One of the more intriguing stories surrounding the property disposals of NAMA concerns the sale of the historic Kilcooley Abbey Estate in Gortnahoe, County Tipperary.
In late 2013, the estate comprising an 18th century mansion, 220 acres of farmland, five staff houses, courtyard buildings, a lake, boathouse and a 12th century Cistercian abbey and chapel was sold for a reported €2.1m to Newry businessman, Tom O’Gorman. He also purchased the freehold on 950 acres of adjoining woodland which had been leased by Coillte for many years for what is said to be a sum of €1.5m.
The figures are unclear because neither the estate agents, Colliers, which handled the sale nor Bannons the receiver acting for NAMA which offloaded the property can confirm how much actually changed hands in the transaction. What makes the Kilcooley Abbey so interesting is the manner in which the sale was organised and how O’Gorman ended up as the successful bidder for the property.
Originally owned by the Ponsonby family, the Kilcooley Abbey estate was purchased in 2008 by John McCann, a property developer from Crossmaglen and principal of the Castleway Group, who paid some €6-€8m for the house and lands, not including the forestry. McCann’s loans went into NAMA soon after, and he was chased all the way to the US for the €114m debt.
McCann had acquired properties and built developments, north and south, during the boom years and also invested in the US including in an airport business park in Philadelphia, before his business collapsed in the wake of the crash.
In 2011, the Kilcooley Abbey estate was put up for sale through Colliers and attracted interest from various parties, including Mary and Jim Redmond, an Irish couple living in London.
They visited the property in 2012 and made an initial offer of €1.8m but were informed soon afterwards it was going to be sold to a higher bidder. A year later they discovered that the estate was up for sale again and they expressed their interest in spending up to €2.1m.
By this time the property was in the hands of Bannon, who were appointed as receivers by NAMA over McCann’s assets. On 22 August, 2013, Marcus Magnier of Colliers informed the Redmonds that their offer had been rejected by the receiver who had signed a contract with another party at “an acceptable level”.
Jim Redmond wrote to NAMA to complain about the sales process, which he claimed was neither open nor transparent. He also contacted the office of finance minister, Michael Noonan, to complain about what they considered was unfair treatment by NAMA and its agents.
They received a letter from NAMA spokesperson, Martin Whelan, to say that the agency was advised by Bannons that due process was adhered to throughout the sale. It soon emerged that O’Gorman had purchased the estate and had also bought out the freehold on the forestry from Coillte.
Efforts by the Redmonds to find out how much was paid, and why the fact that the Coillte-leased lands were also potentially available was not disclosed during their discussions with Colliers and Bannons, were unsuccessful. A complaint to NAMA, questions raised in the Dáil on their behalf and attempts to acquire information under the Aarhus convention on environmental information, proved fruitless.
The only information about the purchase came through the property pages of various media which confirmed that O’Gorman, an oil and gas entrepreneur, had bought the estate and forest.
O’Gorman was also the successful bidder for the 160-acre Blarney Golf Resort and hotel near Cork city in early 2014 which he boasted he had purchased ‘sight unseen’ for a reported €2.5m in a sale also handled by Colliers. He said he intended to invest a further €500,000 upgrading the leisure and hotel complex.
Meanwhile, NAMA was chasing McCann for the debts he incurred and it was suggested that he had relocated from the US to Switzerland. The agency failed in a recent attempt in the US courts to get control of his assets including the proceeds of the sale of the airport business park.
In 2015, it was reported that O’Gorman was hoping to sell Kilcooley for more than twice what he reportedly paid for it but up to early this year the property was registered at the address of his company in Dundalk.
He has since erected gates and fencing to prevent local people from straying across his lands along traditional walking routes as the value of the property continues to soar. Once again, a NAMA sale has enriched those with pockets deep enough to invest and impatient enough to sell it on, before NAMA’s long work is done.
The episode tends to suggest those who have not asked the right questions have had less chance of purchasing NAMA properties.
By Frank Connolly