More than 170 jobs were lost tonight as the country’s largest tour operator Budget Travel went bust.
Some 747 holidaymakers stranded overseas and 409 others preparing to jet off over the next four days were warned to contact regulators to secure flights home or refunds.
The firm, started by Gillian Bowler in 1975, shut down 14 stores in September with the loss of 95 jobs and a further 17 stores will close as it ceases trading.
Union chiefs accused Budget of attempting to cut and run from the Irish market.
But Eileen O’Sullivan, Budget’s managing director, said she regretted the impact on staff and customers.
“This has been a painful and distressing time for us all and we deeply regret that this situation has arisen,” she said.
Budget has €11.4m in a bond with the Commission for Aviation regulation which will be used to bring home stranded holidaymakers and refund others booked to head away.
Industry chiefs said the closure was the biggest loss to the Irish travel business since Bray Travel went bust in the 1970s.
A number of smaller operators including Excel and Failte Travel went out of business last year.
Gerry Doherty, general secretary of the Transport and Salaried Staffs’ Association, hit out at large international companies abandoning the Irish market.
“This is a shock to the remaining staff but it underlines the lack of commitment by large multinationals to their overseas workforce,” the union chief said.
“It is all to easy for them just to pull out and dump their Irish workforce.”
Irish Life & Permanent board member Ms Bowler set up the firm in a basement office with two telephone lines promising value for money.
By 1984, 25,000 customers travelled with Budget earning the business €8m.
Three years later Granada Plc bought Budget and it changed hands a number of times before Primera bought it in September 2007.
Ms O’Sullivan claimed the travel industry in Ireland was facing massive pressure from a sharp and sudden collapse in demand this year.
The Regulator also refused to renew Budget’s licences to operate last month compounding trading difficulties.
The company claimed this blocked the firm from applying to the Courts for protection under examinership procedures, rather than having to apply for liquidation.
“Not only that but we would have benefited from the fact that the bond necessary to secure the licences going forward would have been approximately 40% smaller than the €11.4m bond currently with the Commission,” Ms O’Sullivan claimed.
“The difference refunded to the company would have helped it to tackle its financial challenges.”
Union chiefs, however, hit out claiming Budget’s parent company, Swedish-based Primera Group, made profits of €850m last year.
Mr Doherty said: “Primera Travel are a very wealthy Scandinavian company and they cannot just cut and run from Ireland.
“They have a duty to ensure all staff who have lost their jobs today get a proper redundancy package and to make sure that all those on holiday with them at the moment get home.”
Talks were scheduled for tonight between the Regulator and Budget Travel on repatriation and refunds.
The High Court appointed Simon Coyle, partner in accounting firm Mazars, as provisional liquidator.
“I am very aware that members of the public are affected by today’s events,” he said.
“And I will be working closely with the Commission for Aviation Regulation to ensure arrangements are made for those currently on holiday and for those who had been scheduled to depart in the coming days and weeks.”