1987: Quinn begins

In 2007 ‘Forbes’ magazine ranked Seán Quinn the 177th richest man in the world. By 2011 he was bankrupt after his catastrophic bets on the price of Anglo Irish Bank shares. A quarter of a century ago, on a walk along the Border, the writer Colm Tóibín came across the then little-known businessman, who was in the process of building his empire


I set off from Derrylin to walk to Ballyconnell. The rain came down in torrents. The road was narrow, and passing cars splashed water all over me. Sometimes the rain would ease off and then start again with immense ferocity, as though it was playing cat and mouse with the world. My shoes were now letting in the wet. Although it was only 7pm, signs of night were apparent. This was miserable.

At one point the road was blocked with floods, and I had to edge my way along the middle rung of a wooden fence, as the road was under at least a foot of water. There was a bridge over a narrow stream, which was now carrying tons of muddy water with immense speed. It was as though the winter had suddenly returned, or the Great Flood, and the road to Ballyconnell was endless.

Eventually, I came to a cement factory, with lorries bearing the name Seán Quinn parked in the yard. The factory and its offices, quarries and outhouses went on for about a mile. And after them was an army post, with a dry soldier wanting to know where I was coming from and where I was going.

If I expected to find Ballyconnell just beyond the army post, just over the Border, I was wrong. It was another half an hour of sheer pain before I walked into the town and found myself a bed for the night. I put my clothes on a heater with my poor shoes beside them and got into bed. By the time I woke up they were almost dry, and it was time to venture out to explore the nightlife of Ballyconnell.

There was a young girl behind the bar of the Angler’s Rest who talked to the couple and two young fellows who sat at the bar. She was emigrating, she said. There was nothing for her to do here.

Everyone was going now. She was going to London. She’d never find a job in Ireland, she said. The other girl said she had been to New York to see her brother. He wanted to come home on holiday, but he couldn’t, as, like 100,000 other young Irish people, he was an illegal immigrant in the United States; once he left, he wouldn’t be able to go back. The two fellows at the bar talked about leaving as well. New York was the place to go; there was always work there, they said.

Recent census figures had shown that emigration, which had solved the unemployment problem of the 1940s and 1950s when people left the Republic to work in England and the US, had returned. Between April 1985 and April 1986 the net emigration figure from the Republic was 31,000; most of these people had left Ireland to find work. Most of them were young, and many of them well educated. The newspapers carried reports of football teams in villages losing half their members in one year through emigration.

Yet Ballyconnell was lucky: Seán Quinn’s quarry was just up the road, and there was a plastics factory in the town. In other towns there was nothing. But even here there wasn’t enough to keep young people from leaving.

Quarry owner
Next morning I rang Seán Quinn, the quarry owner whose name was on most of the lorries in this locality, and he agreed to see me in the afternoon. Several of his green lorries passed me as I walked back towards the North. At the Border the bloke from the army ascertained that I was walking. “Rather you than me,” he said.

At the first office I was told that Quinn was to be found in another building up the road. I kept walking. It was another dark, dreary day, but there was no rain.

Quinn conformed, here in bandit country, where the Ulster Defence Regiment foot patrols were afraid to venture, to a Thatcherite blueprint. When I arrived at his office I had to wait. His assistant came in to fill me in on the background. Quinn had inherited a 23-acre farm in 1973; he was now a millionaire. He had begun to deliver gravel, then diversified into concrete blocks and tiles. His enterprise had grown every year. He had benefited enormously from the early years of Thatcher, when there was a 100 per cent tax-free allowance on profits that were reinvested. There were no trade unions in his business, nor was any employee paid a salary. Everyone was paid according to productivity.

His fame had spread far and wide, not just as an employer, a success story and a name over lorries but as a man who hit a British soldier at a checkpoint, knocked him over and drove on. The soldier was black, according to some in the pub the previous night. Everyone agreed that there had been no retaliation. He was too important, Seán Quinn.

I asked Quinn’s assistant about relations with the army. “There is generally no problem,” he said, “just when a new regiment comes, it takes time to get used to them.” He didn’t mention his boss hitting a soldier. Sixty per cent of the business was in the South, he continued, and there was a special agreement with the Northern customs people that the export documents were handed in at the Southern office and sent north, in one of those informal arrangements. Forty per cent of the staff of 140 came from the South. Certain things were cheaper in the South, he said – lorry tyres, for example, and road tax.

Eventually, the great Thatcherite himself came in. He was a dark, good-looking, gruff man in his late 30s, wearing an old grey pullover. He talked with an offhand precision; the accent was straight Fermanagh. We were interrupted a few times by lorry drivers who wanted to ask him something, and he seemed as at ease as they seemed diffident. He didn’t act like the boss. And he certainly didn’t look like a millionaire.

His father willed him this small farm, he told me. He had left school when he was young; he wasn’t interested in it, unlike his brother and sisters. He was interested in making money and having a good time. He was known all over Fermanagh, Catholic Fermanagh, because he had been captain of the Gaelic football team in the early 1970s, so when he advertised the gravel, undercutting other suppliers, people trusted him, liked him, wanted to do business with him. Things grew from there. Thatcher, he agreed, had improved the climate for business when she came to power, but in the past few years she had started to reduce incentives for investment.

‘Not overjoyed’
Quinn’s big plan for expansion was being put into place down the road. He was spending £25 million on a new cement factory, which would supply 22 per cent of the market, north and south. How did the present suppliers view his plans, I asked. “They are not overjoyed,” he said.

The phone on his desk rang. He picked it up and began a long conversation with a man who had a strong British accent. He had a notebook on his desk, and he began to write down figures, issuing instructions about buying and selling. I couldn’t work out what he was doing. He was dour and casual, ringing off without any salutation, and trying to pick up the thread of what we were saying when the phone rang.

I interrupted him to ask what he was talking about on the phone.

Stocks and shares, he said. He had started, six months before, to play the stock market. He showed me the list of items he dealt in: gold, oil, the Swiss franc against the dollar, aluminium. His broker, he said, phoned twice or three times a day and he told him what to do. A salesman brought him out the Financial Times from Enniskillen, so that he could read about his investments.

It was interesting, he said, suggesting that playing the stock market was a form of amusement, implying somehow that it was a common pastime around Derrylin and Teemore.

He responded immediately when I asked him if he had floored a British soldier at the Border. He did, he said. The British army post had been put up three years before. His lorries went through 150 times a day, and each time they were delayed for an average of two minutes. I could, he looked at me sternly, calculate the cost myself. It was more or less the same as keeping one lorry full time on the road, I said. He nodded.

Why did he hit the soldier, I asked. He was going to a funeral, he said, and he was already late.

They stopped him at the Border, made him drive into the side and held him there, even though he passed up and down several times a day, even though his name was written on each of the 150 lorries that passed through the checkpoint. Time passed. They wouldn’t let him go. After half an hour he told the soldier that he was going anyway, whether the soldier agreed or not. He knocked the soldier over and drove off.

Shot dead
I asked him about the IRA’s threat to builders and suppliers who had dealings with the British army. He said that a friend had been shot dead by the IRA for doing business with the security forces but that he himself didn’t supply the security forces or deal with them, and never had; he was a nationalist. “I didn’t think it was prudent,” he said. He employed a few Protestants, he said, but there weren’t very many in the area.

He lived just over the Border in the South, on the road between Ballyconnell and Belturbet. He had bought land in the South, land his father had owned in the 1950s, land he remembered going to look at on an ass and cart, which he now drove to in his Mercedes. Land wasn’t a good investment, he said, but he enjoyed going to look at stock two or three evenings a week. He was careful to avoid buying small pieces of land or pubs in the area and depriving local people of the chance to buy and make their sole living from them. Instead he had bought the Cat and Cage pub in Drumcondra, in Dublin, for £640,000. He leased it out but had recently enjoyed having a drink there after a football match in Dublin where he was following the fortunes of the Tyrone team.

He drove me to the Border in his big car. He seemed genuinely puzzled by my walking. “Can you not afford to buy a car?” he asked. He seemed to be expressing concern about my welfare. The soldier at the checkpoint waved him on. I told him what I had heard: that in the days following his assault on the soldier, they had carried truncheons, according to the people I spoke to in Ballyconnell. He chuckled to himself about this.

We passed the filling station, still in the North, and it was doing thriving business. As we came to the line that separated the North from the South, Co Fermanagh from Co Cavan, he let me out, told me the story of the house that the Border went right through like a slicer through a block of cheese, and drove off.

The house was a small, modest, old-fashioned cottage. When I knocked on the door a man in his 60s came out. His name was Felix Murray, I discovered, and the Border ran through the house in which he and his two brothers lived. These days, he said, all three slept in the North, but there was a time when one of them had slept in the South. “Only an odd time now,” he said, “we sleep in the State.”

There was a sofa in the kitchen, he pointed out through the window, where you could sit and let the Border run through you. They got their dog licence in the South, he said – it was cheaper – but their television licence, on the other hand, they bought in the North, where it cost less. Their electricity was connected in the South but their water in the North. They voted in the North. The grants were better in the North, he said. The Border checkpoint was a nuisance, he said. Recently when he was crossing from the North to the South on his bicycle he passed a red light, which called for the driver to stop, only to be told by the soldier that this applied to bicycles as well.

He changed the subject back to his predicament. He seemed to have it off by heart, and it disturbed him that he had omitted a detail. Yes, he remembered, the postman came every day, one from the North and one from the South. The Southern one came earlier.

Later, as I made my way towards Ballyconnell, a huge car stopped and a man with a British accent offered me a lift. He said he was going to Belturbet, which was where I was going. I thought it would be churlish to refuse. The weather was still nasty-looking.

I told him I had been talking to the big man himself, Seán Quinn. Yes, he said, he worked for Quinn; he was in charge of getting the cement factory built in time and within budget. He had been a salesman, he said, and Quinn had spotted him and offered him the job.

We passed Quinn’s house on the right-hand side of the road. It was much more modest than I had expected. We drove on to a side road and went along by a lake. The driver liked it around here, he said; it was beautiful. He liked Quinn, liked the locals. He stopped at a junction and turned left. This was once the main Dublin to Enniskillen road, he said; now it was like a lane, leading nowhere. The bridge between the North and the South had been blown up.

Diamond Bar
We drove into Belturbet and had several drinks in the Diamond Bar. The bar on the opposite side of the square was called the Railway Bar, but there was no railway here anywhere, just as there was no direct contact with the North.

I went in search of a bed for the night as my driver went home for his dinner.

I left my rucksack in a bed and breakfast, told the landlady that I wanted to be up early in the morning, found a bite to eat, and returned to the Diamond Bar. I sat up on a high stool and watched the first batch of lorries coming through the Diamond outside, travelling from the South with hay for the stricken farmers of the North, who had been ruined by the weather. For weeks these lorries would be a constant presence on the roads.

They had opened the bridge one year, they told me in the bar; they had built a sort of temporary bridge at Christmas in 1972. And that was how the bombers made their way into Belturbet from the North and planted a bomb in the Diamond outside, just after Christmas in the same year. They pointed to the stool I was sitting on: the bomb had blown a man sitting on that stool over the counter; it had blown the door in. No one in the bar had died, but two people out in the Diamond had been killed, including a youth who was in the telephone box, making a call. One of the Protestant paramilitary groups had carried out the bombing. The bridge hadn’t been opened since.

The radio in the bar was tuned into a local illegal station, whose headquarters were a few miles down the road, and which played country-and-western music all day and all night. It could be heard as far north as Strabane. It carried advertisements from almost every town within 50 miles. The American country-and-western stars joined in with their Irish counterparts in pulling the heartstrings of the locality where country-and-western music was big business. Johnny Cash sang Oh Lonesome Me to be followed by a local singer, Big Tom, who sang “Shall I ne’er see you more, gentle Mother?”

© Colm Tóibín 1987, 1994. This is an edited chapter of Great Irish Reportage, a new collection edited by John Horgan and just published by
Penguin Ireland, €25. The original piece appeared
in Colm Tóibín’s book Bad Blood: A Walk Along the Irish Border (Picador)