Irish businessman Ben Dunne dies aged 74…

Ben Dunne had quite a colourful life. Born into the Dunnes Stores retail family, he rose through the ranks to become the top boss of the supermarket chain. There is a northern connection to the Dunnes story, the founder of Dunnes Ben Dunne Sr was from Rostrevor.

Things started to go wrong for Ben in 1981 when the IRA kidnapped him. From Wikipedia:

On the morning of Friday 16 October 1981, Dunne was on his way to open a new supermarket in Portadown, County Armagh when he was kidnapped by the IRA. Dunne was driving northwards when a car coming in the opposite direction overtook a lorry and blocked the lorry’s path. The lorry stopped, and Dunne swerved and avoided a collision. Believing an accident had occurred, Dunne stopped and got out of his car to help. The other car reversed towards him, and four men, armed with at least one rifle, got out, surrounded Dunne, put him into the car, and left the scene. Dunne was held for seven days. He was released unharmed in a graveyard in Cullyhanna, County Armagh. He initially hid in an open grave, but then, fearing his kidnappers might return, shoot him and fill in the grave, he climbed back out. after his friend and fellow businessman, Patrick Gallagher, paid his £1 million ransom.

Ben continued his empire-building, but it seems the kidnapping experience left a noticeable psychological scar. Roll forward to 1992, and Ben got caught up in a sex and drugs scandal in Florida. From Liam Collins’s profile in the Independent:

Always a spontaneous personality, he had by then discovered cocaine. In February 1992, he set out on a golfing trip to Florida with a group of friends, business acquaintances, a professional golfer and even a taxi driver he had picked up along the way.

He booked them all into the biggest and plushest hotel in the city, the Grand Cypress Hotel, where he took a suite on the 17th floor at a cost of $1,200 a night.

On the night of Wednesday, February 18, at around midnight, Dunne was alone in his suite and into a serious cocaine binge. A serial telephone addict when he was drinking or on drugs, he got out the local Yellow Pages, called ‘Escorts in a Flash’ and ordered a girl to come to suite No 1708 on the 17th floor.

Denise Wojcik arrived at about 1.30am where she was greeted by her host with a bottle of Dom Perignon champagne and a €400 tip.

The bedroom was up a stairway in the suite and almost immediately the two of them started to snort lines of cocaine which Dunne chopped up with his membership card to the exclusive K Club in Kildare.

At about 6am, after they’d been up all night, Wojcik rang her roommate Cherie Rudulski and told her if she got over to the hotel, she would get $300 for two hours’ work.

Then Dunne’s mind began to go haywire. He began to pace and panic. Before long, he was confronted by security men clad in black and had flashback to his kidnapping by the IRA 11 years before. After further disturbances, he was arrested and charged with a series of serious drug-offences, including trafficking which carried a mandatory jail sentence.

The first person he called was Haughey, ringing him on a private number at his Abbeville estate. Haughey, ousted as taoiseach just the month before, contacted a member of the Kennedy clan. But by then it was too late — events were taking on a momentum of their own.

Dunne arrived back in Dublin in full confessional mode. Unaided by any high-priced public relations advisers he adopted a simple strategy of “hands-up”, confessing his fault in lurid detail to business associates, friends and several journalists who gained access to the inner sanctum that week.

But his sister Margaret, who never drank in her life, was unforgiving.

What followed was a bitter battle between Ben and his siblings for control of Dunnes with his sister Margaret Heffernan ultimately winning and the company paying IR£100 million for Ben Dunne’s share of the business. Dunnes is a private company and is renowned for its secrecy so exact details of turnover and profits are not public but we do know that Dunnes has 138 stores and over 15,000 employees. For those interested in business the sister Margaret is worth reading up on. She is the one credited with bringing Dunnes more upmarket and changing with the times. She seems very focused and never backs down from a fight.

Ben’s various payments to politicians over the years led to the McCracken Tribunal report and the long-running Moriarty Tribunal into corruption in public life.

Again from the Liam Collins profile:

Ben was also taunting Margaret, telling her he had given more than £1m to Haughey. He laughed as he told her: “But no matter how hard you look you’ll never find it.”

The most colourful aspect of his testimony was his revelations that he had called to Haughey’s mansion Abbeville one Sunday evening in November, 1991 while returning from a golf game in Baltray.

It was the week ‘The Boss’ had finally been deposed by Albert Reynolds. The two men had a brief chat and Dunne felt Haughey, who was allowed to stay on as taoiseach until the end of the year, was “looking a bit depressed”.

The retail tycoon took three bank drafts from his pocket totalling £210,000. “Look, that’s something for yourself,” he said, handing them to Haughey as they stood near the fountain in front of Abbeville.

“Thanks a million, big fella,” Haughey is reputed to have said.​

Ben went on to set up the Ben Dunne chain of gyms. Despite not exactly being an advert for healthy living himself, he never the less benefited from the Celtic Tiger health fad boom.

Ben is survived by his wife Mary, his daughter Caroline and three sons Robert, Nicholas and Mark.


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