Dempsey laughs now at the memory from a few months ago: “It was around that time she told me that I wasn’t going to be let out on my own again. Ita always tells the story of how she sent me out to buy a present for someone and I came back with an apartment in New York - and no present.”
Ita’s instinct was right. The latest call was pre-arranged to put him through to a very special auction under way across town. Bids in the room were rising but Dempsey, surrounded by headstones, held his peace on the end of the phone.
“I let it go right to the end,” he recalls. Finally, he put in his bid – €85,000 – and waited.
Sitting now in Davy Byrnes, the pub he was also then in the process of buying for a price said to be close to €4.5m, he chuckles at the memory, drawing out the punchline for dramatic effect.
He had arrived this morning just before the first customers, staff bustling around preparing to open the door.
Now, an older couple sip pints of Guinness and a technician does his final tests on modern tills that Dempsey has just had installed. Not much else has changed, yet, in the pub since the previous owners, the Doran brothers, handed over the keys.
Dempsey is just back from New York and a little bit jet-lagged. He’s anxious about having his picture taken: “I struggle with it, you know. I like to keep myself to myself. Even with my medical business, I’d always like to have other people out to the front. I’m a private person. People ask me intrusive questions: what’s this? why are you that? Questions that I’d struggle to ask someone else.”
He spreads a bundle of plans and architectural drawings across the marble counter, the centrepiece of Davy Byrnes’ unique art deco interior, a pub whose history stretches back into the 1700s.
“I’m going to get this restored or at least try,” he says, running his hand across the badly cracked marble surface, alive no doubt with the DNA of generations of Dublin drinkers.
“People who drink here don’t see it. They think the place is perfect. But look at those cables,” he says, pointing at a bunch of ancient wires on the wall. “People think there’s nothing wrong with it but there’s a big job to be done.”
Dempsey is still buzzing from his first Sunday night in his new pub, two days earlier, when there was an atmosphere he didn’t expect. A singer had the whole pub on its feet dancing to Neil Diamond.
“It was madness. A total surprise to me. I don’t know what people on the street outside looking in the window must have been thinking. But we get a great mix of people here. No messers.”
He is determined to keep everything that makes the pub special but he has big plans “to keep the character but enhance its beauty”.
He points to the well-worn floor: “That is going. Have you ever walked into the hallway of a beautiful old Victorian house? Lovely tile with a pattern… we’ve picked it out and it’s coming from Italy. It’s going to be beautiful.”
Old murals by Cecil Ffrench Salkeld, Brendan Behan’s father-in-law, adorn the walls, somewhat obscured behind plastic that reflects the light.
“I’ve a lady from the National Gallery coming today to talk about whether we can restore them and take that perspex off,” he says.
Dempsey’s phone rings. It’s the first of a number of calls from his interior designer.
“The middle bar, yeah? OK, what is the glass like? OK… there’s one or two things I want to change, maybe make it even better. I’ll send you on photos and chat later,” he says.
He hangs up: “Sorry about that. I was getting lovely warm ivory light shades for over the bar but she can only get clear glass at the moment. I’ll just leave it with her.”
He grew up not far from here and has been coming to this pub for years, but never imagined owning it. Then, last autumn, sitting in his Manhattan apartment, looking out across Central Park, he saw online that it was for sale. He had opened the listing on the auctioneer’s website. “It was really just curiosity but I hit the button on it and it put me in as ‘an interested party’… by accident, I think, I don’t know,” he says, perhaps to himself.
The auctioneer – pub expert John Younge – began sending him updates on the sales process. “I don’t know what made me do it, I genuinely don’t,” he says. Regardless, Dempsey found himself on the phone to Younge asking how much the Dorans were looking for to sell a pub that had been in their family for 70 years, when it had been bought from the original Davy Byrne.
“That’s crazy!” he told the auctioneer when told the asking price. “Look, if anything sensible comes up, I wouldn’t mind looking at it.”
He wasn’t holding out much hope, presuming one of the big players in Dublin’s pub trade would snap it up. But by the new year, Younge was back on the phone. The family were rethinking their numbers; was he still interested?
“I took a quick look around but I didn’t even go down to the cellar. When I was done I went over to Redmond [Doran] and said, ‘look, I don’t know anything about the pub business so probably I’m not the man, but all I’ll say is that I know this place is iconic and if I was to get it I would not rip it apart and turn it into a drinking den for fellas with bottles of beer and Sky Sports’. I shook his hand and left.”
A few days later, driving to his GP for his annual check-up, the phone rang. It was Younge to say he was the highest bidder. “‘Look,’ I told him, ‘if the family want to go with someone else I’ll understand’. I gave him a way out. He called me back. ‘No, Billy, they want you’.”
“I went in to the docs and he told me my blood pressure was up a wee bit.” That night, he said to Ita, ‘let’s go for a drink in Davy Byrnes’. They sat up at the bar. She had an inkling that something was up. “Ita, do you remember the Rovers Return on Coronation Street? Do you remember Bet Lynch? Well you’re going to be the new Bet of this bar.”
Just then, the long-time bar manager tapped him on the shoulder and whispered, “Billy, Mr Doran was in earlier with a fella that the lads said looked very like you. Is it true?”
Word spread rapidly. “Before I knew it, the flower sellers outside knew I’d bought it,” he says. Then the paperman on Grafton Street gave him a big thumbs up as he was walking by. “Jaysus, Bill, how’s it goin’? Fair play,” he roared across the busy street.
So just a few months later, as Ita watched her husband on the phone pacing through Glasnevin Cemetery, she knew to expect the unexpected. “€85,000,” said Dempsey into the phone after all of the other bidders at the Fonsie Mealy Rare Book and Manuscript Sale had fallen silent at the other end of the line. “Sold,” said the auctioneer.
Sitting now at the bar in his pub, Dempsey pulls out his phone. He opens a photo of a beautiful, almost 100-year-old first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses resting on bubble wrap on the front seat of his car, the page open to show the author’s signature.
The book was first published in 1922 by Sylvia Beach’s Parisian bookshop Shakespeare & Co. The first 100 copies - now mainly in national libraries, museums or private collections – were printed on special handmade Dutch paper and signed by Joyce. “I’ve got number 30,” he says, pointing at his phone. He plans to refurbish the underused back room of the pub and turn it into a more exclusive and inviting restaurant-style area called ‘The Library’.
“The book will be mounted properly and on display there. It is going to be very special. We might even have recitals.”
He doesn’t know yet whether he will turn to a new page each day – Book of Kells-style – or perhaps even leave it open on the page with the lines from the book that have immortalised the pub he now owns: “He entered Davy Byrnes. Moral pub. He doesn’t chat. Stands a drink now and then. But in a leap year once in four.”
Dempsey is as Dublin as the book – or the pub. His grandfather on his mother’s side worked in Jacob’s factory in Bride Street for 50 years and lived in a Jacob’s house on Cuffe Street. His father’s family came from Townsend Street.
“That’s where I was brought up. A typical 60s kid. Hated school, played soccer. I was pretty alright. My friends are still the friends I played with then. I don’t forget where I come from.”
The area, like much of the inner city, suffered from the heroin epidemic in the 1980s but Dempsey was long gone before that.
“But my area was not like Mount Merrion or Foxrock or any of those so-called respected places. My parents, most parents down there, could not afford to send their kids to college. In those days, it wasn’t free so everyone had to figure out ways of improving themselves. Some did and some didn’t. But I got lucky.”
He started on an electronics course in Kevin Street before moving to a job in the electronics department of the Rank Organisation, which owned cinema and TV assets, as well as holding the Irish contract for Motorola paging systems. Dempsey’s job was to go around Dublin hospitals fixing faulty pagers and transmission systems for the medical staff. “I went on the bus because I’d no driving licence, running around the hospitals in Jervis Street, Vincent’s, Baggot Street, meeting lots of people. They sent me off for driving lessons and gave me a little Mini van. Happy days! Driving around town in a Mini van! It was great.”
His first wife – then girlfriend – Olive was working in the Gas Company in Fleet Street. When she became pregnant, they both worked harder than ever. “We were determined to improve our lot. We saved our money and got our first little house in Terenure and got married. She was a lovely girl. We’re still great friends. It was just that I suppose I’m not easy to live with.”
When Rank sold his division, the Mini van disappeared and work became more mundane. But his networking had helped. An engineer in Vincent’s approached him. He and some colleagues in Belfast were starting a medical diagnostics firm and they wanted Dempsey to come on board.
“Doctors were training in the States and coming back wanting the same facilities. There was a big gap in the market and it was a way for me to get into the biomedical engineering area.”
He went to London to learn about the equipment from supplier Hewlett Packard. The new company, Cardiac Services, would sell a range of mainly cardiac monitoring equipment to the then poorly equipped Irish hospitals. “The doctors would tell me what they wanted to measure when a patient came from surgery and we’d spec it out. It was my job to service the equipment if it was faulty. I was on the end of a pager 24 hours a day.”
It was challenging work, based out of a tiny office above a butcher shop in Crumlin. “I’d get a call from Cork in the middle of the night. ‘Bed number three is out.’ Off I’d go down the road to Cork. It was tough, driving around awful roads all over the country in the middle of the night in my little Simca fixing heart monitors.”
The chaos of the health service in 1980s Ireland did not help. “It was a struggle to even pay ourselves a wage a lot of the time. Our payment terms were 28 days but some hospitals took nine months to pay. I didn’t want to bring it home to Olive but a few times I sat in the car really upset saying to myself, ‘what did I do taking this on?'”
Business up North was better, dealing with the quicker-paying NHS. But that meant sending electronic equipment back across the Border during some dark times.
“We’d usually send stuff on the train. But I remember driving a whole pile of electronics over the Border for a telemetry demonstration in Letterkenny. We were stopped by the British army, guns in the window. I had a colleague with me over from the UK and they tried to put him in jail.”
Some of the original founders moved on but Dempsey kept at it, becoming the majority owner.
“Some of the doctors were great. They’d let me gown up and watch what they were doing. I was becoming the face of the business,” he says.
He brought in people with clinical sales backgrounds and moved into new areas like anaesthesia. The business began to grow. Hewlett Packard agreed to give Cardiac Services selling rights for the northern half of Britain and he began buying up other small family run medical diagnostic suppliers in both Ireland and Britain. “People came to me wanting to buy us too. But I wasn’t interested. I was getting a nice salary out of it. We’d moved to a nice house in Templeogue.”
Then came a call from Deloitte. An anonymous client was interested in a partnership. The details were sparse but Dempsey agreed to meet.
“It was the Sisk family, the builders. They wanted to get into healthcare. They’d researched us completely. We decided to let it run and see what they’d do. My plan was to buy another company in the UK and they convinced me that as partners, they could help. We became Sisk Healthcare.”
He stayed with the company for two years before selling up. At the time, reports suggested that Sisk paid between €30m and €40m for the company but, as with any talk of money, it’s not something Dempsey is prepared to discuss.
“Yeah, it was reported but the figures were all over the place. I became reasonably wealthy I suppose but… you know, where I’m from, it’s not about ‘I have this’ or ‘I have that’. I was the same person I always was, hanging out with the same people. I’m not flash.”
By now, Davy Byrnes is busy with a lunchtime crowd. Dempsey becomes self-conscious telling his story, his voice dropping. An elderly couple, bickering quietly, has squeezed in to the next table.
“Will we move?” he whispers, gathering together his architectural drawings and heading for two free stools at the quieter end of the bar. The staff pull on the nearby taps and streams of stout flow into glasses to settle. He asks for two bowls of stew and two pints of water with a dash of lime. He begins talking again. Dempsey has been telling his tale for two hours now and he has got as far as 2007 – when he is now a newly wealthy man, having sold his company to Sisk.
“I was trying to keep everything low-key. I more or less disappeared for a while,” he says.
But he was enjoying his new freedom too. Walking past Buswells Hotel, he saw a sign outside, advertising New York property.
“I’d always loved New York so I went in. The salesperson was very anxious to know my budget. I told her not to worry about the budget. ‘Just show me property and if I like it then I will worry about whether I can afford it’, I told her.”
The apartment he chose was in poor repair but stunning. It was on the 11th floor of the historic Olcott building, next to John Lennon’s old residence in the Dakota Building. It has been his home for much of the time over the past 15 years: “I still see Yoko there.” Dempsey has kept himself busy in America. “I got involved with a research product to do with congestive heart failure. It proved pretty successful but I was being sucked back into the whole medical thing. I didn’t want to go back there so I decided to back myself out.”
In Ireland, he had helped to set up a company involved in the monitoring of children to protect against sudden cardiac death. But his interests were changing. Growing up, soccer was his game and he had also been pals with some of the great Dublin football team of the 1970s, meeting them in the pubs around Grafton Street over the years.
Now though, having moved to Templeogue and then Sandymount, his head had been turned by tennis, a game he had never played in the south inner city. The more he played, the more he loved it.
“But I wondered about how come there are so few successful Irish tennis stars even though there are loads of players?”
He studied the college system in America where talented sports people – tennis hopefuls included – could get a scholarship and an education.
“So, two-and-a-half years ago, I took a 15-and-a-half-year-old kid, Georgia Drummy, from here – Blackrock – and brought her to America.
“I put her in the Chris Evert Academy in Boca Raton, Florida. I had seen her play and had her assessed. Myself and Ita took her over there and took responsibility for her.”
Drummy is now the rising star of Irish tennis, winning a coveted scholarship to Vanderbilt College in Tennessee: “She started there in January and by May she was number one on their tennis team. It proved to me that if you took a kid and put the right structures around them, that we Irish could excel at the game.”
In August, Drummy came home to win the Irish Open against international professionals. The Irish Independent described it as “Drummy’s hour of power”. Dempsey pulls out his phone and scrolls through his gallery again, past the pictures of his first-edition Ulysses, past pictures of him atop the Joyce tower in Sandycove on a fine summer’s day, past pictures of himself and his wife enjoying the craic in Davy Byrnes on Bloomsday, straw boaters aplenty.
He stops when he finds a picture of Drummy smashing a tennis ball, ferocity and determination in her eyes. He flicks to another one of her at the Irish Open presentation, standing with a beaming smile next to her parents, and Dempsey and Ita.
“This is a great sport for kids. They are on the court on their own, they have to make their own decisions, they have to be honest, fit, clever. There’s no hiding place. But we don’t have enough facilities for kids here.”
For more than a year now, he has been working up a plan, about which he can only say so much.
“It is my ambition to work with UCD to help them deliver a Tennis Centre of Excellence. My vision is to enable every tennis athlete to reach their full potential while pursuing their studies.”
That ambitious plan – well under way – and the pub have kept him busy. After he took over Davy Byrnes, he brought his aunts into the pub to tell them he had bought it. They were amazed and began to cry, happy tears.
“They were all getting upset. ‘If your mother was here,’ they said,” he recalls.
“It’s like another life,” he says, thinking of the distant past. There’s a mistiness in his eyes as the loss of his mother sneaks up on him, the way it can.
“Have I any regrets? My mam was from Cuffe Street and unfortunately she died before seeing the fruition of the business and what I did. That’s my only regret. That she did not live to see.”
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