‘I loved what I did. Everything you see in the world my industry built’
Developer Joe Tiernan is proud of what he achieved but happy he had just enough sense to avoid getting carried away
Joe Tiernan, seen in Finnstown, one of the estates he built: “Finnstown in Lucan is the one that I cherish the most . . . At the time it was probably the largest investment by a single individual without investors or partners.” PHOTOGRAPH: ERIC LUKE
In 2010 Joe Tiernan made a video for his family depicting his life and times. It tells the story of a builder who was born on June 29th 1945 and grew up on a farm in Foxwood, Kilmore, Co Roscommon.
It starts with grainy photographs of a young Tiernan making his way as a bricklayer and finishes with him a master builder, describing aerial photographs of neatly laid out estates of more than 700 homes.
It is the story of five decades in the career of a self-made man, whose life charts the expansion of Dublin into its suburbs.
Along the way he raises a family and ends up president of the Construction Industry Federation and a knight of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, for his services to the Catholic church and to charity.
It is also the tale of how one man saw Ireland’s property bubble from the inside, gave unheeded warnings and managed to get out before it all went wrong.
Sitting in the vast conservatory of his home in Castleknock, Tiernan wears sunglasses in the sunshine.
It was his 69th birthday the day before his interview and he is tanned from frequent trips to his other home in Marbella.
This house is big but not outlandish. It has its own bar and piles of non-fiction books collected by an avid reader. Its kitchen walls are covered with 120 plates marking the many countries he visited with his late wife Mary and three daughters.
Tiernan had given me his video before our meeting. He is reticent at first about even saying how many houses he built. “It was certainly thousands,” he says. “I don’t want to be boastful . . .”
Careful watching of his video identifies more than 5,200 houses from Malahide to Killiney, with the occasional foray into Kildare. Add in office blocks, a public park, restorations, and much more, and it is clear he has had a packed career.
Tiernan said his interest in building developed as a boy. He remembers the craftsmanship of workers who re-roofed his family home. “It made a lasting impression,” he recalled. At 17, against the wishes of his parents who wanted him to be a Garda, he started working with a local building contractor.
By the time he was 19 he felt ready for Dublin. “I left home with £34 in my pockets and no reliable contacts in Dublin,” Tiernan said. He bumped into a Roscommon building contractor on his first day, who also liked to bet on the races. For a year, Tiernan did the same, building and gambling.
“Then, I saw the folly of the whole thing . . . All you had to do was look at the demeanour of the punters with newspapers hanging out of their pockets and frequently badly dressed,” he said. Not for the last time, he recognised a mug’s game.
Tiernan studied at night and joined a trade union, to allow him become a skilled bricklayer. By his early 20s, he had 14 men working for him.
Dublin was changing fast as the 1960s turned into the 1970s. It needed to expand and backwaters such as Palmerstown, Castleknock, Cabinteely, Knocklyon, Malahide, Swords and Blanchardstown, started to become residential suburbs. Tiernan saw the opportunity.
In July 1968 he built his first estate of eight houses in Rathcoole, Co Dublin. Each house sold for £4,000 (€5,000), or about four-and-a-half times the average industrial wage. Tiernan built more than 100 houses the following year in two estates. In 1970 he built Chalfont in Malahide with 218 houses and Castletown estate in Leixlip with 379 homes.
He was on his way to the big time. “I was always anxious to move forward and make money but not at any cost,” he said. “If one wasn’t getting bigger, you were going backwards.”
Confidence to expand
He said demographics and new building techniques gave him the confidence to expand, but it was tough as mortgages were hard for buyers to get.
But times were changing. Banks took on building societies to offer more mortgages and the 1973 Fine Gael/ Labour coalition made encouraging house-building a priority. A mini-boom began, but from a low base. Tiernan Homes was among the busiest, building at least 100 houses a year and nursing sites through planning.
The 1980s were “bad times”, however, as the economy slumped. “You were concerned all the time and struggling for purchasers. It wasn’t a disaster but it was nearly a disaster,” Tiernan recalled.
He was careful and built such estates as Bayview in Killiney, with 246 houses, and Kinsealy Court in north Dublin, with 714 houses.
From about 1993, Tiernan said things became easier. Europe was investing in Ireland and the era of “cheap money” was beginning. “Prior to that it was survival really, but now there was real profit in it, which lasted about 13 years,” he said.