Ahead of President Bill Clinton’s visit to Limerick for the All-Ireland Scholarship awards he sponsors last week, JP McManus gave his most candid interview ever to Limerick Leader editor, Alan English.
“CAN we take a picture of you at your desk?” asks Limerick Leader photographer Mike Cowhey as we follow JP McManus towards his private office at Martinstown.
“No problem,” he says. On the way he poses with a bust of the late Irish-American businessman Jack Mulcahy (“a great man - he did so much for the country”). A painting of a huge Boxer dog hangs on the first wall you see as you enter his office and he is drawn to it.
The dog is no longer alive, he says sadly. “He was a great dog, a wonderful dog. My son John got him for his 21st birthday as a present from his sister and brother [Sue Ann and Kieran]. Not alone did he know what you were saying, he knew what you were thinking. But he was on dialysis by the time he died – there’s a time when it’s the right thing to do.”
“What was his name?” I ask.
“I guess – he wasn’t able to spell.”
His sense of humour is never far away during our conversation. It’s the second in-depth interview he has done in recent years, both for this newspaper, but I tell him that he has a reputation for speaking guardedly to the media, for giving little enough away.
He smiles and says: “Look at all the fish that would be in the world today – if only someone had taught them how to keep their mouths shut”.
I’m here to talk to him about the All-Ireland Scholarships he has funded for five years – the latest 125 winners were given certificates by Bill Clinton at UL on Saturday, receiving €6,750 a year for the duration of their studies.
But I’m hoping that, as with the last time we spoke, he will open up on other topics.
He talks about a 10-page letter he received a few years ago from the mother of one of the scholarship winners. It was written the morning the family received a letter in the post confirming the award. Overjoyed with the news, the mother wrote it while her daughter slept upstairs, oblivious that her life had just changed.
“I keep a copy of it in my office in Switzerland,” he says. “It inspires me. You’re welcome to read it, if you like. I remember thinking, ‘That letter is reason enough to do these scholarships.’ When you read it, I bet it will bring a tear to your eye.”
It’s probably unwise to doubt him on this point. To paraphrase the sportswriter Hugh McIlvanney, betting against JP McManus is the shortest route to the poorhouse.
AE: Let’s talk about the awards first. The latest intake will bring it up to 619 scholarships. Where did the idea come from?
JPM: Very often the best ideas come over a drink. I got talking to Mary Hanafin [the former Minister for Education] at a function and it came from that. A good education system is so necessary in the country. We had two things that made Ireland attractive in the Celtic Tiger years, or whatever you want to call that period. One was the rate the punt was put into the euro – it was put in so cheaply. That was a catalyst, because it made Ireland very attractive for the multinationals to come in. Ireland was cheap. I think it was a major coup for the country, getting us in at that rate. That was rarely mentioned.
The second thing was our education system. From what I hear – I didn’t go to school too long myself – we are a very educated race. Companies had access to high-quality people here. I know savings have to be made now, but we need a good educational system.
AE: Have you seen cutbacks that have concerned you?
JPM: I wouldn’t be the one to say – I don’t know. But I believe our future will revolve around keeping our standards high in education. So back then I told Mary Hanafin it would be nice to do something and she followed up on it. I met her for breakfast one day and it was basically deal done.
First it was about scholarships. Then the Trustees came on board – Gerry Boland, Roger Downer and Pat Dowling – and we had the idea to involve the North and make it a 32-county, all-Ireland project. So as it stands, you have a minimum of two winners from each county. Then you have the next 48 in Ireland, irrespective of what county they come from, and the next 13 in Northern Ireland. So 125 scholarships each year in total.
AE: What has the feedback been like?
JPM: I think in the early days the students weren’t really aware of where the money was coming from, but now that they are, some students keep you well versed on how they’re getting on. They write - and that’s nice to hear. There might not be many jobs in the country for graduates at the moment, but if they have to leave, they’ll leave after a good education.
There was a lad in with me just before you arrived. He’s an occupational therapist, he did four years in college. He’s off tomorrow week to Perth and I know he will do well.
It’s sad – it’s our loss, that he’s not staying. He worked for us on the farm and I believe he was a very good worker, very diligent. So I think it’s sad they have to go, but our forefathers went out and they didn’t have that education. At least there is a good system that allows them to go out there with degrees.
The problem is the best always leave. Years ago, when our forefathers left, who did mother send? Only the best. She always sent the strongest, the ones who could stand up to it. When they were waving them goodbye they knew they were never going to see them again. The ones who went to America, the ones with Irish links, so many of them did so well, because they had no choice. They were the ones who put the few dollars in the envelope to support the rest of the family back home - and we bred from the weaklings at home [laughs].”
AE: We’re getting on to racing now, are we?
JPM: We’re both in that boat. And that’s what happened here too, in our own country. People from Eastern Europe came here – and the best of them came, to work and to look after those at home.
AE: You’ve had some high-profile people attending the awards - Michael Flatley, Mary McAleese, Enda Kenny, Dermot Desmond, Charlie McCreevy. People were agog when it was announced that Clinton was coming this time.
JPM: Well, he had a lot to do with the peace process in Ireland. So I thought he was the ideal man to get.
AE: And how did you go about getting him?
JPM: With difficulty [laughs].
AE: Do you want to elaborate?
JPM: I did it with the help of friends. I got a friend of mine to make an enquiry. He [Clinton] was given a few days that would work for us, so he picked November 17, which clashes with the Paddy Power meeting at Cheltenham. I said to myself, ‘Why did I include that date?’ But to work for him, it had to be that. He’s in Europe, flying around, and this is an extra pit-stop.
AE: Have you met him before?
JPM: Yeah, I played 18 holes with him one time in The K Club. He wasn’t long out of office. We were supposed to play only nine, but then he said, ‘Have we time for another nine?’
AE: Any plans for him to play golf this time?
JPM: I believe he’d like to – but it’s a challenge, because the days are short. So I’m not certain about it.
AE: There was a bit of speculation that he might be staying here in Martinstown?
JPM: If he is, it’s the first I’ve heard of it. I believe he’s coming in and flying out on the day.
AE: But he’d be welcome to stay if he needed a bed for the night?
JPM: I’m sure Noreen would be happy to put him up.
AE: You mentioned the Celtic Tiger ... do you have a view on those years? The country changed profoundly. What did you think of Ireland in those years?
JPM: What did I think? Nobody knows for certain but it seemed like it was an accident waiting to happen. Did it affect me? Yeah. It affected everybody in some form or other. Did it affect me as much as others? Probably more, but relatively speaking – no. It created opportunity as well, a lot of opportunity if you had capital. I’m sure everybody would do things differently if they could turn the clock back. You had a hope that it would continue and a fear that it was built on sand.
When you go into Europe, you give away so much. You give away your independence. You’ve no control over your interest rates or your currency, and that makes it very difficult for the powers that be.
Do I blame developers? That’s the game they were in. It’s hard to blame them, that’s what they did, that’s the way it was. I feel sad for a lot of them. But what the banks did – the lending – all that only delayed our problem. We’d have had to face it earlier. Nobody ran away with the money, you know?
AE: People in Limerick particularly have said about you that you never forgot where you came from – do you have a sense that Ireland, as a country, did forget?
JPM: In hindsight, that’s the way you see it. At the time, I was fearful but when you get to your mid-fifties you’ve been around a while and you recognise that – basically – we are still a lot better off than we were in the Seventies. There’s a great community spirit there now – I can sense it. I won’t say we lost it in those years, but it’s stronger than it was. There’s good comes out of every bad situation and there’s good in this too.
AE: OK, just to bring it back to Limerick specifically. You’ve had some high profile initiatives in terms of trying to lift community pride. You must have taken great satisfaction out of the Going for Gold challenge.
JPM: It’s great to see so many people wanting to make it work. I don’t do very much, but I like to feel that I am a part of it. There’s a lot of pride in our city and people can see that progress has been made. It would be nice to see it get to the next level. We’ve wonderful people in this city – and the county. They give it everything.
AE: We still have a tough challenge ahead, in terms of getting the city back on track.
JPM: I think you have to think small at the start and let it grow, rather than thinking big and being shot down. More and more people become involved. You see, when you’re 12 or 13 years old and in school – who do you always remember? You remember the kids who passed you the ball in the yard, or the guy who gave you a lift on the bar of his bike. The 15-year-old who passed you the ball, that’s the guy you looked up to. And the 10-year-old looks up to the 13-year-old – whatever he tells him to do, he’ll do it. They feed off each other. They’re the people they want to get the praise from. If you’ve a 60-year-old man talking to them, it doesn’t mean anything.
AE: Next year it will be 40 years since Limerick last won an All-Ireland, the only one in most people’s lifetime. What’s your overall view of those years?
JPM: I suppose you get what you deserve, but then again we could have three or four as easy as one. It wouldn’t have taken a lot. The Wexford game [1996 final] I believe we should have won. Much more than the Offaly game [1994 final]. Offaly finished very strong that day, our lads had given it everything but they were burnt out at the end. It’s a 70-minute game and Offaly were putting them over from every angle.
Against Wexford, I thought we were on top of them. They had a man sent off and it seemed to work more against us than for us.
AE: And have you found it very frustrating?
JPM: When they give it everything you can’t ask for more. I think we have a better underage system now and hopefully we’ll get the rewards. There’s an awful lot of work goes into winning an All-Ireland – so many people have to make it their lives to win one, or even to be good enough to compete. It’s difficult. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait too much longer. You can see some hope, but Kilkenny are a tough act to depose.
AE: You’ve been well known for financial assistance to the local GAA for years, there’s been talk that you’ve paid for the appointment of various managers …
JPM: There’s no truth in that.
AE: No. We never get involved in the administration. We sponsor the team and that’s the only involvement we have.
AE: So all this talk about you bankrolling the appointment of managers is wide of the mark?
JPM: Totally wide of the mark. The only involvement I have is what I give to the county board. It’s up to themselves what they do with it. It’s not a lot of money – it is what it is.
AE: And have you ever expressed an opinion on the administration, or the managers?
JPM: No – I just let them get on with it. It would be a mistake to have somebody who is controlling anybody. It’s a difficult job being an elected member of the county board, I’d say. The county board is the county board.
AE: Yeah, that’s fair enough. But the county board isn’t infallible.
JPM: Listen, there’s none of us infallible. Not by a long shot.
AE: OK, moving on to another small-ball game – golf. Your last charity pro-am was a massive success. What are your thoughts at the moment about the next one – if there is going to be a next one?
JPM: There’s a couple of factors. One is that you have to try and do it at least as good as the last time. It worked out well the last time because it had great support, from a lot of people. I enjoy it, because people around you are so enthusiastic about making it work – whatever it takes. There’s a lot of travel involved – you have to meet the people. You’re not giving them anything, because it doesn’t work. But you’ve got to make them feel welcome, and you’ve got to encourage the wives, so that they’ll enjoy being there. Then the husbands follow.
But it’s probably easier now than it was in 2000 or 1995, because you’re being asked about it. And a big benefit is that you get people to come and play and the next year they’re here, they’ll bring people with them. At the time it’s great, but there’s a spin-off. We need more events like it, more reasons for people to want to come back.
It takes an enormous amount of time and now we have less time than we had a few years ago – the rules have changed. [He can spend no more than 182 days in Ireland, under tax residency laws]. It used to be nights in the country – now it’s days. So if I come in at seven o’clock and go out at seven in the morning that counts as two days here. Once you’re here over midnight, it counts as two days. Before, it was one. They have to do whatever they have to do, but I don’t know how much they achieve by it.
To be honest, if we were doing it in 2015, you’d have to be thinking about it in the next three or four months – because people plan their schedules a long time in advance.
We don’t have the best climate in the world, we have to make the most of what we’ve got. And the thing I have here that I value more than anything is my children and my grandchildren. You’d like to be home to spend more time with them, but at the same time I’ve a business to run abroad. As I said to you before, I didn’t leave this country for tax reasons, I went to Switzerland to set up a business. Thankfully, the business has done well. More people should be encouraged to come back – and to see what they can do when they come back.
That young man this morning is going off to Australia. If he makes it big there – and God willing, he will – I wouldn’t like to see any barriers against him coming back to Ireland.
AE: You’re somebody who does things to a very exacting level – do you find the organisation of such a big event stressful?
JPM: Well, enthusiasm makes up for any mistakes and when you get to a certain stage, it’s solutions you want – you don’t want to be faced with problems. It’s solutions you need - whatever it takes. You can make the best out of a bad situation – there’s positives in the negatives.
AE: On the subject of golf, I noticed a pro-am trophy on the way in – you were in a team with Seve Ballesteros.
JPM: That’s right – we played together down in Madrid.
AE: What do you remember of that?
JPM: Well, I remember after we played we went for a meal – a buffet or whatever was there. I was a big milk drinker at the time – I ordered milk. The waiter comes with a glass, he puts some powder in the bottom of it, he adds some water and he’s stirring it up. I didn’t say anything, but I wasn’t drinking it anyway.
So Seve said, ‘You not drink the milk? You don’t like it?’ I said, ‘Look, when we drink milk it’s a little different. It comes fresh from the cow.’
So I go to Valderrama for the Ryder Cup the next year and I get a message from the European team office – Seve wants to see me. He was the European captain and I said, ‘Ah, this is a ballhop.’ I didn’t go looking for him – even if it was true I felt he’d be too busy.
After the Ryder Cup, we went back to Madrid for the pro-am. I arrived in the car with a couple of my mates and Seve says to his brother – ‘The present I have for JP – go get it.’
He produces this great big package, a box all wrapped in gift paper. I said, ‘Thanks very much Seve, I don’t know what it is but I’ll put it in the boot of the car.’ He said, ‘No, no, no – you must open it now.’ I take all the wrapping paper off – and what is it only cartons and cartons of fresh milk. Ah, he was a character.
AE: And what did you do with all the milk?
JPM: Well, I had some of it for lunch – put it in the fridge and it was ready when we came in. I toasted him with milk.
When I came back here afterwards I was speaking to the lads in the office, speaking to Declan [Moylan]. I said, ‘You know what I’m going to do with Seve? I’m going to send him a cow – for the craic.’ It was a great laugh, but when we tried to send the cow over the logistics were too difficult.
AE: What about the big party you had here in Martinstown during the summer – there was huge interest in it.
JPM: There was maybe criticism in some quarters for having a party, but it does something for the economy when you have a party. We had people from different parts of the world and because they’re coming they plan on having a week in Ireland, or 10 days. They bring the kids. And it adds to the economy. I think you need it. It helps – you need more events.
AE: The invitations were about it being a celebration of two of your racehorses. Was that a ruse? In the early hours, there was a big happy birthday for Noreen …
JPM: Ah that was a last-minute thing. She was probably a bit embarrassed by it.
AE: But it was her birthday.
JPM: It was her birthday alright – in the morning.
AE: Surely that was the reason you had the party in the first place?
JPM: We don’t always need a reason to have a party. She said to me, ‘People will think I’m older than I am. I said, ‘They’ll think you’re younger.’ But it’s not often you have a Gold Cup winner and a Grand National winner. That’s worth celebrating too.
AE: You referred to some criticism of it. Was that something …
JPM: You’ll always have critics. But you can’t bury your head in the sand and do nothing in these times. I don’t think it does any harm. You have to show the world we’re able to celebrate too.
AE: You’re a serious businessman – was there a bit of that involved too, business?
JPM: We don’t start off with that intention, but you never know what develops out of it – for me or for other people. They get together, they chat, they’re having a few drinks late in the night. You never know what good things could happen.
AE: Around this time last year, on the day of the scholarship awards, some people might say you were ambushed a bit by the media and asked about your residency in Switzerland. That became the story the following day, rather than the awards. What was your view of that?
JPM: Well, for me the day was about the scholarship winners. It was a day for them. I didn’t think it was a day for that. It was disappointing that they took that angle on it. Maybe they feel that was their role.
AE: You had already spoken about the tax situation in a previous interview with the Leader, so you were really only restating what you’d said then, a year before.
JPM: True. People have different views on it.
AE: So would you have been angry about it?
JPM: Angry is too strong a word. The only people that ever upset me are the people I care about. They can upset me very easily. I may have appeared angry at the time. I may have been forceful about the point I was making at the time, rather than angry. I think – going forward – we need a country that tries to attract the wealth of the world. I’m not talking about JP McManus. But you need to have a situation where you have a country about which people say, ‘Why wouldn’t we come to Ireland?’As Jamie Dimon once said, ‘Capital goes where it wants. It stays where it’s well treated.’
AE: Right. Excuse my ignorance – who’s Jamie Dimon?
JPM: He’s the head of JP Morgan. I met him one day, a few of us had lunch, and I remember him saying that. Now you can look at a few individuals in Ireland and you can write the rules because of them. There may be a lot of political mileage in writing about it. But don’t drag down the country. Don’t drag it down to get more votes in your constituency by it. All you’re doing is affecting the people - you’re not helping them. That’s about playing to the lowest common denominator. Let’s try and get the highest common denominator.
I don’t intend to die a wealthy man. That’s not my ambition in life. But I’d like to have enough to live for the rest of my life.
AE: And you intend to continue making charitable donations?
JPM: I’ll be supportive.
AE: The residency rules are clearly something you feel strongly about. Is your life dictated – or at least influenced to a significant extent – by them?
JPM: No. What it means for me is, I have to spend so much time working anyway, so it’s about my free time – where do I spend it? Like , over an-eight week period I only spent two nights in Ireland. I go down to the South of France – it’s only half an hour away. That’s no great hardship. Would I prefer to be coming home to Ireland at the weekend and spending the time trying to work from here? Yeah, I would. Sure. I feel I could do more. But it’s not a great penance – it just means you organise yourself differently. There are a lot of people who’d like to do a lot for their country. They’d like to do it. They are doing it – in their own way.
The biggest difficulty I see is when you are entertaining people. You’d like to bring them to Waterville, or the like. But when you bring them, you’ve got to be there – so you have to block that time out. Instead, you can say to yourself, ‘It’s a bit difficult with the time, let’s bring them to play golf in Scotland or somewhere else.’ And it’s a pity, it doesn’t achieve anything. It has a negative effect, not a positive one. I think people are sometimes misinformed …
AE: About tax exiles?
JPM: Well, what is a tax exile? For me a tax exile is somebody who leaves the country in order to avoid paying a particular tax that was due in the country. And as I said to you before, if you leave the country and you don’t want to come back – you don’t want to do anything here – then you’re an emigrant. If you go abroad and do well and you decide you want to come back, you’re an exile. But people think differently on these things.
AE: OK, you’ve made a lot of money from the currency markets. Dermot Desmond has said you’re “a wizard” with figures.
JPM: Ah, I think that’s overplayed.
AE: People say you have a computer brain for numbers.
JPM: Ah listen, maybe in the primary school I was OK. I think these days I get lost.
AE: You don’t back your own horses if you don’t think the odds are reasonable?
JPM: Betting isn’t a big part of my life. I might have a game of gin or backgammon that would mean something, but as for betting on horses it’s not significant.
AE: It’s a bit of fun?
JPM: I’d get more fun out of my mates having a few quid on, getting the kick out of it.
AE: But clearly betting was – I don’t want to go into your whole life story now, but there was a time when it was a big factor.
JPM: Well, my life centred around gambling. I do believe I had an addiction to gambling in my youth.
AE: Really? You’d put it that strongly?
JPM: I’d bet on anything if I could find someone to bet with me. But looking back – and as a friend pointed out to me – you change the addiction to gambling to one for winning. It’s not the gambling that’s important, it’s the winning. That’s something that came to me on reflection. It’s something I’ve tried to say to anybody who’s prepared to listen.
AE: How does that process work, that change of emphasis?
JPM: I’ve tried to teach a few people that the need is to win, not to gamble. That means you don’t have to bet all the time, you’ve to be more selective. It’s like a business decision, gambling. I’ll have a bet on a game of golf – I’ll have 50 euros, or depending on who I’m playing it might be 10 euros. It just has to be important to them for me to want to win – but not enough that it’s going to be life-changing, for them or for me.
If you can change the addiction, you become more controlled, more conscious. You have to have discipline and temperament. Gambling nowadays – I don’t want to be driving people mad, I’m not recommending anybody to go into it, but the punter has a chance. The margins for bookmakers are very tight.
I remember when there was 20 pence in the pound tax paid on a bet – that in itself, strangely, was a good thing for bookmakers. Contrary to what people said – because it acted as a protection for them. Anybody who paid 20% tax, they couldn’t beat the system. So they were trying to do multiples instead of singles.
I loved the gambling, I loved all to do with it. I loved playing cards in Spellacys. Even though it was an amateur game, we’d have been one of the better amateurs in there. I loved it. But the best thing that happened to me was when tax went to 20% because I quit overnight. I found it upsetting. I thought,‘What are they trying to do?’ Then, when I went bookmaking, I made a lot of mistakes.
AE: What was the biggest?
JPM: There was loads, but I remember one time I went to Killarney – 1972 I’d say it was, I was 21. I had got a lift to the races with Paddy Murphy, who lived up there in Rathbane, he used to have the sweet stall at the races. His son used to have an ice cream van – lovely people. So he gave me a lift and I had my big betting bag and my tripod.
At the races I lost a few hundred quid on the first day. It was a three-day meeting and I was staying at the Torc hotel. I started playing cards that night and whatever money I had, I lost the lot. I remember hitching back home on the Wednesday morning and having to face into a field of hay in the afternoon.
But it was a learning process – you’re back to your father for a little while, trying to get a few quid again. That’s what it was – and it gave you time to think about what you were doing wrong. I used to get out these betting books and think, ‘That didn’t make a lot of sense, did it?’ And it’s like the old thing – if you learn from them, they’re not real mistakes. But I do believe if I my dad had given me a million pounds, I’d have lost the million before I started to learn.
AE: You were a potential case for Gamblers Anonymous, were you?
JPM: I had disciplined myself at that stage. I’d stopped betting.
AE: I’m talking about earlier on.
JPM: I don’t know about Gamblers Anonymous, don’t know much about it – I just know I had a gene in me and I wanted to gamble all the time. But I was very lucky, when I started gambling on the racecourse. One, I didn’t have a family history going into it. That can be an advantage in that there were no old-fashioned ideas. Maybe we were the start of that new group who believed they could make punting pay. And I saw, as a bookmaker, punters who were very regular winners. They weren’t big gamblers – but they fed their families, sent their kids to college. You’d find you were writing them the cheque every Monday. I never closed a winning account – I just used it to my advantage.
JPM: I always thought it was nice to know what they were doing – rather than guessing. You had to respect what they were doing. The information was worth something.
AE: But just going back to Dermot Desmond’s point – there must be something to what he’s saying. I don’t understand currency markets and what goes on in them, but you must have some exceptional facility for understanding risk and recognising opportunities.
JPM: don’t know about that. Most things come down to common sense. It’s not a subject taught at school, but it’s the most important subject. Just common sense.
AE: My dad would agree with you on that one - he says it’s not so common. OK, second last question. These Rich Lists that come out - from The Sunday Times – do you see them?
JPM: Well if you don’t see them somebody shows them to you.
AE: Are they guessing?
JPM: Are they guessing? I don’t know what they’re doing. But nobody seems to argue with them.
AE: Are they guessing in your case?
JPM: Listen, I’m not going down that road [laughs].
AE: OK, you’re 62 now ...
JPM: Coming up – I’ll be there soon enough, God willing. Sixty-one at last count.
AE: Have you any number in mind as to when you might retire from the business?
JPM: I just hope I can live as long as I can – healthy and well. I enjoy what I do. I don’t do anything I don’t enjoy doing. If that’s business, or in the office, or down here – I’m just happy. Happy with my life, happy I feel I’ve got extra time [he was diagnosed with cancer in 2008 but made a full recovery]. My health is perfect. I was so lucky it was caught in time.
AE: OK, that’s good, I really enjoyed the chat.
A file of correspondence has been placed on the desk we’re sitting at. He looks through it in search of the letter from the scholarship winner’s mother, but it’s not there. There are updates on the student’s progress, letters from the girl herself, but not the one that so moved him a few years ago.
He suggests ringing his office in Geneva. The call is made and the letter – all 10 pages of it – is put on a fax. When it arrives he steps out of the room and leaves me to read it alone.
Had there been a bet struck, he would have won it.