‘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.
Did Tiernan become a multimillionaire? “Millions?” Tiernan laughs. “It all depended on the size of the operation. The bigger fellas made millions but we were entitled to make it.”
Tiernan said any money he had, had to go into the next project. “What was happening was that site costs were escalating. The profit you made in one development had to be ploughed into the next.”
In the 1990s Tiernan did his best deal. “Finnstown in Lucan is the one that I cherish the most,” he said. “It was controversial getting the planning but the delays worked to my advantage,” Tiernan said. It had 520 houses and all were sold.
“At the time it was probably the largest investment by a single individual without investors or partners,” Tiernan said. “People would ask me ‘Tiernan how do you sleep at night time? I would always retort back, ‘That’s not a problem because I am so exhausted’.” he said, laughing.
Tiernan said he insisted on building quality and was chairman of HomeBond for 17 years from 1987 to 2004, to ensure this. “If I discovered something wasn’t right, I didn’t want a discussion about it, it was un-do it and do it right,” he said.
As the years went on, Tiernan began to question things in his sector. From 1998 to 2000 he was president of the Construction Industry Federation, so he could see not only what was happening in his own firm but also to his industry.
“I wasn’t the only one with the information, many others had [it],” he said. He knew the building industry was pouring billions into the exchequer, allowing the government go on a spending spree and jack up public service wages. Ireland was building a lot of houses for its size as compared to other European countries. He began to wonder whether such activity was sustainable.
In 2001, he decided to get out, but it took until 2004 to finish out his pipeline. “It’s like a big tanker, it takes a lot of water to turn . . . but I feared financial ruin. I said ‘It can’t continue, we are going to lose money, get out of it’,” he recalled.
Tiernan warned his bankers in Ulster Bank and he told other developers he knew. “It’s like drink at closing time they just wanted more of it.”
By then, banks he had never borrowed from such as Anglo Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide, and developers he had barely heard of, were big players. “There were all sorts of characters being financed . . . It was a race to the end by the banks to give out money,” Tiernan said. “[New developers] were from the shoulders down and didn’t want to concern themselves with niceties or intricacies of the future.
“The banks aided and abetted them. They couldn’t have borrowed otherwise. The banks are the responsible ones.”
Conservative developers were priced out. Stockbrokers and investors gave speculators more firepower.
“Bernard McNamara for example saw the profits which were to be made and he went to Davys [to purchase the Irish Glass Bottle site] . . .” Tiernan said. “You know the consequences. The whole thing collapsed around him and the investors lost their money. Greed gets the better of most people and the stockbrokers were earning fees. They didn’t care what was going to happen afterwards. Morality didn’t enter it.”
It was not always obvious though that he was right. “To be brutally honest I began to doubt myself on several occasions but I knew deep down that we were facing a calamity of insurmountable proportions.
“Some people said I had lost my nerve but nothing could be further from the truth. I was able to quote the statistics. It was unsustainable the way we were.”
Tiernan warned his political contacts in Fine Gael but they were in opposition. “I said it to those who I was friendly with. They ignored it. They just weren’t in a position to do anything,” he said.
“John Bruton was a friend of mine and I often expressed views to him but leaders in opposition in a situation like that are in a very, very invidious position,” Tiernan said. “There is shag all on record of the opposition criticising the Government on the record and telling them to pull the shutters down and put the brakes on. In all honesty it was the converse.”
When the bubble burst, Tiernan believes the State had no choice but to set up the National Asset Management Agency. He is critical of some aspects of it, but believes Fine Gael had no choice but to go with it and to take its instructions from Europe on cutting back spending.
Could a bubble happen again? “Yes. We must acknowledge that bad times don’t always last and neither do bubbles. There will be a bubble again. We must control funds. If home mortgages become too freely available . . . that will create a problem.”
The Central Bank he said needed to be “robust” and be given the authority to step in at any sign of overheating. “We need to rezone lots of land too, not on a rationed basis. It is only when it is scarce, it becomes valuable,” he said.
Since retiring, Tiernan has travelled the world and spent time golfing, fishing and shooting. He has donated to charity and helped the church and was made a papal knight in 2009.
How did he become a Papal Knight? “It was by invitation. It’s not like buying a lottery ticket and you might win or you might not. Many others did much more than me and will never receive the honour for whatever reason . . .”
He credits his late wife Mary as being the secret to his success. “Without her support I would not have been able to achieve what I did,” he said. Would Tiernan ever build again? “That’s it for me. It is my intention not to build homes again. That is not to say that I would not get involved in some way in the industry. I loved what I did and I did well.
“Everything you see in the world my industry built. When I drive around and see some of my old houses, or spot them advertised in the paper, of course I get great satisfaction. I built more than most. The record is there. It speaks for itself. It is a wonderful industry,” he said. Tiernan pauses before adding: “It is high risk too.” That is a lesson learned in Ireland the hard way.
Joe Tiernan: Personalities, politicians and planning tribunals
Joe Tiernan’s family supported Fine Gael, but he says he made his own mind up to back it based on his own reading of Irish political history. “The other parties were opportunists and had no long-term vision” he said.
In 1982 Tiernan was selected as a candidate to run as a TD for Fine Gael in Dublin West. “I withdrew because I wanted to concentrate on building,” he said. He said it might have been “advantageous” as a builder to be in Fianna Fáil, but: “I couldn’t do it on a matter of principle.”
Politics and building were too close in the past, he says, and he was aware planning could be a rotten game.
“I never witnessed any payments because that is not the way that business is done. I suspected that various nefarious practices were engaged in. Nothing was ever as blatant as that but it was implied.
“Of course I knew Liam Lawlor [the late Fianna Fáil politician accused of corruption]. Everyone in the industry did, his reputation travelled miles ahead of him,” he said.
“He was never the demon he was reported to be. He was pro-development. He might have been a bit more blatant about it than others but there were many others also as evidenced by the [Mahon] planning tribunal findings and submissions . . .
“I never got entangled in any of that. That is not to say I didn’t make contributions [to politicians],” he added. Tiernan said his donations were within the rules.
“I was very open about what I contributed to the planning tribunal. I did know Frank Dunlop [the political lobbyist]. He is on record making contributions to politicians on my behalf and according to my evidence without my knowledge. I never requested him to do it and he didn’t tell me.
“I gave evidence [over five days] and spoke on my own behalf and dealt with all the correspondence over six or seven years.
“It was only a matter of telling the truth. If I had set out not to tell the truth I would have probably needed advice!”
Tiernan said in the end the tribunal was “a big waste of public money”.
“Very few people went to jail out of matters arising from it and those that did became a liability of the state, they weren’t paying guests!” he said.
“It served no purpose, nothing happened, the same as other tribunals.”
Tiernan said he knew George Redmond, the former Dublin assistant city and county manager, who the Mahon tribunal found had taken cash from developers.
“I didn’t think he was straight but he never co-operated with me, he co-operated with my competitors,” Tiernan said. He said he raised his concerns to others, but was told to stay quiet without firm evidence.
“Many of us within the industry were aware of his activities,” Tiernan said. “Having said that now very few accusations of substance have been levelled against him that stuck.
“The same against Lawlor. It was all sorts of innuendos and nudges and winks but what did it amount to? Very little.”