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Sean Quinn: Getting into the gravel business

Sean Quinn at his home in Co Cavan

A NEW book about former business tycoon Sean Quinn, by Belfast-based film-maker Trevor Birney, reveals the inside story of how the Fermanagh man lost his empire. The following extracts include details of Quinn's father Hugh, the Molly Maguires and an attack on Quinn group CEO Paul O'Brien's home.


Money had always been a concern for the Quinns. Their own farm barely produced enough to keep the family fed so Hugh Quinn, while alive, earned extra income working for neighbours. Shortly before his death, however, he discerned another way of bringing in a few more pounds.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, there had been three local families who started to dig down into the land, rather than farm it. Hugh Quinn saw an opportunity to profit by selling land to one of these families.

"Pat Curry, who was very well respected in the area, was the first man to start to dig the gravel in the area. And my father sold him a field of gravel. So we knew the gravel was there. And thankfully he didn't sell him any more fields, he just sold one field. I remember the price of it, it was £900. I was fortunate he only sold one field," said Sean Quinn, who would greatly benefit in years to come from his father's prudent decision to hold onto the vast majority of his farmland.

It turned out that gravel – an integral material for the making of concrete and road construction, among other uses – was bountiful in the region. As the ice melted at the end of the last ice age, sand and gravel deposits formed on top of bedrock by melting water, typically in valleys.

Fermanagh had two main geographical areas of ‘glaciofluvial deposits': north-east of the village of Brookeborough stretching out towards Tempo was one, but the largest deposit was in the five-mile radius that fanned out from Hugh Quinn's farm.

Bryan Gallagher recalled how during the Second World War, American soldiers stationed in the North made use of the sand and gravel from the area. "There was one lorry on the road when I was growing up. It was extremely dangerous work at the time. There were faces of sand exposed and I remember two men being killed when they undermined the sand and it fell on top of them. During the Second World War, when the Americans were building the airport at St Angelo, north of Enniskillen, a lot of the gravel they used came from Derrylin." Not that the locals didn't make the most of the situation. "It was a while before the Americans found out that these Irishmen were not as innocent as they first thought. They would spray the load of gravel with water to double its weight and one man claimed that he drove to the airport through one gate and drove back out another, with the load still on board, and did that six times in one day!"

Clearly gravel was a potentially lucrative business opportunity. Local farmer Bernard McCaffrey opened his business at Drumderg, Teemore, in 1968, though his family had been involved in sand and gravel along the border since the war years. Another neighbour, Robert Mitten, went into business a year later with a single pit. Both families are still trading today. And then there was Pat Curry, to whom Hugh Quinn sold a portion of his land. This, in turn, was likely when Sean Quinn first took notice of the gravel business. This interest only grew after his father's passing, particularly as Sean, now alone on the farm with his mother, came to realise a fundamental truth about himself: he disliked farming with a passion.

Looking back, he freely admits it. "I wasn't big into the farming. I had farmed along with my father but we farmed poorly. After he died, we didn't have a lot of money. I bought a tractor and trailer and a bailer and a few things like that and tried to do a bit of work in the local area, that was as far as I got. I felt that farming wasn't for me and I didn't enjoy it at all. Farming was too slow for me. There's an old saying in farming, I think it's a true one: “in farming you live poor and die rich”, because the farm's worth a lot after you're dead. But you live poor. So I formed that

opinion very early on, rightly or wrongly, that farming wasn't for me. Maybe, as it turned out, wrongly."

Bernie vividly recalls Sean sowing the seeds of change. "After the funeral and Christmas, I went back to college. Sean and mammy were the only two at home and they had to pick up the pieces. And things reverted, as far as was possible, to normal and Sean took over the running of the farm. I suppose it gave Sean a greater independence. He'd already gone away from simply working his own farm to doing bailing in the country and using his tractor and trailer for other people and making a few pound on the way."

Decades later, Bernie can still recall the first time Sean brought up the idea of entering the gravel business. "And I remember Miriam and I being out talking to Sean in the front street when he says, you know, “I'm going to start this, I'm going to start my own sand and gravel business.” We kind of looked at him. He said, “well, it's like this, if Pat Curry could buy it off my father and make money of it, why couldn't I, if I've got my own sand and gravel?”'

Bernie and Miriam both sounded unsure, but Sean knew that their opinions ultimately didn't matter. His mother would be the key to whether his plans moved forward. "It was his mother then he had to

persuade," Bryan Gallagher concurred. "Because it was going to be awful to see the good farm with the good grass, the fields where they'd grown their own potatoes and vegetables, dug away from under them."

Sean could see the reasons for their reluctance; in some ways, he shared them. "I suppose we were all frightened of the expenditure that was involved in it, because it seemed almost an impossible dream," he said, explaining the initial worried reaction from his siblings – and his mother when he eventually told her. "I had mentioned to my mother, once or twice, that I was thinking of starting to deliver gravel. And she said, “sure you're crazy, Sean, you have no money to start gravel, what would you know about it?” They all had big doubts: Is Sean mad? I suppose that was always the question was asked, you know, where is he going with this? Or will this work? And they weren't sure that I was doing the right thing. They were saying to themselves, is this thing all going to blow up?"

After a while, though, they came onside. Then there was no going back. Sean Quinn was getting into the gravel business.

:: Quinn by Trevor Birnie is published by Merrion Press and available now.

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