Midway through Quinn, Trevor Birney’s new book on the bust billionaire Seán Quinn, there is a telling episode. It is 2004 and Quinn is a wealthy man, well-established in his sector. He has his eye on buying Barlo, a publicly-quoted radiator and plastics company, but financier Dermot Desmond owns a big chunk of the business.
Quinn and Desmond meet at the Cheltenham Festival, an unlikely duo “enjoying the craic”. Quinn wants Desmond’s Barlo shares but they can’t agree a price. “The two businessmen decided that the only way to settle the final price was to toss a coin,” Birney writes.
Quinn wins the toss, buys Desmond’s stake at a 15 per cent premium and goes on to get full control of Barlo in an €85 million deal. Back in Cavan, the businessman declares that the Quinn Group helicopter, acquired three years earlier, is no longer enough.
“‘F*** it,’ he exclaimed, ‘let’s get a jet!’” writes Birney. Quinn opts for a Dassault Falcon 2000EX – the same model Desmond owns – costing more than €16 million.
“For those around him, nothing would be the same after Cheltenham 2004,” writes Birney. “His head had been turned, as the people of Fermanagh might be heard to say.”
The landscape of south Fermanagh and north Cavan is defined by its drumlins, humps and hollows left behind as glaciers retreated at the end of the Ice Age. In Quinn, the drumlins are elevated to mountains and Quinn himself, the man from the Mountain Road, is a colossus.
The story is well-known but Birney, a Fermanagh-born journalist, film producer and director, has the benefit of several in-person interviews with Quinn since 2018. Birney set out back then to make a Quinn documentary that was ultimately delayed until airing in three parts on RTÉ1 this week.
Birney doesn’t detail his access to Quinn until the final chapter, opting to open with a dramatic account of the 2019 kidnapping of Kevin Lunney, once Quinn’s closest lieutenant. Otherwise, the action runs chronologically, with the young Quinn quitting school on the day of his 11+ exam.
His father, an illiterate farmer who believed only in learning by doing, was happy to have Quinn at home to help. His mother, smart, ambitious and widely read, “could have trimmed hedges with her tongue”, a local priest recalled at her funeral.
The picture that emerges is of a young man in a hurry to make money
While Birney portrays these years as tough for the Quinns, Catholics doing their best with “subsistence farming” amid rising sectarian tensions, there were many worse off. We are told Quinn’s father paid £2,000 cash for the Fermanagh farm in 1950 and was in a position to buy a farm in Co Cavan for £2,250, so his two sons would have one each.
In the event, Quinn’s three siblings, including brother Peter, future president of the GAA, went to third-level education and jobs far from the farm. Not long after their father’s sudden death at the end of 1967, Quinn decided to copy some neighbours and quarry gravel on the land instead.
“Farming was too slow for me,” he says. “I suppose I was just greedy.”
Despite repeatedly referring to Quinn as “the quarryman”, Birney inadvertently punctures the myth of a single-minded recluse digging in the dirt. The sociable captain of the championship-winning Teemore Shamrocks football team, Quinn met his future wife, Patricia, at a dance in a Dublin.
The picture that emerges is of a young man in a hurry to make money. In the late 1970s, Quinn’s quarry faces court four times in three years for cutting corners and discharging effluent. By the early 1980s, he is extolling the virtues of automation and his Olivetti computer system.
Amid well-intentioned detours into the history and geography of the border region, Birney does best when he lets people populate the pages. It was Bertie Hanley, a Roscommon quarryman, who told Quinn that cement was made from “stone and shite”. “And I said, we have stone and shite!”
Quinn describes the loss of the group as the worst day of his life, compounded by then finance minister Michael Noonan describing it as ‘a good news day’ for Quinn workers
Author Colm Tóibín – who visited Quinn at his quarry in 1986 while walking along the border for a book with photographer Tony O’Shea – declares him a “mythological figure”. It’s a relief when one early Quinn employee cuts through the blather: “Certainly he wasn’t mythical by any sense of the imagination, you know. He was well known.”
By the mid-2000s, the Quinn empire – spanning building products, cement, flooring, plastics, glass bottle making, pubs, hotels, wind farms, insurance and even the Prague Hilton and Belfry golf club in England – is making money “hand over fist”. Standing alongside Quinn is a handpicked trio of trusted executives, Liam McCaffrey, Kevin Lunney and Dara O’Reilly, all locals.
Tellingly, though, Quinn generally acts alone, on instinct. “He was moving at warp speed, beyond the ability of everyone around him,” Birney writes.
Quinn owns up to most of what follows, as he begins using financial instruments called contracts for difference (CFDs) to covertly bet that the share price of Anglo Irish Bank will continue to rise. Unnamed sources say Quinn “wasn’t keen on reading the small print” and didn’t understand CFDs.
As the global credit crunch arrives and Anglo’s shares collapse, he exhausts all his group’s resources – plus hundreds of millions more in Anglo loans to cover his CFD bet. “I’m blaming nobody else – I took money out of good companies and put the money into Anglo,” he says, a rare admission.
By the time the dust settles, Quinn has lost over €2 billion. Birney says some of Quinn’s close associates believe he may have suffered a breakdown around that time.
Quinn Insurance falls into administration in March 2010. Still, Quinn is somehow stunned when Anglo, nationalised and chaired by former Fine Gael leader Alan Dukes, takes control of the Quinn Group in April 2011. Quinn describes the loss of the group as the worst day of his life, compounded by then finance minister Michael Noonan describing it as “a good news day” for Quinn workers.
Breaking new ground, Birney describes the rapid emergence of a Quinn support group he calls the Molly Maguires, based on the local Molly Mountain and styled on a “a violent secret society” that protested against English landlords in the 1840s. This is tricky territory: it is the first time the group has been given a name, at least publicly, and you suspect its members will enjoy the notoriety.
Intent on driving out those who had taken over the former Quinn companies, it includes “republicans who had experience of conflict” and, allegedly, some people who continued to work in the business. Their identities are an “open secret”, says Birney, though he only names Cyril McGuinness, a Fermanagh-based criminal known as Dublin Jimmy. Birney accepts Quinn’s contention he met McGuinness in the local pub a few times but “didn’t know him”.
Birney catalogues the most serious of the more than 100 attacks that occurred from 2011 to 2014, from arson to the sabotage of electricity and fibre optic lines. Asked to respond, Quinn condemns the attacks, though Birney seems ambivalent. “Violence on the Fermanagh-Cavan border was nothing new,” he writes. “If you take something away ... you have to expect a response of some sort. It is deep in the soil.”
The attacks abated long enough for a local group, QBRC, to succeed in buying the cement and construction products business in December 2014, with the backing of three US bondholders.
McCaffrey, Lunney and O’Reilly returned to run it, with Quinn and his son as consultants. Birney says the businessman struggled with his lack of authority. “He couldn’t even buy lunch for clients in the Slieve Russell without the bill being authorised by Liam McCaffrey.”
When the Spanish buyer of Quinn Glass rejected a proposal that Quinn should get a 25 per cent stake for nothing, Quinn is reported to have told him: “You know what happens when you corner a rat.”
It is hard to know what Quinn hoped to achieve by agreeing to talk to Birney. Yes, he gets to tell his remarkable tale, but he also confirms the worst parts of it
Quinn finally exited the business in 2016, making his unhappiness with McCaffrey, Lunney and O’Reilly well known. “During the back end of 2015, Quinn had no relationship or confidence in the executives who had been closest to him, including now Kevin Lunney, who had been almost like a second son,” writes Birney.
A new wave of threats and violence preceded Lunney’s brutal kidnapping in September 2019, said to have been orchestrated by McGuinness. Though McGuinness dropped dead during his arrest by police in England, three Dublin men received lengthy prison sentences last year for the abduction.
Birney shares some local theories: that McGuinness was an MI5 agent and protected from arrest for years; that Lunney’s kidnapping was motivated by events stretching back to the 2011-2104 period.
One Quinn loyalist, Tony Doonan, says he has “no sympathy” for Lunney. “He put himself in the position to allow a situation in a community to fester ... that’s naive and that’s stupid”.
Curiously, Patricia Quinn, a mostly silent presence by her husband’s side for almost 50 years, accuses local priest Fr Oliver O’Reilly of being “a pure back-stabber” for condemning the “paymaster or paymasters” behind the Lunney attack from the altar. “He named us, even though he said he didn’t, he did name us,” she fumes to Birney.
Like its namesake, Quinn is far from perfect. There are timeline glitches, misspellings and repetition. Too often, Birney quotes Quinn unchallenged, particularly on financial matters, including his contention that Quinn Insurance was making €500 million profit a year and could have paid his debts.
“The companies that I built are making billions and billions of profits, and hundreds of millions of profits for the new owners,” he tells Birney at one point.
It is hard to know what Quinn hoped to achieve by agreeing to talk to Birney. Yes, he gets to tell his remarkable tale, but he also confirms the worst parts of it: the preposterous secret bet on Anglo, the taking of funds from his insurance business and the plot to move assets beyond the State’s reach.
Quinn also says he was offered a €20 million deal to retain the Slieve Russell and two Dublin pubs in return for dropping litigation against the former Anglo. He stalled and the deal was lost.
The long-delayed litigation was settled in 2019, with Quinn’s five children consenting to a court judgment for €440 million against them, stayed on the condition they help secure valuable overseas properties. The children, vocal supporters during the battle to regain control of the group, are notably absent from the pages.
By the end, Quinn appears isolated in his Cavan mansion, blaming his former executives for getting him into CFDs. Birney, meanwhile, fears for the workers in the former Quinn businesses, now named Mannok. “The certainty they once had is gone, replaced by constant speculation and rumour: that Mannok is in debt and in danger of being sold,” he ventures.
It seems implausible he cannot see that is precisely the position that Sean Quinn put his companies in with his reckless CFD gamble on Anglo Irish Bank.
Gavin Daly is co-author with Ian Kehoe of Citizen Quinn: A Man, an Empire and a Family (Penguin Ireland, 2013). He was interviewed by Trevor Birney for his recent three-part RTÉ documentary.
Walking Along The Border (Queen Anne Press, 1987) is author Colm Tóibín’s atmospheric account of walking the border from Derry to Newry in 1986, a journey that took him through Sean Quinn’s heartland on the Fermanagh-Cavan border. Quinn features on a few pages, reading the Financial Times and running a business “here in bandit country ... to a Thatcherite blueprint”. Quinn asks Toibin: “Can you not afford to buy a car?’”
The Fitzpatrick Tapes: The Rise and Fall of One Man, One Bank and One Country (Penguin Ireland, 2012) by Tom Lyons and Brian Carey, tells the inside story of the rise and fall of Anglo Irish Bank, based on 17 tape-recorded interviews with former Anglo chairman and chief executive Sean Fitzpatrick during 2010. Seán Quinn has a starring role in the blood-boiling story of pushy bankers and toothless regulation.
Citizen Quinn (Penguin Ireland, 2013), by Ian Kehoe and myself, was the first dedicated Quinn book, a forensic account of the unravelling of the billionaire’s business and his illegal efforts to put assets beyond the reach of the state. Published at a time of huge local support for Quinn, it spells out the businessman’s role in his own downfall.