Brian O’Donnell’s children face questions in court over gifts

Items include a first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses

File photograph of Blaise, Blake and Alexandra  O’Donnell. File photograph: Collins Courts

File photograph of Blaise, Blake and Alexandra O’Donnell. File photograph: Collins Courts


Retired solicitor Brian O’Donnell’s adult children face questioning in court over a number of valuable gifts given to them by their parents.

These include a first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses bought for €42,500 in 2007 and a painting by Leo Whelan entitled Waiting, which was bought by Mr O’Donnell and wife Mary Patricia for €306,593 in 2007, the High Court heard.

The question of whether these and other antiques and art works were gifted to the O’Donnell children can now be the subject of questioning in court as part of the bankruptcy of their parents, Ms Justice Caroline Costello ruled.

Blake, Bruce, Blaise and Alexandra O’Donnell can be examined under oath over the gifts by lawyers for the court official appointed to handle their parents’ bankruptcy, the judge said.

Only Bruce O’Donnell was in court on Tuesday. He said his father and brother Blake, who normally represent the family, were in the United Kingdom.

The official assignee in bankruptcy, Chris Lehane, sought the examination order over the contents of the former family home, Gorse Hill, Killiney, Co Dublin.

On January 28th, on foot of a warrant obtained by Mr Lehane and the bankruptcy inspector, Gorse Hill was searched, and certain items were seized.

However, Mr Lehane had said there is confusion about the location of individual assets.

Items such as the Leo Whelan painting were not in Gorse Hill during the search as Brian O’Donnell said it was loaned to him by the children and was in his rented property in East Haxted in England, Ms Justice Costello said.

Ordering the examination of the O’Donnell siblings under oath, the judge also rejected an application by the family for the quashing of the January warrant and the return of the items seized.

She said the warrant had already been executed and the matter had already been appealed to the Court of Appeal. The O’Donnells could not seek cancellation of a High Court order while at the same time appealing the matter as this amounted to an abuse of process, she said.

Ms Justice Costello said when Brian and Mary Patricia O’Donnell came to a settlement agreement with Bank of Ireland in 2012 in relation to a €71.5m debt, the solicitors representing them told the bank they (the solicitors) were holding certain contents of Gorse Hill until the legal proceedings over the debt were finished. The solicitors also said if the O’Donnells failed to achieve relief in those proceedings, they “will renounce all and any claims” to the contents of the house.

After they were declared bankrupt, the official assignee, Mr Lehane, in 2014, sought information from the O’Donnells in relation to the acquisition and disposal of a number of personal items in the house such as antiques, arts works and rare books, with a combined potential value of millions.

Ms Justice Costello said Mr Lehane’s office identified personal chattels with an acquisition of €1.5 million, the majority of which did not appear to have been accounted for by the O’Donnell parents.

Mr O’Donnell ultimately indicated many of the items were gifts to the children and were part of the settlement agreement reached with Bank of Ireland, the judge said.

However, the O’Donnells now maintain most of the valuable items were not in fact part of the settlement agreement and did not accept they form part of the bankrupt estate, the judge said.

It is clear assets which may form part of the bankrupt estate were not present when the search was carried out last January, the judge said.

It is clear the official assignee has concerns assets may have been removed and it would not be appropriate to grant the O’Donnell application for the return of the items that were seized.

The judge also rejected an O’Donnell application that a named official in the official assignee’s office be removed from managing their bankruptcy. The O’Donnells had claimed the official had a conflict of interest as he was a former employee of the receiver appointed over their assets by Bank of Ireland.

Ms Justice Costello said the O’Donnell claims were based on unwarranted assumptions and “a very deep distrust and suspicion of anyone dealing with their affairs.” But this fell very far short of establishing any wrongdoing on the part of the official to justify removal, she said.

She further rejected an application by the O’Donnells for liberty to cross-examine Mr Lehane and for disclosure of documents held by him. This application was based on a “fundamental misunderstanding” of the relevant part of the law governing bankruptcy, she said.

In granting Mr Lehane his application to question the O’Donnell children about the Gorse Hill contents, the judge said it was incumbent on the children to provide such information as is necessary to establish their alleged title to the chattels which may be part of the bankrupt estate.

“This they have singly failed to do to date,” she said.