It is not unusual at the moment for a publican to be home in the middle of the working day. Bars have been shut for five months. But that isn’t the only reason why Charlie Chawke, possibly the nation’s most famous publican, is resting at his Blackrock pile on a bright Tuesday afternoon. This year hasn’t been overly kind so far to the Limerick man, who turns 72 next month.
“I’ve been in hospital for more than three months,” says Chawke, quite matter-of-factly, as he sits with his left leg on a pillow.
In a crime that shocked the country at the time, he lost most of his right leg when he was shot in a robbery outside his Goat Bar & Grill pub in south Dublin in 2003. Now the other one is giving him trouble, a complication due to other health matters. His mobility is restricted for now.
I was hurt by some of the things the objectors had in the paper. All I ever wanted to do with Goatstown was to give it an entity. It was only a crossroads when I went there
It must be immensely frustrating for a man who was once so active in his businesses to not be able to get about. Chawke hides it well, but not perfectly. Three months in hospital would challenge anyone. It may also help to explain why Chawke, always such an imposing figure in the Dublin pub trade, is not terribly enamoured about the idea of having his photograph taken yet again.
Never mind. There are plenty of other pictures to choose from, and his words – carefully selected and economical – matter more.
In the midst of all of his challenges this year, Chawke in March submitted an application under fast-track residential planning laws to An Bord Pleanála to develop a near-five acre site beside the Goat, which is one of nine pubs in the Chawke Group – seven in Dublin and two in his home town of Adare.
The €186 million Goatstown proposal includes 290 apartments, shops, childcare facilities, a 22-bedroom hotel and 475 car parking spaces. It is bigger than a scheme for which he was refused planning permission on the same site two decades ago. It comprises several blocks, some of which are up to eight storeys high, others half that. The fast-track system bypasses local authorities but Chawke says he believed he would win the support of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown council anyway.
Instead, the council has submitted a 70-page report to the board outlining its “concerns” over the scale of the proposed development, which it believes would be “overbearing and incongruous”. Almost 150 submissions on the planning application have been lodged. One local resident complained that the scheme would turn the area into “Goats-hattan”.
The board will give its decision next month. Chawke hopes to get the green light, but his eagerness to sprinkle the conversation with conciliation towards the objectors suggests he knows the issue may be finely balanced.
“Goatstown is very special to me,” he says. The Goat, which he acquired in 1982, was the third pub he bought but it was also the foundation stone for all of his later success. It funded everything, including his other pub purchases and his splendid Victorian villa, with its statues and verdant gardens.
“I think the development is a beautiful design. There are eight storeys in it. But that’s still beautiful because you’re looking on the Dublin mountains and on Dublin Bay. It’s four storeys in other parts. The eight-storeys are in the middle of the site, furthest away from any local houses,” he says.
Some of the local objections emerged after a Zoom call about the proposed development hosted by local Fine Gael councillors. Nobody asked a representative of Chawke to attend to answer questions, although he found out what was said anyway. Chawke can be softly spoken but also hard-nosed when in full fettle. He appears a little wounded by the scale of opposition to his proposal.
“I was hurt by some of the things the objectors had in the paper. All I ever wanted to do with Goatstown was to give it an entity. It was nothing, only a crossroads, when I went there. But I wanted to leave it with a village-type setting. I hope the people who objected to it read the plan and saw the design.”
Chawke insists he is building it “for the locals”, although it would, of course, benefit him too. He recalls that he was always happy to give jobs to the sons and daughters of local residents if they asked him, and that will “always be the case”.
“Please God, in the middle of June I will have planning. Whatever amendments they’d like me to make, we’ll have to look at it then and see if we can come up with the right design. But I think that what we have now is the right one.”
As he makes the case for the development in his sun room, with the bright light streaming in on his face and his injured leg, Chawke talks repeatedly about wanting to leave a “legacy” in Goatstown. His eldest son, David, sits quietly on the couch opposite him while he speaks.
The younger Chawke casts an occasional pensive glance towards his father, a man whose businesses turned over €30 million before the pandemic; who once co-owned a Premier League football club in Sunderland; who started as a barman at the age of 16 and subsequently scaled the heights of the trade. A man who once figured in a tribunal report after contributing to Bertie Ahern’s “dig-out”, and who then facetiously named a horse Forpadydeplasterer after another tribunal character. And a man who almost lost his life in 2003 when he was confronted by an armed robber with a shotgun. David was at the scene that day.
“I want to leave a... a legacy behind me,” says Chawke. Later, he adds: “I want my children to run it [the group] when I’m dead, and my grandchildren. That’s what I want. There’s good living there for whoever has it. They can educate their children and have a nice life.” Later still, Chawke jokes that he will sign over all his pubs to his five children because “I can’t take them with me”.
I joke back that he’ll surely be around for a long time yet to come. And he will. But there is a definite tone of retrospection to Chawke’s demeanour as he rakes over the coals of his career, the key moments and decisions that brought him from his father’s pub in Adare to become the owner of some of the best-known hostelries in the capital.
[The children] have a pub each. Keep them away from one another. That has been my theory all along... because there is bound to be rows
His father, Bill Chawke, packed in farming to open a pub bearing his name in the picturesque Limerick village in 1959. His six children “were reared in it”, says Chawke, who left for a job in Davy Byrnes on Grafton Street not long after his Inter Cert (since replaced by the Junior Cert). He bought his first pub, McGoverns in Wexford Street, at the age of 21. His second was the Bridge House in Dolphin’s Barn (“the men in it were good pint drinkers”). He sold it after almost eight years to fund the purchase of the Goat.
After that, he picked up the Dropping Well in Milltown, another landmark Dublin pub. He also acquired the Oval in Middle Abbey Street and the Lord Lucan (both in partnership with the late Fianna Fáil senator Eddie Bohan). The Chawke group also includes his father’s eponymous pub and another in Adare called Aunty Lena’s. There is also Searsons on Baggot Street, the only one that he leases, and the Bank Bar and Restaurant on Dame Street, which is now majority-owned by David and not his father.
Then there is Chawke’s involvement in the most expensive Irish pub deal of all time. He paid €22 million in 2005 for the Old Orchard Inn, on a two-acre site in Rathfarnham. When the tide went out on the economy two years later, the debt overhang from the Orchard deal put Chawke in real trouble, but he worked through it. “I don’t regret buying the Orchard, only how much I paid for it,” he says.
Leaving aside the Oval and the Lord Lucan, which both appear to now be co-owned with auctioneer Eddie Bohan jnr (Bohan senior died in 2019), the rest of the Dublin pubs are each run by one of Chawke’s five children. David has the Bank, Alison runs the Orchard, Jenny the Goat, Liza the Dropping Well, and his youngest son Bill is involved with Searsons. Bill also operates a pizza delivery company, Fired Up Pizza, from the Goat.
“They have a pub each. Keep them away from one another. That has been my theory all along. Keep them away from each other because there is bound to be rows.”
He is joking again, of course. But he might be right, too.
Chawke’s children all have ownership stakes in Milltown Inns, the company that owns the Dropping Well, the Orchard and Aunty Lena’s. Charjon Investments, which owns the Goat and which has applied for planning permission for the adjacent development, is owned 50/50 between Chawke and his wife Bernice.
Until the pandemic came along, Chawke’s pubs were doing very well. Charjon had accumulated profits of €2.3 million in 2019, while Milltown Inns had sales of €10.1 million and accumulated profits of almost €5 million. Searsons had accumulated profits of €2.5 million. Another Chawke company, Pembridge SF, appears to own residential property investments in Goatstown, Lucan, Dublin 4 and Dublin 2.
Milltown Inns still has debts of more than €20 million, a hangover from the Orchard deal. But the pub life has still been good to Chawke, whose group employed more than 350 staff until the pandemic hit. It has also been good to his family – there is a jetski in the garden, hiding between the statues.
Chawke says he misses being around the pubs and plans to be in the Goat for reopening on June 7th. “If I get my leg right, I’ll be back there like a flash.”
A self-confessed sports fanatic, he joined the Drumaville consortium that bought Sunderland football club in 2006 when he was asked by his friend, former Ireland striker Niall Quinn. After hiring Roy Keane as manager and winning promotion to the Premier League, they sold it to US billionaire Ellis Short in 2009. Months later, Chawke tried to assemble another Irish consortium to buy Sunderland’s arch rival, Newcastle United. But it was never going to happen in the midst of the crash.
“That was just a fantasy of mine. Louis [Fitzgerald, the publican] was there and one or two others would have loved to have gotten involved. All we needed was a Mr Moneybags. I tried all I could to get different wealthy people in this country involved. But nobody was up for it.”
A Saudi Arabian consortium tried to buy the club for £300 million last year. “We could have bought it for 50-odd million pounds that time, and made a few quid on it.”
Investing in football was fun, but pubs are what Chawke knows best. He says the Bernard McNamara consortium that bought Superquinn in 2005 offered him €60 million for the Goat and its adjacent five acres, but he refused. Does he regret saying no?
“Regret it? I don’t think so. What would I do with it, the money? I’d pay the bank back and I’d pay off Revenue what I owe them. What would be left then? I’d have no Goat. I want to hold onto everything,” he says.
Chawke says he wants to develop the contentious Goat scheme himself, but he also hints he could be prepared to team up with a development partner if he gets planning permission. If he doesn’t get planning, he says he will “go again”.
“We’re on the development trail now and we have to see it through, before the good Lord calls me.”
Then he laughs again. Chawke might not be at full strength these days. But he still has a glint in his eye.