On Raglan Road and beyond for 'one of the good guys'
The Big Developers:A stint in politics with Fianna Fáil helped Bernard McNamara to build up powerful contacts and a fear of failure that would prove crucial to his success, writes Kathy Sheridan.
Although his roots lie deep in Co Clare, Bernard McNamara, at 57, is a long way from the mould of his generation of west-of-the-Shannon builder-developers.
The giveaway line is in his interview for Ivor Kenny's book Leaders: Conversations with Irish Chief Executives, where he mentions his father's purchase of a house on Dublin 4's Raglan Road for £34,000 in the mid-1970s - not as a home, but a base for the family going to college, an introduction to Dublin life and lodgings that most country students could only dream about. His siblings include Shelley McNamara of the highly-regarded Grafton Architects, who was the first architect to be admitted to Aosdána.
But it's a measure of McNamara's openness and likeability that he mentions it at all in the context of his eventual colonisation of Dublin. That privileged Dublin base, plus 12 years of unwitting networking with future movers and shakers on holidays at Renvyle House Hotel in Connemara, followed later by sociable Friday evenings at the Shelbourne Bar with his petite and stylish wife, Moira, chatting with architects while nosing around for business, all made him realise that he "knew an awful lot of people" in Dublin. And awfully useful people at that.
At that stage, he was working to take his father Michael's small, Clare-based construction company to the next level. Michael, an astute gentleman, had encouraged him to study business rather than engineering, on the basis that "a lot of builders . . . get into trouble because they think that cash flow means they own the money".
Another lesson he learned from life - more concisely from a sign in Joe McHugh's pub in Liscannor, Co Clare - was that "Experience is what you get when you didn't get what you wanted". That's how he learned most of what he knows, he told Ivor Kenny.
A key part of that experience was a spell at party politics. In his mid-20s, single, in the quiet Clare winters, he got involved in local voluntary organisations, through which he was invited to take a co-opted seat on the county council in 1974. A natural and unflappable politician, with the politician's gift of remembering names, he was twice elected as a Fianna Fáil councillor. But at the end of his second term, as he told Ivor Kenny, he and Moira had "two or three kids, and it was time to give up and devote myself to them a little more".
What he failed to mention was the scalding experience of contesting his first and only general election in the cauldron of 1981, in which he polled just 2,700 first preferences. It was doubtless a major nudge towards his desertion of party politics and fuel for the "fear of failure" he mentioned to Kenny, as he moved back to Dublin in 1984 to win contracts for the family business.
From that failure, he emerged as the forerunner of the contractor-developer, with a vastly expanded network of political friends to call upon, which he continues to cultivate with great charm and energy. "His Fianna Fáil connections are no burden," as one industry source puts it. McNamara has been, at one time or another, on several State boards, including those of Great Southern Hotels, the National Roads Authority, and the National Gallery.
He is a close friend of Tony Killeen, now a junior minister, he is an affable presence in the Fianna Fáil tent at the Galway races, and a regular at the visitors' bar in Leinster House, notably in the company of Jim Nugent, a former director of the Central Bank and one of Bertie's "dig-out" men, who acted as an industrial relations adviser to McNamara during troubles on site. His wildly successful venture into property in the early 1990s, he told Kenny, "largely came about from the capacity to use tax breaks", employed to build the CSO offices in Cork as well as a host of Section 23 student accommodation projects.
It is hardly any wonder he has told friends that losing that election was the best thing that ever happened to him.
Although unpretentious, he is hardly low-key. His home is on Ailesbury Road, Dublin 4, on the site of the former Japanese embassy, which he demolished to build a mini-palace furnished with a glass-ceilinged swimming pool, cinema, ballroom, and "more plasma televisions than the entire street", according to one boggle-eyed visitor. His summer residence in Lahinch overlooks the two golf courses.
His philanthropy reaches into every stratum of society, from turning out charity golf teams, to giving space in his hotels for charity events, to supporting the 75-strong Lismorahaun Singers from Co Clare, who performed a sell-out Mozart's Requiem at the RDS.
Bernard McNamara is that rare animal, a man who has risen to the top of a cut-throat industry and built a fortune, conservatively estimated at around €150 million, while remaining widely liked and admired. A random selection of descriptions include: "the acceptable face of capitalism", "a badge of quality", "a fantastically clever operator", "smart; never petty", "remarkably unpretentious", "hot-tempered", and "great fun". "Put his name to something and it will fly," says an industry source.
A fellow developer describes him as "dead sound" and "a very straight operator".
Heck, even Ciarán Cuffe, the Green TD, describes him as "one of the good guys". McNamara's choice of a landing pad for his helicopter beside Booterstown Marsh - a bird sanctuary - was one of his rare gaffes and attracted Cuffe's ire in print. When they subsequently met at McNamara's request (after he had stopped the landings), the developer offered to speak at a Green-organised housing meeting. "There were about 150 there, and he was fairly nervous," says Cuffe. "He got a lot of heckling. Essentially, he said 'here's land that I control and I will affordable houses [on it] if I get planning permission.' With him, what you see is what you get. I warmed to him, not in a palsy-walsy way, but because he's straight up about what he's doing, which is to make money. And that's what these guys do."
Even the helicopter gaffe was brought to a charming conclusion, in typical McNamara style. For the opening of a new viewing platform for the roosting birds on the marsh, he allowed members of the Friends of Booterstown group to use his adjoining marshland for a children's treasure hunt. Peace in our time. St Bernard indeed.