Lee Mallaghan obituary: Tyrone engineer, inventor and businessman who devoted his wealth and energy to the £100m restoration of Carton House
Lee Mallaghan, who grew up on a small farm as a member of Northern Ireland’s minority Catholic community, was the unlikely savior of one of the great houses of Anglo-Irish ancestry.
Although he made his fortune in invention, engineering and mining, he will probably be best remembered as a businessman who devoted his considerable time, energy and wealth to saving one of Ireland’s grand Palladian mansions, Carton House in Maynooth, Co Kildare.
The ancestral home of the FitzGeralds, Earls of Kildare and Dukes of Leinster – which was once at the center of a 70,000-acre estate across Kildare and Meath – was in a sorry state when he came to the rescue, plowing much of his fortune in the sprawling house, estate, and art treasures.
Carton’s original house was built by the Talbot family of Malahide, on land leased from the FitzGeralds. In 1739 the 19th Earl of Kildare bought out the lease and employed Richard Castle to build a new Palladian mansion on the site.
Castle actually died “on the job” and another big favorite from the Ascendant, Richard Morrison, was later employed to remodel the house.
The 1st Duke of Leinster – father of United Irish patriot Lord Edward FitzGerald, who was executed in 1798 – and his wife Emily completed the house and the FitzGerald family also built Leinster House in Kildare Street, where the houses now stand of the Oireachtas.
Queen Victoria slept in the Chinese Room when she was at Carton in 1899; it remains decorated as it was in 1759.
Princess Grace of Monaco, Tiger Woods and a host of sports stars, from Real Madrid soccer players to Irish rugby greats, were among the guests. Singer Marianne Faithfull lived on the land, in what is called the Shell House, for several years.
Its land also served as the setting for Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 film Barry Lyndonwith Ryan O’Neal.
Michael Lee Mallaghan, known as Lee – whose brother-in-law is former Tyrone football manager Mickey Harte – grew up on a small farm near the nationalist village of Pomeroy in County Tyrone.
Born September 15, 1939, one of nine children, he worked on the family farm and, as a young man, cut grass and picked potatoes. He and his brother Terry “tinkered” with generators and pumps to supply the family farm with electricity and running water.
He found school “a distraction” and after an apprenticeship at a local garage and later engineering firms, he founded Ulster Plant – later renamed Powerscreen International – with his friends Pat O’Neill and Pat Douglas . The company grew from humble beginnings to become a world leader in the manufacture of excavation machinery and became the largest employer in Northern Ireland.
Much of its machinery was used outside Ireland, and the company benefited from the oil boom in the Middle East and other emerging markets. Over the years it has created so many spin-off companies that Pat O’Neill has described it as the “Silicon Valley of heavy equipment”.
Mallaghan has filed over 30 lucrative patents in the unglamorous world of excavation, material screening and recycling. He was always self-effacing, avoiding publicity and personal promotions and continuing to work.
The Mallaghan family acquired Carton House and the estate in 1977.
The house’s survival is all the more miraculous because of the misfortunes of the FitzGeralds, Dukes of Leinster. Of great wealth, position and privilege, Carton and his possession were to pass to the 7th Duke, Edward FitzGerald. But he had given up “his expectations” in 1922 to repay his debts, estimated at more than 16 million euros in current money, to Sir Henry Mallaby-Deeley.
The Duke was forbidden to live in or even visit the house as it was believed that valuable family heirlooms had gone missing. Other family members were allowed to stay, while the Duke ended up in a one-room flat in Westminster, London, where he died in 1976.
In 1949 Carton was sold to a wealthy brewer, Arthur Nall-Cain, 2nd Baron Brocket, for £80,000. He and his son used it as a dairy farm for nearly 30 years, according to Terence Dooley’s book, The Decline and Fall of the Dukes of Leinster: Love, War, Debt and Madness.
For a time the house was rented by Desmond Guinness and his wife Mariga and it was here that in 1957 they founded the Irish Georgian Society, with the aspiration to save houses like Carton.
After selling his stake in Powerscreen International in 1986, Mallaghan and his family moved to Castleknock, Dublin, and embarked on the mammoth €100 million restoration of Carton and the 1,100-acre estate that still stretches from the main street of Maynooth in the countryside, with miles of intact stone walls.
The restoration of Carton House was a colossal undertaking and tested the ingenuity of its new owner.
In 1990 Guinness Enterprise expressed interest in creating a Gleneagles-style resort in Carton in partnership with Mallaghan – who combined his interest in Gaelic football with a passion for golf – but after changes in the company management, the plan never materialized.
Another potential partner, Westin Hotels, decided to pull out of a joint venture in the wake of September 11, 2001, just as a new world-class golf course designed by Colin Montgomerie was about to open. .
“After Westin left, we had a major challenge because we had built-in planning permission,” said Lee’s son, Conor. “We are committed primarily to restoring Carton House as well as building two golf courses.”
A second championship golf course, designed by Mark O’Meara, was opened and luxury homes were also built on part of the estate. The Golfing Union of Ireland has also set up its headquarters there.
In 1999 a group of private investors were brought in to offset some of the costs and in 2017 the house, 144-room hotel and estate were put up for sale for 60 million euros. With the backing of the National Asset Management Agency (Nama), Carton was sold to American businessman John Mullen for 57 million euros, by the Mallaghan family and other investors.
“The Mallaghan family are honored to have had a 40 year association with Carton House and remain extremely proud of the standard of restoration achieved on this magnificent heritage property and estate,” said Conor. It has since undergone another extensive renovation program under the direction of its current owner.
The Mallaghan family’s wealth had also been profitably invested in Cooley Distillery and made a multi-million profit when it was sold to the American company Jim Beam. They have also been involved in other start-ups.
Lee Mallaghan, who received an honorary degree from Maynooth University in 2008 for his contribution to industry and sport, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease six years ago and died on June 6 at the 82 years old.
Gifts at his funeral in Maynooth last Friday included the shirt worn by his All-Ireland winner nephew Peter Harte of Tyrone. He is survived by his wife Mary of 53 years and his children Conor, Bronagh, Deborah and Stephen.