Ben Dunne was remembered as a “good, decent, generous and loving man” at his funeral service in Dublin on Tuesday, and a person who would ultimately not be defined by his human frailties.
Staff from his network of gyms formed a guard of honour at the entrance to St Mochta’s Church in Clonsilla as the funeral cortège, led by Mr Dunne’s wife Mary, his children Caroline, Robert, Mark and Nicholas, his grandchildren Ben, Katie, Pearl and Joseph, and his older sister Margaret, arrived at exactly 11am.
Ahead of their arrival, hundreds of people had gathered at the church, which was full with many of those anxious to pay their respects seated in an overspill room nearby, to where the funeral mass was streamed live.
Among the mourners were family and friends and many high-profile figures from across Ireland’s business and political spectrum.
Independent TD Michael Lowry arrived alongside Tipperary hurling legend Michael ‘Babs’ Keating, with former hurler with the county Nicky English also in attendance.
Beef magnate Larry Goodman was there to mourn the passing of Mr Dunne, alongside former Fianna Fáil TD Conor Lenihan as well as broadcaster and businessman Bobby Kerr, journalist Matt Cooper and Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou MacDonald. The Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was represented by his aide de camp Cmmdt Claire Mortimer.
Mr Dunne’s son Mark, who was with his father when he died in Dubai on November 18th, welcomed the congregation and paid tribute to his “brilliant and loving” father.
He explained to mourners that his father “never liked going to funerals” but would always insist on a “full report” from those that his son went to.
“This is a funeral he must attend and even though he didn’t like funerals he would be glad to see how many people are here today,” Mark Dunne said.
He thanked staff at the hotel in Dubai where his father collapsed, and the first responders and medical teams as well as the Irish ambassador to the United Arab Emirates Alison Milton.
He recalled how his father had gone to school in the Presentation Brothers in Cork City and how he used to boast about having left school without failing a single exam but only, his son explained, “because he never did an exam”.
Mr Dunne left school early and met his wife Mary in 1972, marrying her in April 1973.
His son recalled how his parents had celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary earlier this year and added that “no matter what life has thrown at us, dad would be the first to say our mother was our rock”.
He recalled how his father loved nothing more than holidays with his family and “was at his happiest” on his boat “enjoying a drink and watching the sun set”.
He was “a brilliant and a loving father and grandfather” who called his children daily.
“Many of you know just how difficult running a business can be and being part of a family business is even more difficult, as you can well imagine,” Mark Dunne said. “My father endured many things with his siblings, some private and some unfortunately very public However, at the core of any family business is that word ‘family’ and family always finds a way of going back to its roots,” he continued.
His told mourners that his father and his aunt Margaret, who went on to lead Dunnes Stores after the siblings famously fell out in the 1990s when Ben was forced out of the family business in an acrimonious and highly public fashion, were in “almost daily contact”. He said they “loved each other dearly”.
Mr Dunne’s kidnapping at the hands of the IRA in the early 1980s was a “hugely traumatic source of many of his personal problems in the years that followed”, his son said, but despite that trauma he “did the Christian thing and forgave his captors”.
The businessman, 74, had played a pivotal role in the expansion of his family’s enterprise Dunnes Stores. Mr Dunne was ousted from Dunnes Stores in a bitter dispute following his highly-publicised arrest in Florida in 1992.
Later revelations about payments to politicians Michael Lowry and Charles Haughey sparked a series of tribunals, including the McCracken tribunal which uncovered the Ansbacher Accounts scheme.
“It was no secret that he enjoyed a drink,” Mark Dunne told the congregation, noting that his father’s favourite drink was Bombay Sapphire and he liked “a family pack, a measure of wholesale proportions”. His recalled that his father used to say “it might not be better value but every little helps”.
“He had his vices but I can assure you he has earned his ticket through the pearly gates,” Mark said, and noted that on the day his father’s body was being repatriated from Dubai it was raining. “Perhaps it was the desert’s way of saying goodbye to a good, decent, generous and loving man.”
Canon Damian O’Reilly led the mass and described Mr Dunne as a “wonderful character with personality and charm”.
He noted that “much has been written about a particular time in his life that has long been consigned to history” and would not reflect who Mr Dunne was to become in later years.
“No one was more aware of his human weaknesses and frailties than Ben,” Canon O’Reilly said.
After the mass ended, Mr Dunne’s wicker coffin was carried out of the church to the strains of the Lonesome Boatman by Finbar Furey, ahead of his burial in the Castleknock cemetery.