Archie O’Leary: International rugby player, sailor and owner of Florida Pearl

Obituary: ‘Fondly known to both family and staff at the O’Leary Group, of which he was chairman, as The Boss’


Archie O’Leary, who has died at the age of 86, was an international rugby player, an international sailor and was internationally known as the co-owner, with his wife Violet, of a string of race horses including the famed Florida Pearl. He also founded Ireland’s largest independent insurance brokerage and its success enabled him to indulge his passions of ocean sailing and National Hunt racing in the course of a well-lived life.

Larger than life in every sense, he was fondly known to both family and staff at the O’Leary Group, of which he was chairman, as “The Boss”. He and his wife Violet (née Crotty), his companion of 62 years, were regular fundraisers for Marymount Hospice where he spent the final days of his battle with cancer.

The son of a doctor, he grew up in leafy College Road in the heart of Cork city and was schooled at Presentation Brothers College where he showed immense sporting prowess from an early age. As his son, Anthony, said in his eulogy, “He never missed an opportunity to confirm that in the 1940s he was Cork Schools County Champion at both 100 and 220 yards. He was part of a very successful group of Pres Players in the mid 1940s and amongst a very small group as the holder of a Munster Junior and a Munster Senior Schools cup Medal in the same year”.

Following his own father’s death when O’Leary was 16, he joined the insurance business and showed so much flair that he became assistant manager of Norwich Union Life in Dublin in the late 1950s, but he returned to Cork and in May 1961 and opened O’Leary Insurances with three staff. Today the group employs 200 people and has nine offices in Cork, Dublin, Waterford and Galway.

Having played rugby for Highfield, he joined Cork Constitution, serving as player, selector and finally president and trustee of the club. Selected for Munster and Ireland, he played in the second row for the national team in 1952 and won three caps that year.

Not a man to waste words, he once wrote to a client who had fallen behind with his insurance payment saying: “Horse needs oats”. Throughout his life, business and sport were intertwined. He believed in giving youth responsibility, and only three staff members out of nearly 60 were over the age of 30 in the 1980s. Similarly, in the heyday of his famous boat, Irish Mist, a third of the crew were under 20.

In tribute, John McWilliam, founder of Crosshaven-based McWilliam Sailmakers, described O’Leary as a “hearty supporter of all things Cork”. As a member of his winning sailing team in the 1970s , he found his skipper’s support vital in the early stage of the sailmaking venture.

A born competitor, O’Leary twice raced in the Irish Admiral’s Cup team. In 1975, when his rugby playing days were long over, he qualified in the team trial series in company with two other famous Cork skippers, Clayton Love and Denis Doyle, That the national team consisted of three Cork boats rankled a bit with sailors from within the Pale at the time.

He had a tremendous relationship with Willie Mullins, the trainer of Florida Pearl, who in tribute described him as “a larger than life character who enjoyed his racing and his many big race wins while always taking defeats on the chin. He was always very enthusiastic and forthright in his views”.

A banker for Irish punters, besides winning the Champion Bumper and the Sun Alliance Novice Chase at Cheltenham, Florida Pearl won the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown a record four times, as well as a King George at Kempton. In 2002, his co-owner, Violet, was third in the list of Winning Owners behind JP McManus and Michael O’Leary.

Archie O’Leary’s subtlety of wit was also recalled in his son’s eulogy. As admiral of the Royal Cork Yacht Club, he had to convince reluctant members to accept a double digit increase in the annual sub. Likening it to other clubs in the harbour community, he compared the world’s oldest yacht club to Curabinny Ferret Club where the sub had just gone from £1 to £2 – a 100 per cent increase. Praising the wisdom of the members in selecting a club where no such level of sub increase would ever be tolerated, the motion was carried amid gales of laughter.

He is survived by his wife, Violet, daughter, Frances, son, Anthony, and brothers Flor and John.