The University of Limerick spent almost €4,000 on linen bedding for its outgoing president’s multi-million euro house on campus, the Mail can reveal.
And that was only part of more than €200,000 paid out by the cash-strapped college for entertainment and upgrading at the residence, when ex-president Dr Des Fitzgerald lived there.
Documents obtained by the Irish Daily Mail reveal that the amount spent in upmarket Brown Thomas for bedding included over €800 on pillowcases and €1,700 for duvet covers.
Now there are calls for an ‘explanation’ to the Dáil financial watchdog, the Public Accounts Committee.
Close to €11,000 was also spent on patio furniture from other high-end stores, while more than €12,000 was forked out on entertaining at the campus residence.
The property, built at a cost of €2.2million, was home to Dr Fitzgerald before he departed from the role last week.
He suddenly announced his resignation in May, stating that the coronavirus pandemic made it impossible for him to carry out his plans for the college.
As well as being a permanent residence for the president, the house is regularly used for entertaining and hosting visitors.
Figures released to the Irish Daily Mail under Freedom of Information show that since January 2017, in a three-year period, a total of €193,419.30 has been spent on refurbishing, upgrading and maintaining the house.
This included the linen purchase from Brown Thomas plus more than €28,000 on new steps for pathways; more than €14,000 on dining tables, dining chairs and lounge chairs; almost €20,000 on building maintenance; and more than €10,000 on general cleaning. Patio furniture set the university back more than €10,000 and a barbecue and associated items cost almost €1,400.
The records show that more than €11,000 was spent on entertainment including Christmas finger food, at a cost of €2,300, and €800 for performances of Christmas carols.
Local Fianna Fáil TD Willie O’Dea said the spend ‘seems excessive’, adding that the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), when it returns, has ‘the right to an explanation’.
A spokesman for UL said the university will appear before the PAC if requested to do so, and that it is a requirement for its president to reside at the house.
‘Accommodation in the house is provided to the president as a benefit-in-kind, which attracts income tax and other charges,’ they said. ‘The house is configured in such a way as to provide a private living space for the president and their family, and the remaining areas of the house are used for university business.’ The spokesman added that the house is also used ‘to host university events which promote and publicise university priorities’.
The bedrooms in the house are also available for use by official visitors. ‘After ten years of occupancy and regular use, it was deemed necessary, in more recent times, to refurbish some areas of the house,’ said the spokesman.
New president Kerstin Mey, who took up the role last week, will take up residence at the property, on the Clare side of the campus. It cost €1,994,000 to build in 2010, with an additional €189,000 spent on its interior, with all funding by private sources.
Previously described by the then Minister for Education Batt O’Keeffe as a ‘lavish’ purchase, it has paid for by billionaire philanthropist Chuck Feeney, who has been a generous donor to UL for decades. The house features five bedrooms, a large reception room, a dining room with a terrace, a large living room and an expansive kitchen.
The university’s spending has been a controversial topic in recent years.
After building the current presidential home on the Castletroy campus in 2010, UL was under increasing pressure to sell another lavish residence, the second presidential home in Killaloe, which offers views overlooking Lough Derg.
After laying vacant for almost a decade, this home was recently sold for €790,000 – just shy of its €850,000 estimated value.
The money made from the sale was then put towards purchasing a third property, Larkin House.
Larkin House is on 1.1 acres of land and leads on to a further five acres of land that was previously acquired by UL.
Last November, the Irish Mail on Sunday revealed that UL spent over €7,000 for a one-night, five-star stay in London for a delegation led by its Chancellor Mary Harney and then president Dr Fitzgerald.
The trip, which took place in June that year, was part of a mission to see how other universities had established bases in a capital city outside of their home university, as UL wants to establish a base in Dublin where it could possibly offer ‘niche courses’ to attract more students.
The Irish Mail on Sunday earlier revealed that UL pulled out of buying a Georgian property worth more than €5million in Ranelagh, Dublin 6, after paying a deposit which it later received back.
Sources told the newspaper that Ms Harney advised against buying the property due to the optics of such a spend at a time when universities are struggling financially and operating at a deficit.
Correspondence obtained by the MoS under the Freedom of Information Act shows that UL has not given up on its plans to establish a base in Dublin, where a number of its most senior management formerly lived.
The university also recently spent €150,000 on a rebranding project to create a ‘bold new look’ for the college, unveiling a new logo late last year which received a less than warm welcome from students there.
In a letter to Ms Harney, this summer Dr Fitzgerald wrote: ‘Unfortunately, this virus will directly impact my ability to serve the university and limit my ability to fully engage, once we get our community back on to the campus.’ His statement praised the college’s response to the pandemic while also saying it made it very difficult for him to continue his role.
‘I am particularly proud of UL’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, in recognising its gravity early, in rapidly and successfully moving online and in contributing to the fight against the pandemic in our community,’ he added.
Prof Mey is the first woman to lead an Irish university.