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Obituary: Patsy Byrne 1949-2013

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Patsy Byrne (1949-2013)

LATE last year, with the Shard completed, I made a telephone call to inquire if Patsy Byrne would be interested in doing some kind of radio interview with the concrete job on Europe’s tallest building now complete.

“Thanks very much for the offer,” came the reply. “I’ll ask, but I don’t think Patsy would really be that interested.”

For a time, I wondered why? Why this self-made man from Kerry wouldn’t jump at the chance to talk about some of his many significant achievements.

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But then this was someone who was previously asked at a construction gathering to share his three greatest successes in the industry.

The parcel of celebration was handed around the room as players celebrated the monuments on which they built their success, and then it was Patsy’s turn:

“Closing Waterloo station, shutting down three junctions on the M25 and diverting air traffic away from Heathrow Airport,” he said with mischief.

Despite being a huge personality his wont was to dodge acts of self-promotion.

A son of Duagh in Co. Kerry, Patsy Byrne was laid to rest last Thursday after what was a remarkable life.

In business, Byrne was a visionary who began working life as a carpenter with Broderick’s in Co. Kerry before starting and finishing some of Britain’s major construction projects, from the job that made him in Chelsea Harbour in the 80s, to the Emirates Stadium, Wimbledon’s Number One court, Olympic Park and of course The Shard, among others.

In sport, his personality and achievements were just as big, winning the Irish, English and Scottish derbies in Greyhound racing as an owner, while also sponsoring the Byrne Group Plate at the Cheltenham Festival and only recently watching his horse White Star Line win the Kerry Grand National.

In his personal life, he was the father, husband and grandfather who loved spending time with his family; and who in his public life was the charismatic expression of all those things and more.

Thousands turned up at his funeral in Kerry, shook hands with his family, shared favourite stories and celebrated gestures of generosity which underscored his personality as much as his reputation for being a straight shooter with a sense of fun.

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Stories were told and banter was typical of a man who once met the Queen at her request after she bought two of his horses at a charity auction. Later, her Majesty was told that Patsy was interested in buying a filly covered by her horse, Motivator.

When it came up in conversation, Patsy said: “Yes Ma’am, I’m glad you raised it because I want to talk to you about a discount.”

Byrne was born in 1949 and was one of five children from humble beginnings. His parents had little, but they had a reputation for being generous with the little they had. Byrne enjoyed a reputation for being generous with much of what he accumulated, putting his shoulder to the wheel of worthy causes for the Irish in Britain as well as at home and abroad.

So too was he generous with his time.

This week, horse trainer Tony Martin described Patsy Byrne as “a man of great backbone, solid, straight, a bit round too, but a great man to give advice, to help you out.”

“But Patsy would hate to be made out as some kind of saint,” said his son Michael. “Because he wasn’t, he had failings he was all too aware of. There weren’t many sentences that didn’t contain the word f**k and he’d say it how it was, but to him friends were extended family. He was a leading light.”

Competitors from construction companies based in Britain attended his funeral this week to pay their respect to a peer who started working life in London sleeping head-to-toe in a bedsit in Shepherds’ Bush, before getting what is now recognised as the Byrne Group off the ground.

He went to work with his wife’s  (from Lixnaw, Co. Kerry) father and later joined forces with his brother Johnny. Much of his success is attributed to the high standards he set himself and expected of others, combined with burning ambition.

Patsy Byrne (centre) pictured with Pat Carroll (left) and the late Cathal Ryan
Patsy Byrne (centre) pictured with Pat Carroll (left) and the late Cathal Ryan

Down the years, neighbours would call to his mother’s place in Duagh and ask whether Patsy had work for their young fella in London and he played his part as an exiled community employer.

Among so many accolades, he was regarded as a class act and a proud Irishman. There were recollections this week about a Patsy mantra sometimes spoken before the off in the enclosure at some racecourse, in Britain or Ireland. There, he would ask those around him to remain dignified in victory or noble in defeat.

But then it strikes you about Patsy Byrne that he didn’t suffer too many defeats and if he did, they were outweighed by his gains.

He made the running and people followed, through his life and onto Duagh last week to bid a final emotional farewell.

The family he left behind have been overwhelmed by the support they’ve received and their thanks is fulsome.

‘Patsy Byrne 1949-2013 and beyond,’ said his son Michael of one tribute.

And if you want another for down the line, just look up at the sky in London any day and you’ll see that the legacy of his contribution lives on. Just don’t shout about it. It wouldn’t be Patsy’s style.


Robert Mulhern

Robert is a freelance news and sports journalist. He is also the author of A Very Different County and creator/producer of Sex, Flights and Videotapes for RTE's Doc on One. Follow him @MulhernRobert on Twitter

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