Ireland's Beloved Billionaire
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this gambler is getting ready to place his biggest bet ever.
By Stephen Starr
You may not know their names, but the world’s Little-Known Billionaires wield a hidden economic clout. Read more of this OZY original series.
There’s a buzz around Adare, a medieval village in County Limerick. The Adare Manor Hotel and Golf Resort, a stunning calendar house with 365 windows and 52 chimneys surrounded by 840 lush acres, has reopened following a $58 million makeover. The manor belongs to local businessman John Patrick “J.P.” McManus, that rare thing in postrecession Ireland: an admired and cherished billionaire.
“When the manor went up for sale, people were genuinely delighted that it was a local person who bought it,” says Martina Forde of the Adare Community Council.
When the golf course opens in March, it will become the most expensive place to hit the small white ball anywhere in the country. McManus hopes it will become “Europe’s Augusta,” setting the foundation for bringing the U.S. vs. Europe golf showpiece, the Ryder Cup, to Ireland in 2026 — a feat achieved just once before (in County Kildare, west of Dublin, in 2006).
J.P. has come a long way to lord of the manor. As a 19-year-old digger driver in the 1960s, he placed a £4 bet on a horse — and won 10 times his wager. McManus moved into bookmaking, but it didn’t take long to figure out that placing bets was a better use of his intellect than taking them. In the decades that followed, he made a fortune in currency trading from his offices in Geneva, where he pays his taxes, and is estimated to be worth $2 billion.
Like others of his ilk, McManus owns real estate in exotic parts of the world — including a home in Barbados that cost $180 million to build and a share in the Sandy Lane Resort, also in Barbados, where his friend Tiger Woods married Elin Nordegren in 2004 — and he keeps more than 100 world-class thoroughbred racehorses in training facilities across Ireland and Britain.
Though he has been known to place six-figure bets on his own horses, McManus’ most famous wager involved a three-day game of backgammon against American billionaire Alec Gores in 2012, which saw the Irishman walk away with $17.4 million (minus the IRS’ hefty share).
Behind the easygoing demeanor is a guy accustomed to getting what he wants.
McManus’ aversion to publicity is well-known — among his stable of prize-winning horses is a gelding named No Comment — and on the rare occasion he appears in front of a camera, it’s usually trackside, where he’ll offer vague remarks about his equine interests. As popular as McManus is in Ireland, no one’s ever written his biography, such is the paucity of insider detail.
“In my life I’ve met a number of business leaders, and J.P. is one of the most unassuming,” says Roger Downer, president emeritus of the University of Limerick. “He gave me €5 million toward a new business school [at the University of Limerick], and when we said we wanted it named after him, he declined.”
McManus has raised tens of millions of euros for local charities by hosting golf tournaments that featured the likes of Samuel L. Jackson and Rory McIlroy (Northern Irish pro golfer and former world No. 1). In August, he flew in from Geneva to attend a public hearing alongside residents opposing a factory expansion in Limerick.
His philanthropy and common touch partly explain why McManus commands the respect of the Irish public, whose distrust of authority has lingered through centuries of violent British rule, an authoritative Catholic church and, most recently, greedy bankers who nearly bankrupted the country in 2010. That he’s married and is, by all accounts, a doting grandfather to his grandchildren draws him closer to regular Irish folk, many of whom feel connected to a man who left school at 17 to work with his father. In 2012, McManus told the Limerick Leader about losing all his money at the racetrack when he was 21 and hitchhiking home, where his father put him to work in the fields. “It gave you time to think about what you were doing wrong,” he said.
Yet the steely persona that can bet vast sums of money on creatures as unpredictable as thoroughbreds (he once placed a winning £80,000 bet a day after losing £30,000) suggests that behind the easygoing demeanor is a guy accustomed to getting what he wants. In 2006, he bought the grounds of a local sports club to ensure complete privacy at his 40,000-square-foot neo-Palladian home in Limerick, the largest private residence in Ireland. And then he built a brand-new facility for the club down the road.
It’s hard to find anyone with a bad word to say about McManus, but some claim he lives in Switzerland to avoid paying Ireland’s high taxes, a charge he vehemently denies.
A spokesman for Oxfam Ireland said that while it would not comment on individual cases, “when rich individuals or multinational corporations stash their wealth in tax havens, they deprive governments of the resources they need to provide vital public services and infrastructure” — a thinly veiled reference to McManus and others who’ve moved or parked their wealth overseas. U2’s Bono was this month revealed by the Paradise Papers as having invested in a Malta-based company accused of avoiding taxes.
Back at the opulent Adare Manor, afternoon tea starts at $52 a head, and a night in the top suite will set you back $3,200. McManus’ focus, however, is not on costly crumpets but rather on making sure the golf course is up to scratch. Underground heating is being installed on all 18 course greens at a reported cost of $1.2 million — each. McManus knows that hosting the Ryder Cup at his own venue, in his own town, would seal his legacy.
“It’s one of my long-term dreams,” the 66-year-old revealed while also acknowledging it’s a “very, very big ask.” No other sports event attracts so many spectators (250,000 on course and hundreds of millions on TV) to watch so few athletes (24). Failing to land the legendary competition would be a sad coda for Ireland’s best-loved rich man.
But few are betting against J.P. “I’ve walked the new course with him, and it’s fantastic,” says Downer. “If anyone can bring the Ryder Cup [to Limerick], he can.” Considering the scale of his investment, McManus must like the odds.
- Stephen Starr, Stephen Starr is a journalist and author who lived in Syria from 2007 until 2012. He is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising.Contact Stephen Starr