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Tony O’Reilly: A dazzling star who left a mark on many facets of Irish society

A star on the rugby pitch and in the boardroom, Tony O’Reilly’s bankruptcy of 2015 reinvigorated him and made him realise that it had never been about the money

Tony O'Reilly at the opening of a new Independent News and Media printing plant in Newry in 2007. He died in St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin on Saturday. Photograph: Julien Behal/PA Wire

As a teenager at Belvedere College, Tony O’Reilly was a dazzling star whose arc was already visible across Dublin: soccer, rugby, tennis, debating, all manner of performance. Early in 1953, a Jesuit teacher took a 15-year-old O’Reilly into his study to admonish him. Sixty five years later, the schoolboy, now stooped, laughed as he remembered the conversation and his visceral reaction.

“The priest wanted to humiliate me. He told me that my parents weren’t married, that my father had another family and what did I think of that?” O’Reilly remembered not a burn from the so-called illegitimacy but a flash of illicit pleasure and filial pride. “In that moment, all I could think was that my slightly pompous father who sat at the end of the table waiting for his tea was actually a buccaneer and loved my mother so much. I just admired him for it.”

O’Reilly’s optimism and self-belief ruled a generous spirit and an empathetic charm. That optimism rocketed him to extraordinary success at everything he ever attempted. It also contributed to the end of the greatest of business careers.

His business, sporting and philanthropic achievements would each represent a remarkable lifetime’s work. In combination, they are unsurpassable.

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He played rugby for his country at 18 and set try-scoring records for the Lions in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand that can never be matched.

He cofounded the Ireland Funds charity so that Irish-Americans could help during the Troubles rather than giving money for the IRA to kill other Irish people. Forty eight years and $600 million later, his vision is vindicated.

He created Ireland’s first global food brand (Kerrygold) at 25. In his 30th year, he was entrusted with the Irish Sugar Company, a key national strategic asset.

Then he really got going. At 36, he was the President of HJ Heinz in Pittsburg. On a Friday, he would dash for the airport, changing planes in New York and landing in Dublin on Saturday morning for a weekend devoted to his private business interests, the greatest of which was Independent Newspapers.

It is easy to focus on the end of the business life, but one should not underestimate what was achieved at Independent News & Media, as it was renamed. From a modest investment, he and his team built market leadership in Ireland, South Africa and New Zealand and strong positions in India and Australia, among other markets. They preserved with the Independent in London, probably beyond economic logic.

O’Reilly could not believe that anyone did not share his generous approach to life. It was not difficult to be won over. Photograph: Julien Behal/PA Wire

Not surprisingly, like any business journalist in Ireland in the 1990s, I wrote a lot about O’Reilly. I was probably quite impressed by Vincent Browne’s observation (about another tycoon): that the fun thing about journalism is that you can annoy people.

Suffice to say that when I was introduced in 1998 to Rupert Murdoch, publisher of the Sunday Times, then my employer, he said: “Ah, you are the man who annoys the good Doctor (O’Reilly). Keep it up, keep it up.” I didn’t need much encouragement.

There were a few pungent letters from his solicitors, a few pithy responses from our side.

When I left journalism for business, O’Reilly asked to see me.

He greeted me warmly: “You won my Sh** of the Year for six years. I am sure we are going to be friends.”

O’Reilly could not believe that anyone did not share his generous approach to life. It was not difficult to be won over. We travelled a bit together, each of us with a bundle of newspapers and he, always, with a bag of newly purchased books.

His assistant, Mandy Scott, was tasked with presenting him with an envelop of €50 notes before each trip. Every driver, doorman, waiter and reception was handed a “rusty”. In South Africa, at a dinner with Nelson Mandela, he had tipped all of the waiting staff and introduced them to their president. He then went to the kitchen and brought all of the staff out for more introductions and tips.

Seating plans at O’Reilly events seemed to follow a pattern. The most junior or newest member of the team sat to Tony’s right. Everyone would be won to him.

The assault by Denis O’Brien on his stewardship of INM stunned him. As the Moriarty tribunal heard evidence about the award of the mobile licence, Tony was convinced that people would flock to his side

He was a very funny man. He was delighted by a very down-market tabloid in South Africa, started by Karl Brophy. “At last, a paper that I can be proud to be ashamed of.”

He would occasionally remind me of my previous role as a critic. He called in May 2006 from Rome where he was celebrating his 70th birthday. “I am here with 70 old friends. And if I was bringing 70 old enemies, you would be first on the plane.”

He cherished friendship, often from the earliest school days. Kevin McGouran, Jim McCarthy and the others. He was loyal, not ruthless.

Where did it go wrong?

The things that made him great laid him low. His optimism was founded on an extraordinary track record and an ability to get things over the line. Everything had always worked out in the end. And he had never failed and could not bear to fail.

The assault by Denis O’Brien on his stewardship of INM stunned him. As the Moriarty tribunal heard evidence about the award of the mobile licence, Tony was convinced that people would flock to his side. The reality was that people were delighted to see a good old fight although many resented his influence and also assumed that every line in the Sunday Independent, as an example, was written by him.

At Waterford Wedgwood, he threw good money after bad into a business where costs were too high and a brutal restructuring was needed. In just five years, he and Peter John Goulandris, his wife Chryss’s brother, invested about €440 million in the business. He was determined to keep it going to vindicate his trust in the brand. It was always highly unlikely that Waterford Wedgwood would survive but the global financial crisis made the unlikely impossible.

On November 7th 2008, advisers met the O’Reillys at the Goulandris family’s office near Wall Street. The net was tightening and the bankers left the room with a few gallows humour jokes. Afterwards, O’Reilly sat quietly in an alcove. His eyes filled with tears. “They don’t realise that this is my life, my name. People are being destroyed.”

Tony O’Reilly in pictures: from sports fields to gilded corporate boardrooms to financial implosionOpens in new window ]

The inevitable happened and the business collapsed in early January 2009. O’Reilly’s brief statement captured the awful situation: “My only consolation is that everything that could have been done was done.”

The next six years were miserable for O’Reilly as O’Brien advanced on INM. Few would argue that O’Brien was a better proprietor of the news brands. Meanwhile, the banks who had helped finance his support of Waterford and his share purchases at INM pursued him.

Perversely, the supposed ignominy of the bankruptcy of 2015 reinvigorated him. He realised that it had never been about the money. The baubles were gone, the art was on other walls but the friends and family were closer than ever.

He was devoid of rancour and bitterness about the end of the businesses, relieved that his other achievements and relationships counted for more. He was the giant of his generation, achieving so much more than his critics: exuberant, generous, hilarious, unique and accepting of his own and others’ vulnerabilities.

Rory Godson is senior managing director of Powerscourt