'A life less ordinary': Ireland pays tribute to businessman Ben Dunne

Former director of the Dunnes Stores chain died suddenly on holiday in Dubai

Ben Dunne in his home in Dublin in 1993. The businessman and former Dunnes Stores boss has died at the age of 74. Getty Images
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Ben Dunne, the Irish entrepreneur who died in Dubai at the weekend age 74, was often embroiled in controversy, leading Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to describe him as a “larger than life” figure who led “a life less ordinary”.

Born in Cork in March 1949, the former director of family business Dunnes Stores and owner of a chain of gyms lived a colourful life, being kidnapped by the IRA in the 1980s and arrested in Florida in 1992, sparking a scandal in Ireland.

Dunne was found to have paid millions of dollars to Irish politicians over the years, leading to extensive inquiries into the scale under-the-table lobbying in the country.

Dunne died in Dubai while he was on holiday with his son and a friend.

In 1981, masked gunmen from the IRA kidnapped Mr Dunne as he was on his way to open a shop in Northern Ireland. He was released a week later, reportedly after a hefty ransom was paid.

In 1992 he was arrested in Florida after threatening to jump from a 17th-floor hotel balcony in Orlando and charged with possession of cocaine.

The incident signalled the end of his control of the family business, his sister Margaret Heffernan succeeding in ousting him from the business altogether.

A subsequent accounting review uncovered details of Dunne’s payments totalling millions of dollars to politicians, including former prime minister Charles Haughey.

He touched the lives of tens of thousands who will mourn his loss
Leo Varadkar

In 2008, Dunne apologised “unreservedly for the hardship and hurt” caused to a checkout worker Mary Manning, who led a strike at Dunnes Stores outlet on Dublin's Henry Street in protest against apartheid in South Africa during the 1980s.

The employees adhered to a trade union call not to handle any South African produce, and were left on the picket line for two and half years – without pay – while Dunne stood firm. The strike ended only when the Irish government banned the importation of South African fruit and vegetables as long as the apartheid regime continued.

In the aftermath of the incident, Dunne told RTE's Liveline he wanted to show that “as life goes on, even though wrongs were done, you can still overcome them and you can still be friends at the end of the day”.

He later became known for his chain of gyms in Ireland, which bear his name.

The outlets were forced to close temporarily during the Covid-19 lockdowns, marking a period when he sold his luxury yacht and his ­helicopter, apparently in an attempt to recoup money lost in his businesses, saying: “All the people I know have taken a hit and I think it has done nobody any harm. It has done me no harm.”

The group returned to profit after the pandemic.

Not all of his businesses were a success, however. He once attempted, and failed, to build a cemetery in London.

His son, Robert, said he would miss him in a way he could not describe, news website Extra.ie reported. “He was a good and decent man,” he added.

Mr Varadkar said in a statement: “I was deeply saddened to hear that Ben Dunne has died. A constituent of mine in Castleknock and a local employer, I met Ben many times. He really was larger than life.

“Among other things, he pioneered the fitness industry in Ireland, first with Westpoint and then Ben Dunne Gyms. He led a life less ordinary and in turn he made some mistakes in life.

“The best people do. He never allowed that to defeat him or hold him back. He touched the lives of tens of thousands who will mourn his loss.”

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald also offered her condolences, saying she was “very sad to hear of the sudden death of Ben Dunne".

“My thoughts are with his beloved family," she added. "He was a good man who cared about people. We will never see his likes again.”

Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs said it was aware of the sudden death of an Irish citizen in the UAE and was providing consular assistance.

Updated: November 20, 2023, 1:16 PM