The documentary introduces itself with an image of a forgotten wasteland, the border region. A land of old laws and old customs. A land with no regard for metropolitan laws or liberal opinion. Abandoned by both governments, North and South.
Emerging from this wasteland, a colossal figure, as if rising out of the very earth itself, a man destined to become the King of this forgotten race. As hard as the hard gravelly soil from whence he emerges, a behemoth with limbs of cement, gravel and glass rises. Dominating the surrounding countryside. Quinn.
A portrait of the man is drawn throughout the documentary, interspersed by close-up shots of his face, painted with his tough bearing. We see him driving around recounting the old days, giving the impression of a deposed king patrolling his former domains. Both chieftain and unassuming country gentleman. A man both great and small. He stands in stark opposition to his opponents. A man of the people, from the people. Affable and immediately comprehensible to the good and simple rural folk of Old Ireland.
In Episode 1 we see his small farming beginnings in Derrylin and his legendary football days in the warlike Teemore Shamrocks. There is home footage of these early days scattered throughout the documentary. We see his first excursions outside farming into the gravel, and then concrete business, and its subsequent growth. His seemingly invincible golden touch. “I’ve always believed there were winners in life,” declares Quinn.
We get a sense of the genius of the man. Colm Tóibín says of Fermanagh: “The Protestants in general had the good land. The Catholics sat on their 20-30 acres of stoney grey soil wondering what hit them. Seán Quinn started to make money on the very thing which had caused the poverty, which was the sandy nature of the soil.”
Quinn recounts a meeting in the Longford Arms. “What is cement made of?” asked Quinn. “Its made of stone and shite.” a man said. “We have stone and shite.” responded Quinn. Thus Quinn, the culchie maverick, boldly set his sights on cement, and set out to build a cement plant. This expansion puts him in the cross-hairs of Cement Roadstone Holdings, the corrupt Haughey-connected cement monopoly whom this venture would severely undermine.
This is Quinn’s first run-in with the Dublin elite, an elite that always was unwelcoming of him. Roadstone took every measure to sabotage this venture but failed. We witness the tough spirit of Quinn. “They put a few spokes in the wheel… I’m not saying I wouldn’t have done the same if I was in their shoes.” says Quinn, “All things are fair in love and war”. An image of his competitive spirit emerges, engendered by his footballing days. Quinn loved a fight. But he had his own set of rules, and loyalty was the paramount one. A strike from an enemy is expected, but from a friend, unforgivable.
He would take on many local men as his lieutenants during this time, men who would later betray him. A video of Seán praising and bestowing an award upon Kevin Lunney, whom he then smiles with and hands a trophy to, is played, poignantly foreshadowing what would eventually come.
Glass factories, tile factories, endless quarries. The All-conquering Quinn colossus sprawled across the countryside, bringing prosperity to a forgotten land. “They had this one thing up in Cavan and Fermanagh, they had Quinn”, says Ian Kehoe. He even opened the Slieve Russell, a huge five-star hotel, in the arse-end of nowhere. Quinn set his sights on bigger prizes, expanding into insurance with Quinn Direct, by far his most profitable venture, and was making money hand over fist. The mighty culchie God Quinn, at his peak, was the richest man in Ireland and on the Forbes list with a net worth of nearly €5bn in 2008.
Quinn practised a uniquely Irish capitalism partially rooted in the locality, grounded ostensibly in the soil and the people. This was alien to the Dublin elite who viewed him as a wild card, albeit one who was, to their chagrin, full of aces. Quinn possessed a power greater than mere capital, the loyalty of a race of people. He had built his empire on “guts, gravel, granite and genius” alone and answered only to his own people.
Bryan Gallagher, a local historian, recounts, “When I was small, at midnight Mass, it was the custom to put a candle on the window so that when you looked up into the mountainside, you would see all the houses lit up. But as the years went by one by one, the candles went out. The mountain was in darkness. There was a constant drain of emigration, a whole generation that had gone away because there was simply no work at all. And an old man said to me, “When Seán Quinn was going well ‘Quinn put the lights back on on the mountainside'”.
Downfall of a Chieftain
This is the most important part of the story but quite simple. Quinn puts a bet on Anglo-Irish stocks and just keeps doubling down no matter how low the share price goes, convinced religiously the price will recover. It involves Quinn gradually haemorrhaging more and more money to fund margin calls required by faulting insane CFD positions.
Ostensibly, Quinn lost his mind and gambled away his whole empire. This is explained in the documentary by Quinn’s enduring love of the game of cards. And honestly, this is satisfactory. Or perhaps Quinn saw something of himself in the erm.. “buccaneering” spirit of the bank.
Eventually, he owes about billions to Anglo and a further billion to American bondholders. Perhaps this insanity is explained by the monstrous hubris of a man who thought that he really was infallible, a belief that would have been justified, given his spectacular track record of success.
In the calamitous fallout following the financial crisis, Anglo-Irish Bank was nationalised (the new management was headed by Alan Dukes, a frequent commentator in the series). Quinn Direct, reckoned insufficiently capitalised by the state regulator, was forced into administration by the High Court. “If you take one brick out of a wall, the wall will collapse.”, Quinn says, reflecting on the loss of his most profitable business and the hopeless bind he had found himself in.
In April 2011, state receivers are sent in to take over Quinn’s businesses. The pale’s suited host, converging to prey on the ruins of Quinn’s collapsing Empire. The men in suits had come to take the empire out of the hands of Quinn, out of the hands of the man who had kept the lights on the mountainside, and into the hands of strangers. Quinn says these actions “Set the tone for war.” and indeed war would follow. “Dead men cannot talk.” says Quinn. “They wont bury me.” he says defiantly.
A campaign of violence proceeds against the attempts of the receivers to sell off Quinn’s businesses, electricity wires are cut, vehicles are destroyed. “It was created by blood and the sweat, it’s our heritage, it belongs to our children.” (of Quinn) a man is heard shouting. Alan Dukes, the smug bollocks pale-man says “Border people have it in their blood. They are living in communities that have a long history of violence, they’ll more easily turn to it than anyone else.” This got him into hot water and he later retracted this statement being the wimp he is.
Meanwhile, Quinn and his family scurry desperately to move some €500m in assets out of the country, beyond the advancing claws of Anglo and the bondholders. Anglo’s new management would not accept any restructuring with Quinn at the centre, they wanted him out. But Quinn wouldn’t budge. Negotiations soured and Quinn became increasingly irascible. His son and nephew serve prison time for contempt of court. Quinn himself serves three months in prison for contempt of court, admitting to getting drunk in the pub with his pals before getting into the police van, an everyman and a martyr.
As you may imagine, nobody wanted to touch Quinn’s businesses, due to the aforementioned tribal warfare initiated by King Seán’s loyal kern. QBRC (Quinn Business Retention Group) is formed by Quinn’s former business partners (Lunney, McCaffrey, O’Reilly and gang) with Quinn in a symbolic role in order to attempt to quell the madness and unwrangle from this chaos. Quinn was under the understanding that this arrangement meant the return of his power, however, this was not the case, and Quinn’s former business partners negotiate behind his back with American bondholders for the sale of his glass business from underneath him. Quinn, feeling shocked, betrayed and backstabbed storms out of QBRC and the next chapter of violence begins, on the QBRC executives.
A Quinn employee and amateur boxer John McGovern throws hot coffee on Dara O’Reilly and then severely beats Kevin Lunney with his fists (lethal weapons) at an Apple Green Station while the two were enjoying (until this) lunch. Thus begins a new campaign of violence against Quinn’s former associates, the men Quinn had made. The climax (so far) in this saga was to occur on 17th September 2019. Accompanied by a stellar re-enactment, we see the event. Kevin Lunney’s car was surrounded, he was kidnapped by armed masked men, bungled into the back of a car, taken to a remote site, where his legs were broken with a baseball bat, and he had acid poured on him, the gentleman are then understood to have kindly and politely asked Mr. Lunney to cease his ongoing legal actions, north and south of the border. He was then unceremoniously dumped onto the side of the road.
“Did you have anything to do with the attack on Kevin Lunney?” Quinn is asked. “Absolutely nothing.” Quinn responds. Then, switching to a more devious posture and with a wry, dastardly grin, he adds: “One thing I think somebody should ask Kevin Lunney: why was he attacked?
What they have done over the last 6-7 years, the level of betrayal, is unprecedented in the history of this state. I have nothing good to say about Kevin Lunney.”
The arch-ruffian and prime-mover in this insidious attack was Cyril McGuiness, affectionately nicknamed ‘Dublin Jimmy’, a decorated petty criminal, a gruff looking man, who had conspicuously “dropped dead of a heart attack” as soon as the British police opened the door in his English safehouse. Quinn is quizzed on his apparent relationship with this man. “Ah I knew him yeah, everyone knew Dublin Jimmy. In fact he didn’t like being called Dublin Jimmy. I didn’t call him anything. ‘How are you doing?’ That’s as far as I went.” he says, smiling.
The video of Seán bestowing the trophy on Kevin, is again played. The old days. It may almost be enough to bring a tear to your eye. Once the closest of friends, now the bitterest of enemies. Lunney, a weaselly looking man, had indeed ran awry of the wrath of a slighted chieftain, an angry pagan god, and had met his fate. The wrath which no uniform, collar, or weapon, can protect against.
Treachery, the cardinal sin in Quinn’s world, in his world of blood and land and men. Lunney, from his world of chartered accountants, school hall monitors and errand boys, cannot have been expected to understand this world. Quinn, from another world, a world paved over by the cement he helped to make.
We hear a scathing monologue given by the priest from the pulpit: “I now believe there has been a mafia style group, with its own Godfather, operating in our region for some time and it’s serious. This well planned and well executed abduction could only have happened if someone with ulterior motives agreed to pay these criminals a sum of money and gave instruction on what he required to be done to an unsuspecting victim.”. “I’ll never forgive him.” says Quinn’s wife, referring to the priest and referencing that he had eaten in their house. “A backstabber, that’s what he is. A pure backstabber!”
We see, finally, the re-branding of the Quinn Group into the soulless “Mannok”. Under the insipid, visionless leadership of Liam McCaffrey.
This documentary is a welcome breath of fresh air from the usually mediocre internationalist RTÉ. The story of Seán Quinn deserves to be told, and is still ongoing. It is a story which is in many ways tragic. A story of conquest, madness, betrayal and blood. In many ways Seán Quinn’s tale shows that a new better kind of capitalism is possible in Ireland and that prosperity is possible without the interference of the international clique. Men like Seán Quinn would perhaps guide us to this new way. It also serves as a microcosm as to the battle between the tribal and rooted forces of rural Ireland and the rootless forces of international finance. Loyalty is more powerful than money.
Quinn: The man they tried to bury. Quinn: Godfather, chieftain, maverick, culchie, genius, fool and tragic hero. The man who put the lights back on on the mountainside.
Quinn: One of us. Quinn: A man both great and small. Quinn: An untamable, unkillable, furious stubborn rural force of nature.
But, alas, the great chief is felled. And the mountainside is in darkness!