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In sympathy with the Quinns - Ireland’s former billionaires empire crashes

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Illustration by Caty Bartholomew
I see and hear a skirling pipe band marching boldly out of the borderlands of Fermanagh and Cavan half a lifetime ago on a Sunday afternoon before a football match.

In the front row of the drummers is a determined drummer boy with knobby knees and flying drumsticks. The band was called the Mountain Road Pipe Band, and that drummer boy was Sean Quinn.

In a few years he would become Ireland's richest billionaire. Nowadays he is bankrupt, his namesake son is in jail serving a sentence for contempt of court, his nephew, facing a similar sentence, is missing somewhere in the North.

The Quinn empire has crashed. It is the biggest domestic story of the summer.

We are a nation of begrudgers of the good fortune of others. It is an unfortunate and ugly side of our psyche. The media are slavering all over Quinn's downfall about every hour to feed the insatiable public demand for more detail of the crash.

I've noticed down the years that the Irish American attitude to a business misfortune is one of sympathy with the man or woman whose gambles have failed, empathy with his or her current woes, and strong support for the victim's efforts to recover and move on.

We are sadly different here at home. Nobody has ever built a better life for themselves through their own efforts without there being an envious chorus behind their backs: “I remember him when there was no backside in his trousers."

But there is another reality too, a healthier one, in the folklore.

I hail from the next parish to the Quinn homeland. It was always said of that family that they were decent, hardworking people.

The most common phrase used about them was,  “The Quinns are the salt of the Earth."

I did not know Sean, who left school at 14 years and went to work later in a small local quarry called Curry’s, but I was in the same secondary school class as his brother Peter. He was the smartest boy in the class (later the president of the Gaelic Athletic Association too), and he was indeed the salt of the
Earth.

I think Peter was the only one in our class to go on to university and gain an armload of financial degrees and qualifications. Now it is his namesake son who is, as they say, on the run from the police.

I feel a genuine, deep sympathy for the entire family.

I do not know the detail of the complex financial mess that attends the fall of Sean Quinn's international business empire. I do not know how culpable the former billionaire is for the situation.

But what I do know for certain that the young man who borrowed 100 Irish pounds to launch his own gravel quarry on his farm all those years ago became the savior of the region around his home.

He created thousands upon thousands of good jobs across a wide range of enterprises in an area where there had been no work at all before he began.

Furthermore, he lived a simple life among friends who remained close friends and always called him simply Sean. He played small games of cards for pleasure in his local pubs. He avoided both the jet set lifestyle and the media like the plague.

His quarrying operations on the border once attracted the comment that Quinn was blowing up the border and selling it as road-gravel to the County Councils on both sides of the ancient political divide.

On home ground, then and now, his own people are fiercely loyal to him. The Quinns, they still say, are the salt of the earth.

Last month the Gardai (police) fraud detective squads arrested and charged some of the top bankers who allegedly assisted the Quinn family and some other top customers in questionable financial transactions. It is likely more bankers will be arrested in the near future as the empire unravels.

It is likely, I suppose, that Sean Quinn will not emerge unscathed from the final fallout, but then how many business billionaires do you know who have snow white hands?

Bankrupt now, and with a son in jail, he will pay in the end in full for any misdeeds and guilts. That is the way of the world. But along the way, this is a man who transformed the lives and hopes of his community.

I see a drummer boy with flailing sticks and knobby knees marching boldly down a mountain road long ago. He did not know what lay ahead of him then, the good and the bad of it.

Now the backside has fallen out of his trousers as a begrudging nation salivates at the spectacle.

I swim against the tide. I am profoundly sympathetic towards him and hope he survives and rises again.

Old wise local ghosts whisper in my ear that the Quinns are the salt of the Earth.

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