This political ‘powerhouse’ has its price

St Luke’s walls have witnessed more intrigue than a box-set of House of Cards, writes Michael Cifford

This political ‘powerhouse’ has its price

IF those walls could have talked, they would have saved us a fortune. The walls belong to a tidy, little red-brick house, St Luke’s, which has facilitated historic peace talks, visits from world leaders and globe-trotting rock stars (yep, Mr Bono), and kept from prying eyes the most curious exchanges of huge wads of cash. What more could you want from a well-proportioned des res?

St Luke’s was put on the market last week, going for a snip at €595,000. In the heart of Drumcondra, on the northside of Dublin, it was, for more than two decades, the power-base, the retreat, the refuge — at one time even the bank — for one Bartholomew Ahern.

Its walls have witnessed more intrigue than a box-set of House of Cards. Whatever about modern appliances or aspects of the Tolka River, this little baby is steeped in history.

Fianna Fáil will not look back fondly on the planning tribunal. A virus of corruption, that welled up from deep within the maw of the party, was exposed at the long-running inquiry. But there is one thing for which the party can be grateful. If it wasn’t for the tribunal, they may never have got their mitts on St Luke’s. Such was the mystery of its origins, it’s far from clear that it would have reverted to the party once Bertie had hung up his political spurs.

The house was bought in 1987, through three individuals: Des Richardson, Tim Collins and Joe Burke. These were ‘made men’ in what came to be known as the Drumcondra ‘mafia’, headed up by Bertie Ahern. Only one of them, Burke, was a member of Fianna Fáil. This was a purchase on behalf of Ahern rather than the party. If this history had not been thrashed out at the planning tribunal, it’s unclear as to who might have laid claim to the premises, or a part thereof, once Ahern had left politics.

The financing of the purchase is unclear. A meeting was called to gather parties willing to throw in a few bob. This was the first of a series of whip-rounds for Ahern, as if the poor craytur hadn’t an arse in his trousers.

The meeting took place on December 3, 1987, in the Gresham Hotel. There is no record of it. Nobody present has been identified. Many party activists in the Dublin Central constituency weren’t even aware it had taken place. Like another fabled whip-round seven years later, among displaced Irish millionaires in Manchester, this one is shrouded in mystery. One way or the other, a report decades later would refer to the gathering as the ‘St Luke’s club’.

Over the following 20 years, ‘the club’ was the centre of Ahern’s world. Rarely would a day go by, even when he was Taoiseach, that he didn’t put in an appearance. The ministerial Merc parked up on the pavement was the giveaway. Frequently, there would be a second Merc in attendance, as Bertie often summoned one of his ministers to the lair.

Then, there was the matter of upkeep. This gave rise to an annual fundraiser where the great, the good, and an army of developers, gathered to pay homage, often forking out north of £100,000 between them.

If there’s one thing the walls could sing about, it’s the bobs. Oh, man, did money flow through the place. Back in the day, when Ahern was the minister for finance and didn’t have a bank account, he cashed his cheques in a pub and stored the cash in St Luke’s.

By 1993, he had upwards of £35,000 in punts there and another £15,000 in sterling. Over the following year, the cash piled up, particularly the sterling. Where did the Irish minister for finance get all this money?

People just gave it to him — friends, acquaintances, the odd millionaire. At one point, anytime he visited Britain, he returned with a bundle of cash, to be deposited in St Luke’s.

He had a particular fondness for sterling. Back in the mid-1990s, he used to exchange punts for sterling with a Manchester-based hotelier, in bars, and cars, and whenever he got the notion that he wanted to top up. And he won even more of it backing horses.

What secrets lie buried beneath the floorboards of St Luke’s? Maybe a few betting slips could be retrieved, perhaps the odd souvenir five-pound sterling note nestles under a joist.

Then, there were the drop-offs. On one occasion, a man by the name of Michael Wall, who had driven over from Manchester, came into St Luke’s to deliver a briefcase with £30,000 in cash. Just like in the movies. The money was for something or other, but nothing dodgy.

On another occasion, Ahern was handed the proceeds of dig-outs from friends, again in cash, during the course of a get-together at the premises. There was also the time he drove his partner, Celia Larkin, to and from O’Connell Street, where she withdrew £25,000 in cash. That moolah was deposited in the St Luke’s ‘bank’.

Again, he had an explanation for this cash, but, really, the convoluted detail would make your head hurt, and the tribunal wasn’t impressed by the whole thing.

St Luke’s was also the location for Bertie’s ‘poor me’ interview with Bryan Dobson, when he gave a tearful account of how he came into all the money. It was enough to get him past the following year’s general election, but, unfortunately, a tribunal lawyer subsequently blew his tears out of the water.

Oh, those walls. What they could have told former US president Bill Clinton, the day he dropped in. Bill, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Bono was another visitor, popping in a with some whiskey on his way to play Croker, listening to Bertie explaining how he was all in favour of saving the world, just in case Bono got any notions of bad-mouthing him on stage, in his own backyard.

Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness brought the peace process tour there, delivering the whiff of cordite that was all that was missing from the historic building. If only those walls could have talked, we could have been saved millions at the planning tribunal, all those secret rendezvous and drop-offs verified independently. Now, all that history, intrigue, and those tales of ordinary madness are about to be privatised, most likely snapped up by some tech millionaire in search of a trophy property. There’s only one man who can save this jewel for the public. Jerry Beades, hero of Gorse Hill, main man of the New Land League, once-upon-a-time member of the Drumcondra ‘mafia’ himself.

Get thee down to Drumcondra, Jerry. Barricade the place. Make a few speeches. Do it for Bertie. Preserve the legend of St Luke’s, so future generations can remember that this is how we lived once upon a time.

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