfolio of the city’s finest townhouses.

Or perhaps Keane is defined by his raconteurial tales of olden times, of deals done in the backs of cars on the way to smoky bars. All the prominent people he met over the years and those whom he admired, and those he didn’t.

But mostly Keane’s rare auld Dublin air derives from his appearance, his storied face and throaty diction.

Even sitting in the Georgian splendour of the five-star Merrion hotel in his gentleman’s three-piece suit, he looks like he could swat away his coffee and biscuits for a jug of porter and a Jemmy chaser.

Keane is no shrinking violet – his current standoff with Dublin City Council over his failure so far to develop the Iveagh is proof. Hospitality and especially pubs are a tough sector and he is as tough as any in the industry. But he remains wistful for the old days, and the personable side of doing business.

“It’s all changed. You used to meet people in a pub for a drink to do a deal. It has gotten very serious now. If you’re meeting an accountant these days, it is strictly in an office,” he says.

Does Keane, whose group employs 100 staff, dwell in an office?

“Not really. Of course we do have an office, but other people use it. It’s very seldom I’m in it. Usually, I’d be sitting around one of the bars.”

The Oliver St John Gogarty has three bars. As old-school as Keane is, Gogarty’s is a more modern take on the traditional Irish pub: a morning-to-night hive of tourists in the middle of the Temple Bar madness. He has owned it for 25 years.

We jump in a taxi across town to visit the pub. The driver has a huge white beard on him, like Ronnie Drew reincarnated behind the wheel of a Toyota Camry. I half expect him and Keane to launch into a rendition of The Foggy Dew, but within 10 minutes, we’re climbing out of the cab on Anglesea Street.

Standing room only

The pub is rammed, a melting pot of nationalities eating meals, supping pints and listening to the live trad music. Standing room only, but this is four o’clock on a Monday afternoon. It is Saturday night, all day, every day at Gogarty’s.

Keane disappears for a few minutes to have his photograph taken. Inside, the cacophony of Swedes, Germans and Americans enjoy the banter. Outside, a group of six Englishmen totter across the street towards the bar. Five are wearing T-shirts emblazoned “Ivan’s Stag, Dublin 2017”.

The sixth is wearing full bondage gear, with a leather gimp facemask and nipple clamps. God love him, it is going to be a long night ahead for Ivan.

Inbound tourism has reached an all-time high, and the effects of Brexit and falling UK visitor numbers have yet to dent the overall figures. Temple Bar is the crazy busy – and crazy profitable – centre of the party.

Bloody hell, Martin, I say. This place is bonkers. Is Temple Bar at full capacity?

“You can never have enough of a good thing. The best thing about tourists is you need an awful lot of staff to service them. That’s jobs. But it’s impossible now to get chefs, unbelievable. But we’re always spending, always investing.”

Gogarty’s is notoriously expensive – €7.75 for a pint of Heineken, or €8 after 11pm. When people say those are ridiculous prices, how do you justify it?

“I buy them a pint, or maybe two,” he smiles. “But it’s a lot, I know.”

Keane justifies his prices on the basis of his costs. He spends €1 million a year on live entertainment just for Gogarty’s – there is music from 12.30pm until 2.30am every day.

“We spend huge amounts on security, CCTV, insurance. We advertise overseas, we promote the area. We have a huge amount of overheads that ordinary pubs wouldn’t have. Of course I’m doing well – I’m not saying I’m not. But I justify it and I work hard at it.”

Drayton House Holdings, which includes Gogarty’s and its associated hostel accommodation, the 100-room Blooms hotel and Club M nightclub, had sales last year of €15.2 million, with profits before tax of €4.9 million.

That’s a net margin of 32 per cent, or “doing well”, in Keane’s language. This is, quite simply, the spoils of another boom. And if tourists felt ripped off, they could easily vote with their feet. Temple Bar is stacked with choice.

Covent Garden in Dublin

As well as the Iveagh – a proposed Covent Garden for Dublin, for which he intends to submit fresh planning permission soon – Keane is also in the early stages of planning a new 50-bedroom hotel in Ballsbridge.

It is all a far cry from his childhood, a barman’s son who started on the bottom rung in the Central Hotel on Exchequer St. Keane’s backstory is a classic Dublin tale.

“I’d go down to the Central after school, doing errands for the head porter, Willy. You’d get the post, buy tickets for guests, just look after them and engage with them. It didn’t take me long to discover this thing called gratuities.”

Keane developed a ferocious work ethic, and within a short few years he was earning more money than his father. He worked bar, hotel and restaurant shifts all over the city. He would finish his shift in one place and go to the next, and work his day off somewhere else. But these were union shops.

“That’s where I came a cropper, for double-jobbing.”

He was banished from the city’s union houses, and landed a job in Sutton House, a country pile on the outskirts of Dublin. Here, a young man still living at home with his mother, Keane stumbled into the hidden heart of official Ireland.

“It was more like a club. All the builders came in, politicians, businessmen, celebrities. Christy Moore had his wedding there and booked it out for four days.”

Keane struck up a close friendship with Matt Gallagher, a well-connected, wealthy property developer. Gallagher’s son, Patrick Gallagher, later became a benefactor of Charles Haughey.

“Matt was like a father to me, in many ways.”

Keane’s own father lived a modest life and he speaks no ill of him. But in Gallagher, he saw a shining example of achievement and honour. Gallagher was his mentor, and set him up with a lease on a pub he owned in Donaghmede, Keane’s first business. He revamped it, and was soon earning enough to invest in buying houses and flats.

Gallagher passed away in 1975, when Keane was 27.

“I was very upset. He had a wonderful way with people. He was kind and honest and he helped people. All his directors were lads who had worked the tools and he brought them up. He could mix with the gentry or the man with the pick and shovel.”

Keane pauses for a moment, thinking of his friend.

“You know, it’s very seldom you’d see anyone having the time to talk to young people in business now, to give them advice. They leave it up to the internet.”

After Matt died, Keane did not get on quite so well with Patrick Gallagher – “he just wasn’t my type of guy” – and he quit the Donaghmede lease.

Catering business

He was soon running a successful catering business from the kitchens of greyhound stadiums with DID Electrical founder Gerry Houlihan, whose family owns Clontarf Castle in Dublin.

Keane rattles through his back catalogue of entertaining yarns of deals he struck, the men he met, their wives, their wives’ maiden names, the sports they played, the restaurants where they ate.

He took over the Deerpark pub in Clonskeagh on a sweet deal from a bank manager, Pat Joy, who took him to lunch in Le Coq Hardi. The clientele included district court judges.

He bought a Georgian house at 24 Merrion Square from the British Legion, which he restored – Keane loves restoring old things.

In the middle of the restoration, an American pulled up in a limousine and asked to rent the place as his company’s European headquarters. Sure why not, replied Keane. He looked at the American’s business card after he left. It was the president of Delta Airlines, which took the building on a 35-year lease.

Keane’s grade-A connections culminated in a glorious business tip-off more than a quarter of a century ago that laid the foundation for his current success.

He wandered into the Horseshoe Bar in the Shelbourne Hotel one day. Fianna Fáil adviser PJ Mara told him Haughey, who was then taoiseach, was going to bring in tax breaks to revive Temple Bar, which was then on the rough side.

“PJ said he wasn’t going to turn it into an effing bus station. He said if you’ve any money, go down there and spend it. Then Haughey came in for a pint. I asked him if the Temple Bar thing was correct. That’s effing right, says he.”

Keane bought Gogarty’s in 1992 from an English builder, and revamped it from top to bottom as a tourist pub. There might not be leprechauns about the place, but Gogarty’s soon grew into a crock of gold.

A few years later, Keane bought Blooms. He was made. He remains that way, the group throwing off enough cash to make a man weep with joy.

With his daughter, Martina, as financial controller and partner, Keane’s business tips along. But there is one big thing left that he wants to do – “the only thing I want to do” – and that is to restore the old Iveagh Market.

He signed a deal with the council to redevelop it two decades ago as a version of Covent Garden for Dublin, incorporating bars, retail, hotels and a restored market. The place would be hopping now if the project was completed.

But the dilapidated market in the Liberties still lies idle, covered in bird droppings and a growing urban jungle.

Title issues

Keane, who won’t gain ownership until it is completed, says title issues were first to blame. He also acquired the nearby Mother Redcaps site and eventually got planning permission for a large scheme in 2007.

Then the financial crisis hit, he says, and he couldn’t fund the project. This month, the planning permission ran out, and Dublin politicians are calling for the redevelopment tender to be taken away from him.

Keane isn’t budging an inch, and says he has been advised to sue if the agreement is breached. It is at a delicate stage, but he says he recently held a good meeting with planners, and is working on a new application for a revamped scheme. He claims to have risked €27 million on Iveagh Markets to date.

“I’m confident I can fund it. But I will look for State assistance, maybe with financing costs, for the restoration of the market end of it.

“After I pass on, I can see this as adding something to Dublin, something the city hasn’t got. It will be earthy, honest, and gastro-themed. It will be a fantastic addition to the city.”

Would he consider taking a partner on board to co-develop Iveagh?

“No, no, no. Jaysus, no.”

He recoils.

“Partnerships are difficult. It’s not because I’m a control freak. I’ve done plenty of development and I’ve done most of the things I wanted to do. But I just know myself what’s needed for Iveagh.”

Keane returns to his philosophy of business, his love of talking to people, of learning about them – “the old fashioned way”. He also clearly loves doing things his own way. And why not. It has worked handsomely for him so far.

As I turn to bid him goodbye at the door of Gogarty’s, the place is still heaving and the tills are sweating cash. Ivan is still at the bar, chatting to a startled Japanese couple. This is Dublin, in rare auld times.

Name: Martin Keane

Job: Publican, hotelier and developer who owns the Oliver St John Gogarty.

Age: 69.

Home: Rathmines, Dublin.

Family: Married, one daughter.

Something about him we might expect: He enjoys doing business in pubs and restaurants.

Something that might surprise: He has a knack for restoring antique furniture. “I was blessed a good pair of hands.”

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