The Barne Estate outside Clonmel in Co Tipperary has been in the Thomson-Moore family since 1654 despite all the vicissitudes of Irish history in the intervening 369 years.
Richard Thomson-Moore, through the trust which owns the estate, put it up for sale in July this year with auctioneers Savills Ireland at a guide price of €13.5 million for 751 acres, most of it in tillage.
This is prime land in the agriculturally rich Golden Vale surrounded by neat stone walls and overlooked by the Knockmealdown Mountains. The well-drained, light loam soil over limestone is among the most fertile in the country and perfect for growing winter wheat and barley, rapeseed oil and winter beans. Five years ago Thomson-Moore won grain supplier of the year from Glanbia Ireland.
The estate comes with a three-storey, 12-bedroom mansion modelled on an 18th century French chateau with manicured lawns in front running down to a lake that is stocked with trout. Rarely do such farms come on the market in Ireland in their entirety.
It is now the subject of a high-profile Commercial Court case involving the wealthy horse breeder and businessman John Magnier behind the famous Coolmore bloodstock operation, Thomson-Moore and the two Jersey-based companies which own the shares in the Barne Estate. At its heart is the fundamental question: what constitutes a sale?
An affidavit lodged in court by Magnier’s farm manager Joe Holohan states that on August 22nd this year, an agreement was reached at a meeting in Coolmore House to sell the land.
He claims Magnier and Thomson-Moore shook hands on a deal which would transfer the shares in the estate and therefore ownership of the land to Coolmore for €15 million, a 11 per cent premium on the guide price.
The Thomson-Moores stayed for dinner and drinks afterwards. Magnier paid a €250,000 deposit for the land, lodged the full amount with his solicitors and paid for a tillage licence to plough the land on the basis that he had a “binding agreement” to purchase it.
Thomson-Moore is contesting the claim and the matter is before the Commercial Court again on December 18th. He has yet to file a defence but is likely to add that the exclusivity agreement which was signed lapsed after a month and did not amount to a sale.
There is now a counter-bidder with pockets as deep as Magnier’s and with an equal determination to acquire this prized farm.
That bidder is Maurice Regan, the low-profile owner of New York-based construction firm JT Magen and the co-owner of the Mercantile Group which runs venues in Dublin including Café en Seine and The George pub. He is also the owner of Newtown Anner Stud, a 550-acre mixed farm outside Clonmel which is run by his father. He has approximately 200 acres elsewhere in the county.
Regan is the son of a Kerry-born Irish emigrant to London who came home and bought a small farm in Co Limerick.
Regan has constructed a timetable of events in which he claims that he walked the farmland with his wife shortly after it was put for sale by Savills.
He further claims he only discovered the disputed sale of the farm after the fact and immediately began making counter-bids. The Irish Times understands that a bid for more than €20 million has been accepted by Thomson-Moore and the trust, and contracts have been signed. The success or failure of his bid will be subject to the outcome of the court case.
The imbroglio over the Barne Estate is only part of a bigger picture and has highlighted an issue that has been the subject of much disquiet: the Coolmore estate has been steadily accumulating huge tracts of land in south Tipperary.
According to Land Registry documents, Coolmore, which is owned by the Magnier family, has bought at least 170 farms in the county. This amounts to 11,000 acres, more than five times the size of the Phoenix Park, though many locally believe it is significantly more than that. Tipperary-based TD Mattie McGrath has quoted a figure of 28,000 acres in the Dáil. That is the equivalent of 20 per cent of the size of Co Louth.
Coolmore said both acreage figures were overstated and the figure given by Mr McGrath was “a gross overstatement with land holdings being a fraction of that”. However, Coolmore did not give a figure itself.
Of the 162 folios in which details are available, 11 – or 7 per cent of the total land – are more than 200 acres; a further 7 per cent are between 151 and 200 acres; 9 per cent are between 100 and 150 acres, and the remainder, amounting to 71 per cent of their purchases (126 farms), are less than 100 acres.
The biggest concentration of land is around Fethard, where Coolmore Stud is based, but Coolmore also has substantial land holdings around Clonmel and Cashel.
There is astonishment in the county that Coolmore recently paid €2.6 million for a 67-acre farm adjacent to the Barne Estate four kilometres outside Clonmel. This amounts to €39,000 per acre; the going rate for tillage locally is €15,000 per acre.
A local farmer would have to earn €2,400 an acre annually with interest at 6 per cent to pay back borrowings on such a purchase. The same farmer would be lucky to make €200 an acre profit from tillage in a good year. “You’d never in your wildest dreams pay €39,000 an acre for tillage land,” said one local man. Like all the farmers who spoke to The Irish Times, he asked to remain anonymous.
There is nothing illegal about Coolmore’s activities, but there is despair that it cannot be stopped and huge resentment in Co Tipperary. Some locals feel that Coolmore, which for a number of decades enjoyed tax-free stallion fees, has an unfair financial advantage over other farmers, compounded by the fact that the immensely-wealthy John Magnier is tax resident in Switzerland.
This is denied by Coolmore, which has pointed out that income on stud fees is now taxed as normal, as are any capital gains the stud makes. Tax relief on stallion fees ended 15 years ago.
On the local criticism of Magnier’s tax residency giving him a financial edge in buying land in Co Tipperary, a spokesman for Coolmore said: “All of the businesses in Ireland are fully taxable in Ireland.”
The nature of farming is such nowadays that farmers need to expand their holdings to be viable. This usually involves the one-off purchase of land financed from savings or through bank loans. That is becoming increasingly difficult in south Tipperary, local farmers say.
Tempers were frayed at a recent hustings for the Irish Farmers’ Association presidency in Horse and Jockey in which one prominent farmer locally, John Ryan, said that farmers were being outbid for land, but Coolmore was changing the character of rural Tipperary.
“They’re not good for the schools, they’re no good for the hurling teams, they do nothing for the parish,” he was quoted as saying in a report in The Farmers Journal. “If that was people from China, they’d be stopped long ago, but no, these people are admired.”
Several farmers spoke to The Irish Times of land deals being thwarted by Coolmore. One said he had bid more than €1.5 million for a farm adjacent to his own only for Coolmore to increase the bid overnight by €300,000. Another said a young dairy farmer had his eye on 35 acres next to where he rented land.
“Overnight, the boys [Coolmore] came in and bought it. We don’t mind them [Coolmore] buying land, but they are buying everything and buying it at such a high price.”
Farmers spoke of Coolmore sending in track machines to remove hedgerows and trees consolidating fields that had been there for generations.
“They only work the land two days a year, one to plant, another to harvest and then they are gone,” said one farmer.
Coolmore has stated that it pre-plants three-and-a-half times the amount of hedgerows it removes.
Coolmore’s spokesman confirmed that it has been built up “substantial land holdings over a 50-year period in line with the growing needs of our rural and agri-based operations.”
He added: “Coolmore accommodates some of the most valuable horses in the world, requiring extensive facilities and exceptionally low-density rates and demanding husbandry protocols.
“Its land holdings are required to meet low density, high value bloodstock needs as well as associated fodder, facilities, other livestock (for pasture management), biodiversity and ecosystem requirements. It also provides housing for over 200 Coolmore employees and their families. Approximately 20 per cent of land holdings are protected for the natural environment and wildlife.”
The spokesman has denied land hoarding or that Coolmore is involved in outbidding local farmers for land.
“Typically, Coolmore is focused on larger holdings or estates where competition tends not to be from local farmers,” he said.
Coolmore also claims to have withdrawn from land purchases to avoid competing with local landowners.
The activities of Coolmore have been raised many times in the Dáil by Mattie McGrath. He accused it under privilege in 2017 of “buying and gobbling up all the land available”.
“They are no better than vulture funds, which is a shame,” he told the Dáil in 2019. “The landlord is back in place and it is to hell or to Connaught once more. No small family farm can compete with Coolmore Stud in buying land.”
He suggested that farmers with holdings of more than 750 acres should be subject to a land tax – a suggestion that has not been taken up by the Government.
McGrath told The Irish Times that he has raised the issue of large conglomerates buying land around the country for “more than a decade and different governments are too friendly with these big conglomerates. They are more interested in them than in Irish farming family and food security going forward”.
Fianna Fáil TD Jackie Cahill admitted that the activities of Coolmore were causing resentment locally.
Cahill believes there is a case for the Land Commission – set up in the late 19th century to divide large Anglo-Irish estates among small farmers and regulate the distribution of land – to be reconstituted in favour of the smaller landholder.
“There are property rights and everything involved here,” he said.
The Land Commission operated well into the 1970s, said Cahill, long after the clauses relating to property rights were enshrined in the Constitution.
He admitted that there are winners and losers with Coolmore’s land-purchasing. Its activities were good for sellers, he said: “They are the best customer by a distance. The price of land has gone up dramatically in the last two years, but they are a seriously inflationary factor.”
Farmers locally who spoke to The Irish Times wonder what Coolmore’s endgame is and why it is continuing to buy land at a premium when it has so much already.
In response, Coolmore states that its operations result in a net gain for the local communities. The company’s lands are largely self-sustaining working farms, “farmed by local staff in regions where Coolmore is typically one of the largest employers and drivers of economic activity,” it said.
“Its activities and the activities of the thoroughbred industry more broadly in the region have been critical in mitigating and in many cases reversing the impacts of rural depopulation as bloodstock is highly labour-intensive, requiring skilled horsemen and women living close by to the horses they care for,” said the company.
“This has hugely positive impacts for local schools and sports clubs, especially the GAA, in the parts of Tipperary where we operate.”
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