COMMENT: Irony looms large in the siege of Gorse Hill

Let’s hear the case for the defence, at a time when most of the country is gunning to prosecute. The O’Donnell family at the centre of the siege of Gorse Hill are not the class of people likely to elicit sympathy in these days of austerity and want.

Once upon a time, they bestrode the globe. Brian jacked in a senior number at William Fry Solicitors in order to buy up the world.

He got involved in what is quaintly called “property investment” — a nice term for speculation. Property developers have got horrendous press since the bubble burst, but at least developers created something.

Property investors just gambled their money on an eye for the deal.

Brian and Mary Pat set up home next to Bono on Killiney’s Vico Road. They were paper billionaires. They had established a potential dynasty, destined to persist down through unborn generations.

Their brood, Blaise, Blake, Bruce and Alexandra, had names to the manor born.

Then the whole thing went wallop. For some people, a sudden awakening to the real world might be regarded as character-enhancing.

Some might get up, brush themselves down, and refocus elsewhere, proving the acquisition of illusory wealth could be replaced with some other life-enhancing objective.

Not these people. The O’Donnells attempted to move hell and high water to hold on to what they believe to have been theirs. This firmly held belief reached its nadir on Monday when the head of the house, Brian, barricaded himself into the family’s pile in Killiney hill, precipitating a siege.

Maybe Mr O’Donnell saw himself as a born-again champion of the dispossessed. After all, the man spent a career as a lawyer, and delusional notions as to status are not unknown in that line of work.

There are, however, some mitigating circumstances. Getting turfed out of your home is a traumatic experience, irrespective of where one has laid one’s hat.

The O’Donnells owned the property, Gorse Hill, for nearly 20 years. Their children were largely raised within the property’s high walls.

They may well have played tennis as a family on the well-appointed court. The children surely learned how to swim in the outdoor pool, which presumably, is no longer being maintained.

These are not experiences the vast majority of people could relate to, but it is the only life they have known. The visceral attachment to a home, particularly in this country, is not socio-economic dependent. Even after all their paper wealth had disappeared, it must be a serious wrench to know their home is about to be taken from them by a bank.

On that score, if it could be viewed in isolation, the O’Donnells are entitled to some sympathy. Of course, in light of all that has transpired in their soap-opera saga over the last few years, viewing their eviction in isolation is not an easy task.

Then, there is the position of the bank. The family owe Bank of Ireland €71m — a debt accumulated in property speculation.

When the O’Donnells were bestriding the globe, a procession of bankers lined up to throw money at their feet. It was a win-win situation in which the bank and the masters of the universe got together to make money for each other.

Until, it all went belly-up, and then it became win-lose: with the bank entitled to a full return on its investment in the business acumen of Brian O’Donnell, and the latter and his family were left with all the debt.

On that net point, the O’Donnells are again entitled to some sympathy. The legal and power relationships between bankers and their clients are so imbalanced as to make them a mockery of the most cursory form of natural justice. The relationship has been tweaked with minor adjustments like the personal insolvency act, but, by and large, lenders still hold all the aces. If O’Donnell and his family are sore about the law, their grievance strikes a chord throughout the land.

Beyond trying hard to generate some sympathy for these people, the events of recent days have shown once more how the world has been turned upside-down through the economic upheaval.

Masters of the universe being laid low is no longer novel, but what about the strange alliances and U-turns we have witnessed?

At the height of the bubble, big shots in O’Donnell’s league used to enjoy flying a Tricolour on buildings they acquired in London, in a clownish gesture of reverse conquest.

Then, when the bubble burst, many, such as O’Donnell, fled to Old Blighty in a bid to avoid this jurisdiction’s more odious bankruptcy laws.

Back home, at the other end of the political spectrum, we have experienced socialists railing against a property tax, a tariff that has been a basic tenet of socialism since Karl Marx was in short trousers.

Then, this week, we had the marrying of an organisation that claims lineage to Michael Davitt, with a property owner who might have had more in common with Captain Boycott.

The so-called Land League’s defence of Gorse Hill was heavy with irony. As noted in the High Court on Monday, O’Donnell was “ultimately a member of the landlord class”. What would Davitt have made of it all?

In the end, it’s difficult to make a case for the defence. Above all else, O’Donnell was a member of a caste which habitually uses knowledge of the law to accumulate great wealth. In the hands of people like that, the law is frequently used as a weapon when in conflict with those who have less resources or power.

Then, when it turned out O’Donnell was on the wrong side of the law in a civil dispute, he suddenly doesn’t believe in that which was his friend through the times of plenty.


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