People’s champion shunned limelight

OVER 33 sometimes tedious, and more often entertaining, days in the witness box at Dublin Castle in 1999, James Gogarty achieved a fame that few octogenarians experience.

The retired engineer attained a status not dissimilar to that currently enjoyed by consumer champion Eddie Hobbs in the manner in which he became, almost overnight, a folk hero.

Mr Gogarty, who was dubbed the People’s Pensioner, was an instant hit with the public as the key whistleblower in the Planning Tribunal with his fingering of Fianna Fáil big gun Ray Burke in corrupt practices.

Many tribunal-watchers admired how the elderly, frail witness with a history of poor health showed a feisty disposition when cross-examined by some of the most eminent barristers in the land. Mr Gogarty gave little quarter to anyone who dared to challenge the accuracy of his damning accounts of shady deals and practices involving property in north Dublin in the 1980s.

In truth, he often proved an irascible, frustrating curmudgeon at the tribunal but people loved him for it. His celebrity was further cemented through the brilliant, nightly re-enactments of his evidence by actor Joe Taylor on RTÉ’s Tonight with Vincent Browne radio programme.

The genesis of his becoming a public figure lay in the bitter grudge he held against his former employers at Joseph Murphy Structural Engineers where he had worked from 1968 until his retirement from the Santry-based firm over 20 years later.

Having worked past the normal retirement age of 65, Mr Gogarty was enraged that his loyalty to JMSE founder Joseph Murphy Snr was not being rewarded with a decent pension. His anger was primarily directed at the son of his boss, whom he mockingly named “Junior”.

It was the misfortune of Burke, a senior Fianna Fáil minister, that he ended up as the collateral damage in the fallout from Mr Gogarty’s grievance. Others to suffer a similar fate were former Dublin City and County assistant manager George Redmond and several millionaire developers such as Tom and Michael Bailey, Tom Brennan and Joe McGowan who were found to have acted corruptly in tandem with Burke.

Since his final appearance at the tribunal in July 2000, Mr Gogarty deliberately chose not to comment on ongoing developments in tribunal-land. Even when the tribunal published its landmark report in September 2002 which fully vindicated Mr Gogarty’s evidence of handing Burke a bribe of at least £30,000 at a meeting in the politician’s home in June 1989, he refrained from making any statement on its findings. Instead, he let it be known through his son that he was “quietly pleased” with the outcome.

Born in Kells, Co Meath, in May 1917, Mr Gogarty demonstrated the hard-working ethos of many of his generation by studying engineering at night while also being a member of the Garda auxiliary force, An Taca.

However, he spent most of his career involved in the construction industry in Britain and Ireland which often took him away from his wife, Anna, and the couple’s seven children.

It was perhaps fitting that the final chapter in Mr Gogarty’s dealings with the tribunal was concluded just three months before his death when he was awarded his full legal costs worth €3.5m.

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