A new documentary to be broadcast tonight reveals that Sir Anthony O’Reilly, the one-time billionaire who is now virtually broke, received several death threats including “bullets in the mail” in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
They came after he co-founded the The Ireland Fund charity with US businessman Dan Rooney.
Tony O'Reilly Junior, Sir Anthony's son who appears on behalf of the family in the RTE documentary, Tony O'Reilly: the Real Deal, said he was aware at the time of the threats to his father's life.
Sir Anthony, who in the mid 1970s held a senior role Heinz in America, set up the charity with Mr Rooney, who later became US ambassador to Ireland, to raise cash for reconcilliation projects related to the conflict in the north.
The two men were inspired by the efforts of members of US jewish community who similarly raised large amounts of money for causes in Israel.
The documentary reveals that Sir Anthony’s role in establishing the new charity angered some IRA supporters, who felt it sucked donations away from Noraid, a US fund-raising organisation that chanelled money towards republicans during the troubles.
“There were bullets sent in the mail,” said Mr O’Reilly Junior. “Then in the 1980s there were threats of kidnapping and all that. But my father took it all in his stride. We had no security.”
Mr O’Reilly Junior says his father’s attitude to the death threats was: “If they want me, they’ll get me.” “They clearly didn’t want him,” said Mr O’Reilly Junior.
Seamus Mallon, the former SDLP politician and one-time deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, said the establishment of the Ireland Fund attracted rich donors who opposed the IRA activities part-funded by Noraid.
“By setting up the Ireland fund they gave a focal point to Irish Americans and people in America who wanted to help in Northern Ireland but didn’t want to be involved in supporting violence,” said Mr Mallon.
The documentary, which will be aired tonight at 9.35pm on RTE One, charts Sir Anthony’s rise from his north Dublin city upbringing through his ascent to the top table of Irish business in the 1980s and 1990s, before his financial demise in recent years.
After a glittering rugby career in the 1950s and 1960s, he founded the Kerrygold butter brand while running the Irish Dairy Board, and also ran Irish Sugar. He then moved through the ranks of Heinz, becoming chief executive in 1979 and eventually chairman in 1987.
At the height of his business career, Sir Anthony controlled stock market-listed companies including Waterford Wedgwood and Independent News & Media, as well as the Fitzwilton group and as a member of the Valentia consortium that bought Eircom.
He also racked up significant debts, however, which eventually toppled him financially during the recent downturn. Along with his brother-in-law, Peter Goulandris, Sir Anthony lost €400 million trying to save Waterford Wedgwood, which collapsed at the beginning of 2009.
Months later, he was also forced out of IN&M after a bitter war with Denis O’Brien, now its biggest shareholder, losing the lion’s share of his income as well as his wealth.
The Irish Times revealed in May this year that Sir Anthony was being chased for millions of euro in debts by AIB, which was trying to force the sale of some of his assets. Weeks later, the bank secured judgments against him and companies controlled by him for €45 million.
Formerly Ireland's richest man, Sir Anthony told the High Court he owes a total of about €195 million to eight different banks.
He has promised to sell all of his assets towards repayment, including his beloved Castlemartin estate in Kildare, which is currently on the market for about €30 million.