Suicide marks demise of the tiger economy

DEATH of Irish success story Patrick Rocca is symbolic of crisis, says Dani Garavelli

THE car park of St Mochta's Church in Porterstown, Castleknock, west Dublin, was full of 4x4s, its pews a swathe of black fur coats, expensive bags and designer sunglasses. As lawyers, models, politicians, broadcasters and sportsmen bowed their heads, it seemed as if all the city's jet set had come to say goodbye to Patrick Rocca: poster boy for the rise of the Celtic Tiger economy, and now potent symbol of its demise.

Rocca, 42 – a property developer and father-of-two – last week shot himself dead in the family home in Holmeleigh, an exclusive residential enclave on Castleknock Golf and Country Club. The Dublin rumour mill was awash with speculation that he had lost much of his fortune, which was estimated at 463m in 2007.

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Rocca is thought to be the fifth businessman to have killed himself since the credit crunch began. In September, Kirk Stephenson, chief of private equity house Olivant, jumped in front of a train near London. And two days before Christmas, Frenchman Ren-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet slashed his wrists in New York after losing his fortune and his clients' funds in Bernard Madoff's Ponzi fraud.

Then, on the same day earlier this month, Steven Good, head of one of the largest property auction houses in the US, died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, and German billionaire Adolf Merckle jumped in front of a train after his business empire ran into trouble.

As Rocca's coffin arrived at the church in a Bentley hearse, the mourners – who included Irish goalkeeper Shay Given and Bertie Ahern's ex-wife Miriam – must have felt they were marking the end not only of one of the country's biggest success stories, but of an unprecedented era of wealth and ostentation. In the 10 years after Ireland joined the euro, its economy seemed to boom: Dublin, once a byword for deprivation, was transformed into a nouveau-riche paradise, full of property millionaires who flaunted their success with flash cars, flash clothes and a 24/7 party scene. With them came nightclubs like Krystle, whose VIP section boasts a giant bed where customers can lie and watch football on a huge screen. And in tow was a battalion of WAGS, with their fake tans, their bling and their taste for champagne.

At the heart of this hedonism was Rocca – whose Italian grandfather Egidio Rocca helped rebuild Dublin after the civil war, before founding Rocca Tiles; and whose sister Michelle, a former Miss Ireland, is Van Morrison's long-term partner. Rocca profited from a succession of property deals (including almost 100m for a Bedford distribution centre for Argos).

As his fortune mounted, Rocca and his wife, Annette, 42, started to hobnob with the rich and famous, becoming regulars on the Dublin party scene, playing golf with Sir Alan Sugar and holidaying in Marbella. In 2004, Rocca caused a stir when he bought a Sikorsky S-76 helicopter and put it at Bill Clinton's disposal. On one occasion, he flew Uri Geller to Lansdowne Road to help the Irish team when they played Switzerland in a crucial World Cup match.

Although some say he had a huge ego, Rocca seems to have been popular and charismatic. After his death last week, his friend David McGee, who lives in Dubai, wrote of his "legendary imitation of Basil Fawlty; his broad devious smile; his infectious optimism; and his irreplaceable way of making you feel as if you were the only person in the packed room".

Rocca's portfolio kept growing, with properties in the City and, purchased as late as last year, a media company that publishes the Munster social magazine RSVP, for which Annette writes a column.

But as the tiger economy's roar became more muted, Rocca's fortunes started to decline. It is believed he also had more than 20m in loans tied up with Anglo Irish bank, which has been nationalised.

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To outsiders, Rocca and his wife appeared unperturbed. His marriage seemed happy; his sons Patrick, 15 and Stuart, 10, were doing well, and he had plenty of interests – the Scout movement and Castleknock Celtic chief among them. A fortnight ago, he and Annette went to Dubai to spend time with McGee whom he hadn't seen for five years. They were out at an exclusive club on Saturday and dined at a restaurant with former Irish TV presenter Louise Loughman and her husband Stephen Byrne on Sunday.

But on Monday morning, neighbours realised something was wrong when they spotted him wandering around the grounds of his home in his pyjamas. A little later, he turned a shotgun on himself. His wife found his body when she returned from the school run.

Rocca's death came weeks after the New York Times ran a piece under the headline: "The Irish economy's rise was steep, and the fall was fast", focusing on the uncertainty facing Sean Dunne and other speculators, and on the day that a High Court judge decided to refer the vast pyramid scheme run by Dublin socialite Breifne O'Brien to Garda fraud detectives. O'Brien is said to have conned friends out of tens of millions to fund his lifestyle.

At Rocca's funeral, Father John Daly told the congregation: "We all know rich and poor people who are mean: Patrick was not one of them." No doubt – but with the recession bringing more heartache every day, it must be difficult for those left behind not to also reflect on the ephemeral nature of success.