Chris McGale was aged six when the Troubles in Northern Ireland began. Growing up in Omagh, County Tyrone, he spent an orphaned youth running a pub and honing gambling skills. After studying Economics with Accountancy at Queen’s University Belfast (“no one was more surprised than me,” writes Chris of his admission to QUB), he embarked on a career in financial markets in Dublin and London respectively.
Chris fast became one of the top earning stockbrokers in the City of London, “earning more than The Arsenal”. Yet a never-ending cycle of long days and late nights, drinking, and gambling meant that he went from the Troubles to money troubles. Burnt out, in 2002 he left Merrill Lynch on sabbatical and never went back.
Many of Chris’s successes – and challenges – almost didn’t happen, however. In 1988, aged 25, a head-on collision with an articulated lorry devastated him physically and mentally. After a five-hour operation that put him back together, the head of a multi-trauma team of surgeons in a Belfast hospital called him the Humpty Dumpty Man.
In his book The Million Dollar Irishman – John Street to Wall Street, Chris shares a powerful memoir of his journey from the warring streets of Tyrone, through a near-death car crash, to life in the City of London. A tale of resilience, adventure and reconciliation, Chris’s honest and inspiring reflections have lessons for everyone.
I spoke to Chris about his book, reflections on growing up during conflict, and what advice he would give to others.
Why did you write The Million Dollar Irishman?
I began writing as a form of catharsis during the sabbatical that proved to be the end of my Merrill Lynch career. The first published version, The Humpty Dumpty Man (HDM), dealt with the aftermath of my near-death road accident and journey from the intensive care unit (ICU) to the wards; to rehab, back to work, and to the civil courts. It also covered my meeting with the teenage nurse who risked her life to save mine in my smoking car. The HDM also traced my lifelong conflict and reconciliation through education with my next-by-age, fellow-orphan, brother. It was all cathartic.
The Million Dollar Irishman – From John Street to Wall Street contains increased content on my life in mega-stakes gambling and the City. It traces my life from pre-teenage betting in pennies, to pounds, hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands, and then millions. The new book adds to the catharsis of the writing, taking the story to the present day
What are your reflections on the conflict today?
There were more than 3,500 deaths during The Troubles, and it was natural to become immune to the daily toll of death and destruction. But from time-to-time events came closer to home and were shocking for their brutality.
In the book I specifically mention John ‘Whitey’ Hannigan – a much-loved former Kate’s Bar regular who stopped coming to the pub after he joined the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) in the early 1970s. He was brutally murdered by the passenger of a preying car as he left a sweet shop on the way to his day-job as a gravedigger. His killer, who later got two life sentences, knew him well and I knew them both.
Whitey’s death caused great pain and anger across Omagh. A Protestant, he grew up in our Catholic neighbourhood and his killing could not be pigeonholed like most others in the tribal conflict; us and them. A tall, happy, handsome man, with a shock of fair hair, I last saw him, spade-in-hand at my mother’s graveside, with tears flowing down his face.
After the Omagh bombing in 1998 – just months following the Good Friday Agreement – you helped raise over £1million for the Omagh Fund. In your book you recall selling the Omagh Fund CD, Across the Bridge of Hope, in the foyers of Merrill Lynch’s three main London offices. Today, what are your hopes for the future of Omagh?
The Troubles was a tribal conflict, Catholics versus Protestants, the final outplaying of four hundred years of antipathy, stretching back to the Plantation of Ulster and Oliver Cromwell. But the horrors of the war have broken many of the chains of the past and today’s youth live in a much more tolerant, inclusive, society. I hope that in time our example can be held up as a beacon for other warzones, those that might one day seek to move away from their historic enmities.
After leaving Omagh tech, you quickly climbed the ranks at Ulster Investment Bank in Dublin and later Merrill Lynch in London. Despite your success, you write about later feeling “alienated” in the City. What advice would you give to a young person growing up in Northern Ireland, wanting to embark on a successful career?
Believe in yourself. Be ambitious. The world is your oyster. Stay clear of the politics of conflict. Be positive, embrace life, and thrive in a globalised world. Get an education, an EU and UK passport – and go where your heart desires!
You’ve overcome significant adversity – family tragedy, tuberculosis (TB), and the car crash mentioned. What got you through it all?
Much of what I achieved in life was inspired by an instinct for self-survival. In a world of fight or flight, I always chose to fight. As an orphan-teenager betting on horses, 8-ball pool, and poker, I needed to win. In time I trusted my own opinion more than most others, but I never stopped listening and often attached myself to ‘significant males,’ who helped me on my way.
A no-blame attitude is also important. I didn’t blame anyone for the death of my parents, for neglecting us as orphan kids, for the TB, for me going under a lorry at high-speed. The less I blamed, the easier it was to get back on the road to recovery. Everything we achieve in life, or seek to achieve, is our responsibility, ours alone.