1987: Quinn begins
In 2007 ‘Forbes’ magazine ranked Seán Quinn the 177th richest man in the world. By 2011 he was bankrupt after his catastrophic bets on the price of Anglo Irish Bank shares. A quarter of a century ago, on a walk along the Border, the writer Colm Tóibín came across the then little-known businessman, who was in the process of building his empire
Local hero: Seán Quinn at his cement plant in Derrylin, Co Fermanagh, in 1991. Photograph: Jack McManus/The Irish Times
1987: Colm Tóibín at the time that he wrote Bad Blood: A Walk Along the Irish Border
I set off from Derrylin to walk to Ballyconnell. The rain came down in torrents. The road was narrow, and passing cars splashed water all over me. Sometimes the rain would ease off and then start again with immense ferocity, as though it was playing cat and mouse with the world. My shoes were now letting in the wet. Although it was only 7pm, signs of night were apparent. This was miserable.
At one point the road was blocked with floods, and I had to edge my way along the middle rung of a wooden fence, as the road was under at least a foot of water. There was a bridge over a narrow stream, which was now carrying tons of muddy water with immense speed. It was as though the winter had suddenly returned, or the Great Flood, and the road to Ballyconnell was endless.
Eventually, I came to a cement factory, with lorries bearing the name Seán Quinn parked in the yard. The factory and its offices, quarries and outhouses went on for about a mile. And after them was an army post, with a dry soldier wanting to know where I was coming from and where I was going.
If I expected to find Ballyconnell just beyond the army post, just over the Border, I was wrong. It was another half an hour of sheer pain before I walked into the town and found myself a bed for the night. I put my clothes on a heater with my poor shoes beside them and got into bed. By the time I woke up they were almost dry, and it was time to venture out to explore the nightlife of Ballyconnell.
There was a young girl behind the bar of the Angler’s Rest who talked to the couple and two young fellows who sat at the bar. She was emigrating, she said. There was nothing for her to do here.
Everyone was going now. She was going to London. She’d never find a job in Ireland, she said. The other girl said she had been to New York to see her brother. He wanted to come home on holiday, but he couldn’t, as, like 100,000 other young Irish people, he was an illegal immigrant in the United States; once he left, he wouldn’t be able to go back. The two fellows at the bar talked about leaving as well. New York was the place to go; there was always work there, they said.
Recent census figures had shown that emigration, which had solved the unemployment problem of the 1940s and 1950s when people left the Republic to work in England and the US, had returned. Between April 1985 and April 1986 the net emigration figure from the Republic was 31,000; most of these people had left Ireland to find work. Most of them were young, and many of them well educated. The newspapers carried reports of football teams in villages losing half their members in one year through emigration.
Yet Ballyconnell was lucky: Seán Quinn’s quarry was just up the road, and there was a plastics factory in the town. In other towns there was nothing. But even here there wasn’t enough to keep young people from leaving.
Next morning I rang Seán Quinn, the quarry owner whose name was on most of the lorries in this locality, and he agreed to see me in the afternoon. Several of his green lorries passed me as I walked back towards the North. At the Border the bloke from the army ascertained that I was walking. “Rather you than me,” he said.
At the first office I was told that Quinn was to be found in another building up the road. I kept walking. It was another dark, dreary day, but there was no rain.
Quinn conformed, here in bandit country, where the Ulster Defence Regiment foot patrols were afraid to venture, to a Thatcherite blueprint. When I arrived at his office I had to wait. His assistant came in to fill me in on the background. Quinn had inherited a 23-acre farm in 1973; he was now a millionaire. He had begun to deliver gravel, then diversified into concrete blocks and tiles. His enterprise had grown every year. He had benefited enormously from the early years of Thatcher, when there was a 100 per cent tax-free allowance on profits that were reinvested. There were no trade unions in his business, nor was any employee paid a salary. Everyone was paid according to productivity.
His fame had spread far and wide, not just as an employer, a success story and a name over lorries but as a man who hit a British soldier at a checkpoint, knocked him over and drove on. The soldier was black, according to some in the pub the previous night. Everyone agreed that there had been no retaliation. He was too important, Seán Quinn.
I asked Quinn’s assistant about relations with the army. “There is generally no problem,” he said, “just when a new regiment comes, it takes time to get used to them.” He didn’t mention his boss hitting a soldier. Sixty per cent of the business was in the South, he continued, and there was a special agreement with the Northern customs people that the export documents were handed in at the Southern office and sent north, in one of those informal arrangements. Forty per cent of the staff of 140 came from the South. Certain things were cheaper in the South, he said – lorry tyres, for example, and road tax.