‘It was gambling and bound to end in tears’

Owen O’Callaghan is one of the few property developers who is still trading successfully five years after the property market first fell off a cliff.

Owen O’Callaghan is one of the few property developers who is still trading successfully five years after the property market first fell off a cliff.

“I am lucky in the current crisis in that my sites are well situated and still an attractive investment. But we cannot ignore the current crisis,” Mr O’Callaghan has said.

An initial critic of the National Asset Management Agency, he says “every single one of his property loans” are performing. Now, he admits he has “no issue” with the way that Nama are dealing with the “section of our loans” that they are working on.

At present, his company, Crimson Investments, is officially seeking planning permission for a €50m events centre at Albert Quay in Cork city. However, Mr O’Callaghan has already made it known that he won’t now proceed with the 5,000 seater development after last Christmas, An Bord Pleanála approved Heineken Ireland and BAM Property’s joint proposal for a rival €150m events centre and commercial development at the former Beamish brewery in the city.

A doggedly determined individual, Mr O’Callaghan recently failed in his attempts to have a proposed €80m 93-bed private hospital at Lancaster Quay designated a strategic piece of infrastructure. Plans for an office block at Anderson’s Quay were also recently shunted back to him.

The Lancaster Quay designation would have allowed the planning application go directly to Bord Pleanála and bypass planners in Cork City Council. Planning for the development was already refused by the board twice despite prior approval from Cork City Council. After the 2009 floods that caused mayhem in the western end of the city, the appeals board has deemed the site’s flood risk too high.

Mr O’Callaghan already owns a substantial residential complex at the Lancaster Gate site and the River Lee Hotel (the former Jury’s Hotel).

Described as a very hands-on chairman, he is said to be regularly found in his Lavitt’s Quay office in Cork from early morning, examining new investment ideas for his three main companies, Barkhill, Elendale Investments and Merrygrove Estates.

He has stakes in a number of other companies, including Catterick Investments and Classes Land.

The son of a farmer who was educated at St Finbarr’s College in Farranferris on Cork’s northside, he qualified as a quantity surveyor in 1964. Five years later, he started an construction company OMAC with his brother Jack and began building houses in Ballincollig and Youghal and Douglas.

Owen O’Callaghan lives in Rochestown with his wife Sheila. A father of three, he was hit by tragedy in 2002 when his 22-year-old daughter Hazel was killed in an equestrian accident. He also has a son and a daughter, Brian and Zelda.

Described as “charming and unpretentious” by those who know him, his Bentley is seen as one of his few concessions to the substantial wealth he has amassed.

In the 1980s, he established O’Callaghan Properties and since then is responsible for the 110-acre Mahon Point shopping centre in the east of Cork City.

He is also behind the feted Opera Lane development off St Patrick’s St&.

In the late-‘80s, he built the more architecturally dubious Merchants Quay shopping centre which brought the first Marks & Spencer outlet to Ireland and the North Main Street Centre in 1993.

Cork’s Paul Street shopping centre is also his brainchild as is the 180-acre Liffey Valley Shopping Centre which landed him into the epicentre of the Mahon Tribunal.

He is also behind a residential development in the Czech Republic and Arthur’s Quay Shopping Centre in Limerick, the Golden Island Shopping Centre in Athlone and the Carlow Shopping Centre.

O’Callaghan Properties also describe themselves as “major house builders” with developments at Classes Lake in Ballincollig, Rochelle Park in Blackrock and Lancaster Quay. In 2006, the company built its 6,000th house.

Mr O’Callaghan never sought the flash lifestyle of some of the latterday Celtic Tiger cubs. He doesn’t court the media but has been known to lash out at different proposals in Cork — such as putting a toll on the Jack Lynch Tunnel.

At a Cork Chamber business breakfast three years ago, he also famously hit out at “yob” culture suggesting that an army force of 1,000-1,500 solders should be trained and assigned to help patrol the streets with gardaí as a special force.

“We keep funking the idea of having our city centres patrolled by tough gardaí with power or a specially trained force of the type I am suggesting… I think if it was done, there would be loud praise for whatever politician had the courage to introduce it.”

At another Chamber breakfast over two years ago, he conceded the property crash had not entirely taken him by surprise, deriding much of what had passed for development in the previous 10 years.

“It wasn’t development… It was gambling, it was reckless, it was speculation, and it was bound to end in tears.”

Mr O’Callaghan may have emerged relatively unscathed from the property crisis but he has been none so fortunate when it came to the Mahon Tribunal. Nonetheless, he is virulently denying its conclusions as “biased, unfair and unjust”.


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