There is something Shakespearean about the rise and fall of Seán Quinn, the border county billionaire who unintentionally pulled the curtain back on Ireland, Inc.
In Dublin, he was a nobody, a man who knew no one and who no one knew, which made him the most unsettling thing of all to the establishment there: an unknown commodity.
Worse, he hailed from the border counties, the part of the map that the partitionist mindset has long ago marked "here be dragons."
Seán Quinn was a gifted outsider who rose by his own smarts, a thing more or less unheard of in the leafy suburbs. He had no pedigree, no old-school tie, no known history, and no debts to others. Is it any wonder the Dublin establishment feared or loathed him?
In his gripping new book "Quinn," about that Icarian rise and fall, journalist Trevor Birney has full access to his subject, who is alternately lucid or self-deluding, depending on the year and the progress of his downfall.
“On the one hand, there is some self-deception, on the other, there is some truth to what he says about how Dublin treated him,” Birney tells IrishCentral. “I think what former Minister Alan Dukes said, his casual reference to the atavism of the border people, confirms that biases that were and are held.”
Dukes was very much prejudiced, as were many other people in positions of power when it came to Quinn and his border operation, Birney says. “I think it's fair to say that they did not have the same level of interest in what was going on at the border that they might have had in some other part of the island.”
Like Lear on the heath, Quinn absolutely feels that what happened to him wasn't his fault. “The last time we spoke, the cast of who exactly was responsible for his downfall had changed. He admits some wrongdoing to a certain point. But he's changed his focus about whether it's Dublin, his former executives, or Anglo Irish Bank who are ultimately to blame. They have been a moving target for Seán.”
“And you're absolutely right, there are elements of King Lear in the story,” Birney continues. “I think that that's what attracted me to the story in the first place, that it had this huge sweep of history from the '60s through the '70s, the violence in the north, the impact on border counties, the economic wasteland he turned around, this guy who saw himself as a chieftain.”
Quinn demanded loyalty and he achieved it. “And after he went bankrupt he wanted the people out on the streets protesting. He wanted their support. He demanded their support and he got it.”
Unappreciated in the south and ignored in Belfast, Quinn's portfolio had breathed life and hope back into the border counties again, where the choice had been emigration or some other form of exile. His success lifted many local boats and they were grateful to him, especially because being left to the tender mercies of Dublin and Belfast had worked out for precisely no one.
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But how people thought of him was wrapped up in the politics of the state, Birney says. He was seen by some as an incredible industrialist who did amazing things for the border counties. Or he was seen as a dark figure that was never really taken into the bosom of the state. “He was an outsider, treated as an outsider, he behaved like an outsider. And he enjoyed it.”
“Even when he was highly successful and worth billions when he was creating jobs, Dublin still saw him as someone not to be trusted, but as long as he stayed up there on the border and didn't really interfere with their lives, they didn't care.”
That bargepole approach is explained by the fact that everywhere above Dundalk is still treated as beyond the pale. “There is also a real, cultural, social problem in the south with those who don't play the game, and Seán Quinn never played the game,” Birney continues.
“He wasn't a philanthropist in Dublin with his name on the side of buildings or art galleries. He didn't want to be lauded by Trinity or have documentaries made about himself. And I think it his isolation says a huge amount about the attitudes within the 26 counties here today in 2023, not just back in the 1980s or 1990s. It's a class attitude. It's a socio-economic attitude. And it's it is it's a protectionist attitude.”
Until they deal with their own partitionist mindsets, the Dublin establishment are going to have to contend with the rise of these golem-like populists who embody the alienation and anger of border county Irish, people they continually overlook. In Quinn, Birney traces his subject's enduring challenge and Dublin's ongoing inability to contend with it even now.
"Quinn," Merrion Press, $29.95.