Michael Quinn grew up in Drimnagh, a tough neighborhood in Dublin. After leaving school as a teenager in the 1950s, he trained as a mechanic. An ordinary blue-collar life might have beckoned had one of his neighbours not started a show band, the Royal Olympics. These groups were unique to ’60s and ’70s Ireland: shiny-suited young men playing rock ’n’ roll or jazz, perpetually touring church halls and farm sheds to earn shoeboxes full of cash.
The Olympics needed a manager, and soon Quinn had a new career as one of the natty, ruthless handlers a BBC documentary labeled “men in mohair suits.” He ran some top acts: Daddy Cool & the Lollipops, Twink, Dickie Rock. An old friend recalls that he’d approach a singer and say, “How much are you earning? One hundred pounds a gig? I can get you 1,000.”
ALSO READ: Summary of facts on P&ID liability
Quinn stuck with the industry for a while after the showbands’ popularity declined—newspaper reports suggest he arranged an Irish tour by Diana Ross and the Supremes—but there was more money to be made elsewhere. At some point in the ’70s he started working in Nigeria, either as an oil trader or a financier of cement deals, depending on which of the scattered accounts of his life you believe. He began profiting from a construction boom taking place in Lagos, which was then expanding with such chaotic abandon that hundreds of cement-bearing cargo ships were lined up at port waiting to dock.
He kept working in Ireland, too. In 1979 he and a partner, Brendan Cahill, formed an umbrella company with the resolutely dull name Industrial Consultants (International) to oversee their interests. They began working with the government, for example getting a public grant worth $450,000 to start a videocassette factory near Dublin. The project went bust within two years.
Quinn’s business drew on some powerful allies dating to his showband days. One of the closest was Albert Reynolds, a former music hall impresario who was elected to Parliament in 1977 and became prime minister in 1992. Two years after being elected PM, Reynolds was promoting Kent Steel, one of Quinn’s companies, as a potential savior of Irish industry. Kent had recently won 3 million Irish pounds (about $4.3 million at the time) from the European Union to explore cleaner technology for making steel—potentially a huge boon. Instead, the project produced nothing but some sketches and a bunch of debris.
Joe McCartin, then a member of the European Parliament, says he raised concerns with an EU official that the deal was a scam and was told, “Don’t worry. Your prime minister, Albert Reynolds, knows all about the project.” The EU did eventually start a probe into the grant, and McCartin, who’s now retired, says its investigators showed him a letter from Irish prosecutors relaying that a fraud had been committed but that they couldn’t identify the perpetrators. The probe was eventually closed without penalty; the EU refused to fulfill freedom of information request about the case, citing privacy rules. Reynolds passed away in 2014.
Quinn’s name came up again during a nationwide corruption inquiry in Ireland. The Mahon Tribunal, as it was eventually known, lasted for 14 years, compiling evidence of graft on an epic scale. Quinn was called as a witness in June 2007, one of the few times he ever spoke on the record. The tribunal wanted to know more about relationships Industrial Consultants had with Frank Dunlop, a shady lobbyist, and Liam Lawlor, a corrupt Republican MP who’d resigned in disgrace before being killed in a 2005 car crash outside Moscow.
Quinn denied knowledge of invoices that bore his company’s name—payments for golf fundraisers, he guessed—and said he thought his signature had been forged on checks. He had no recollection of many of his dealings with Dunlop. “You are a singularly unhelpful witness,” Alan Mahon, the presiding judge, told him. “What you are telling us is nothing, absolutely nothing.” The tribunal later found that tens of thousands of pounds had flowed from Quinn’s companies to Lawlor, but Quinn wasn’t recalled to the stand, and neither he nor Industrial Consultants faced any action.
By then, Quinn had developed a fearsome reputation. Several former associates told Businessweek they were scared to speak on the record about him because they believed he had ties to Irish paramilitaries; one said Quinn told him his father had been in the original Irish Republican Army in the 1920s. Employees introduced him as “the chairman,” and he employed a man with a pugilist’s squashed nose to drive guests around Dublin, apparently without great regard for red lights. A former Quinn associate says that when Quinn’s daughter ended a brief marriage to David Boreanaz, an American actor best known for roles on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, Boreanaz called Quinn to make sure there was no bad blood between them. Boreanaz’s manager didn’t respond to requests for comment.