The richest man in Ireland

  • 31 August 1982
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An assessment of the financial clout of Archbishop Dermot Ryan, By Pat Brennan

Archbishop Dermot Ryan controls assets in the Dublin region of well over £ I OOmillion. He is there by one of the single most influential business executives in the country.

The term "executive" is no missnomer for the leader of the country's largest Catholic diocese. It has been through his astute management of the financial and adrniriistrative dimennsions to his episcopate that he has consolidated the position of the Church in Dublin, rather than through any kind of charismatic spiritual leaderrship for which his personality is clearly unsuited.

Ryan is the spiritual leader. of nearrly 1 million Catholics in a diocese that reaches from Balbriggan to Arkklow. He is also the architect and conntroller of an elaborate mini-state, the structures of which are interwoven into the slightly larger secular society. Ryan's mini-state, the Dublin Diocese, is divided into 186 parishes with 234 chapels and churches, 713 schools, 473 houses, and at least 100 commuunity centres. The diocese is staffed by some 700 priests, assisted by about 750 nuns and a lay staff of about 600.

All those people are answerable to Archbishop Ryan. All that property is owned by the Saint Lawrence O'Toole Diocesan Trust Limited. The Chairman of the Company's board is Dermot Ryan, and he can hire or fire any of the other directors.

Since Dermot Ryan took over from the late Archbishop McQuaid in 1972, the population of Dublin has grown disproportionately to the rest of the country. Ryan - not a man of great imagination or vision - has kept the escalating population within the bounds of Catholic influence by furrther centralising and strengthening the administrative and financial structures started by McQuaid. Before the first roads are laid in the new housing esstates of the satellite towns, the Archhbishop has bought land for the church, a site for the school and usually three houses for the clergy.

The backbone of all this planning is the. Diocesan property company, The St. Lawrence O'Toole Diocesan

Trust Limited. Archbishop McQuaid set up the company in 1966 to consollidate all diocesan land. Previous to that time, parish land was owned jointtly by the local parish priest, the Archhbishop and usually one other person. Now, everything is owned by the Trust. The parish will have very little say in what actually happens to the property. Recently one North city parish wanted to sell an unneeded and very large presbytery to raise money for other local projects. Archbishop's House said, no. In another parish of dwinddling numbers; the land adjacent to the local parish school was sold to the IDA by the Trust for £101,000.

The current board of directors of the Trust are Archbishop Ryan (Chairrman), Bishop Patrick Dunne, Monnsignor Charles F. Hurley, Bishop Joseph Carroll, Bishop James Kavaanagh, Bishop Dermot O'Mahoney, and Monsignor Desmond Williams. Only Dunne and Hurley have been on the board since McQuaid's time, the reemainder arc Ryan appointees. The company secretary is Rev. Patrick Carroll, the chaplain of St. Briddget's Parish Killester.

The powers of the company are exxtensive. It acts as trustee for all propperty and investments of the Catholic Church in Dublin. It can "a) purchase, take on a lease or otherwise acquire any lands, buildings, farms, gardens or other property for any estate or interrest whatsoever and any rights priviileges or easements over or in respect of that property; b) sell, improve, manage, develop, exchange, lease, hire, mortgage, dispose of, turn to account or otherwise deal with all or any part of the undertaking, property and rights of the company; c) borrow or raise or secure payment of money in such a manner as the company shall think fit; d) acquire and hold stocks, shares and securities and other investtments and to invest and deal with the monies of the company not immeddiately needed."

Ryan is not just a figure head on the hoard. He is completely in control of the finances of the company and is au fait with all the details as he is with nearly every other aspect of running the diocese. He is, by all accounts, an impressive and often intimidating administrator. He has the unnerving habit of asking incisive and critical questions about the progress of small, local projects when he meets the priests involved at totally unconnnected social events.

Recently Ryan addressed meetings of priests at the 10 diocesan deaneries. He gave an intensive lecture on the finances of the diocese, complete with graphs, and information about popuulation trends. The financial problems of the diocese are simple - Dublin is growing so fast that more new parishes are needed than can be paid for from diocesan income. The diocese is now £8million in debt, and work on some new churches has been delayed beecause of problems obtaining bank loans.

While the mounting debt gives cause for concern, it is not serious enough to threaten the company's extensive assets. Neither is there any indication that land buying has slowed down. In 1982 the Trust bought about 25 acres and 2 houses in the new houssing estates being planned around Dubblin. Other purchases in the past year include a further 23 acres and 6 houses. These properties alone are worth almost £3million.

Ryan's assistant in the running of the finances of the Diocese is Monnsignor Desmond Williams. Williams, a man unknown to the public, was appointed company secretary by Archhbishop McQuaid when the Trust was set up. He continued in the position under Ryan and in January 1977, Ryan appointed him to the board of directors. It is Williams who heads the diocesan Finance Secretariat, an operation shrouded in much secrecy.

The Finance Secretariat refuses to .1.. divulge how it finances its land buying projects, and whether or not it holds shares in other companies or has made other investments. The Dioocesan revenue indicates that £500,000 is earned from investments annually, but the Secretariat has refused to specify just what those investments are.

The bare minimum of information is released to the Companies and Land Registry Offices. For instance, in the 200 odd Land Registry files of indiviidual land transactions involving land bought by the Lawrence O'Toole Trust just three very minor mortgages or loans are listed. The rest of the land lists no financial "burdens", which means either the Trust is buying the land for cash outright, or that they wish the finance arrangements to remain a secret. Since the Diocesan budget for land buying and building is just £4million, the latter is probbably the case. The secrecy that surrrounds the finance operation, and the complete refusal to answer reasonably simple questions, is an indication of the extent to which Ryan, ably assissted by Williams, holds the reins of power. A more open administration might feel obliged to be more forthhcoming with information.

All indications are that the running of the finances of the Dublin Diocese is a competent and conservative busiiness operation. However it is financed, it is certainly not through the wholeesale selling off of the property assets the church has amassed in the last century.

In the last two years, the only siggnificant sales have been a premises in East Wall to the IDA for £101 ,000, numbers 62/63 Eccles Street (formerrly the Dublin Institute for Adult Education), a house on 9.75 acres in Killiney, a half dozen houses and several ground rent transactions on lands in central Dublin. The extent of the diocesan interests as a ground rent landlord is impossible to unravel withhout their co-operation. Recently a pub in Capel Street where the Church owns much of the ground bought out its ground rent from the O'Toole Trust. According to the owner, the church offered no resistance to, or exorbitant price for the transaction.

The extent of diocesan property comes to at least 1,000 acres in the Dublin area. About 600 acres are lissted in the Land Registry, but this does not include some of the older parish lands, or any of the area in the city centre. On average, each parish has about 5 acres, with some of the older parishes having considerably more.

The design of the new parishes is in keeping with Ryan's tactic of prooviding a community-integrated, tightly controlled administration that will help offset any flagging commitment to Catholicism. The new parishes are small. The church is, ideally, smack in the middle of the housing estate. There is no role for individually flammboyant parishes or priests. The Finnance Secretariat has a £300,000 ceiling on the amount that can be spent on the church, and the architect's plans must be approved by the Diocesan Commission on Sacred Art and Archiitecture. The houses for the priests are sprinkled throughout the estate. The parish school is built long before the idea of a non-denominational community school can be mooted. A community of (usually 4) nuns are assigned to the parish and a house or flat is provided for them. If the area is perceived to be a potential "problem" community a social serrvices centre is provided. It is through the provision of elaborate, highly centralised, parish and diocesan strucctures, rather than through charismatic leadership, that Ryan keeps his growwing flock under control.

ArChbiShop Ryan is not a personnable man. He is aloof, abrupt and is said to loath the socialising that is seen to be part of the job. For that reason - and also to quiet suggestions that his too large Dublin Diocese be broken up -- he has organised a second tier of bishops under him. They each have nominal control over a geograaphic area, and see to many of the pubblic duties that Ryan himself dislikes and is clearly inept at. Ryan's second tier is made up of Bishops Carroll, Kavanagh, O'Mahoney , Murray and Comiskey. They are all under the firm control of Ryan's office in Archbiishop's House, and they have no real autonomy.

The value of the property empire which is an integral part of the struccture which sustains Dermot Ryan's authority, is almost inestimable. Some of the lands (although not most) are devalued by agreements with the County Council or the Department of Education about the uses to which the land can be put. Many of the Church owned schools have, in agreeement with the Minister for Education, to be used for education for the next 99 years. However, older schools are subject to no conditions. Two such schools, one in Castleknock and one in Dorset Street, were sold in 1977. £ 1 00 million is a conservative estimate of the total property value. It is probbably much more.

However, most of the wealth of Dublin Diocese is unrealisable if passtoral work is to continue. Even if it were realisable, Archbishop Ryan is an unlikely character for indulging in the trappings of wealth. He lives in the same comfortable semi-detached house in Stillorgan where he lived beefore his consecration. He rises at about 6.30 each morning, says mass in Drummcondra and is at his desk by 8.30. He lunches with the chancery staff, and if he has any free time at all he is likely to spend it on the golf course.

In the ten years since he took over from Archbishop McQuaid, Derrmot Ryan, the one time liberal, has consolidated the power-base initiated by McQuaid. He has surrounded himmself with bishops of his choosing and has relinquished to them none of his authority. He has treated his priests less erratically and more fairly than his predecessor, but he has also made them more and more dependent on decisions made in Archbishop's House. And if the diocesan debt has increased from £3 million to £8 million in the last decade, the diocesan assets have increased by a good deal more than that. Whatever about its spiritual strength, the financial and adminisstrative base of the diocese is stronger than it has ever been before. And it's all centred around Dermot Ryan, who although not the most pu blic, is cerrtainly the most powerful cleric in the country.