Main driver of recovery of distillery industry

Obituary: Frank O’Reilly 1922-2013

Frank O’Reilly (left) at a reception to announce building plans in TCD in 1988 with then  provost Dr WA Watts

Frank O’Reilly (left) at a reception to announce building plans in TCD in 1988 with then provost Dr WA Watts


Insofar as there is such a thing as “the purple” in Irish Catholic society, then Francis Joseph Charles O’Reilly, known to family, friends and colleagues as Frank, who has died aged 90, was born into it.

Born amid the chaos of the Civil War in Dublin in November 1922, O’Reilly was a direct descendant of the original John Power of the Gold Label whiskey.

He was educated at Ampleforth Abbey in Yorkshire, Britain’s leading Catholic public school, and Trinity College Dublin, where he took an engineering degree in 1943.

He repaid in spades the advantages of such privilege by a long life of very varied business achievement and public service, crowned by his election in 1985 as chancellor of Dublin University, a position he held for 13 years, and his chairmanship of the Restoration Committee of the Irish College in Paris, from 1986 until its reopening as the Centre Culturel Irlandais in 2002.

In recognition of this latter achievement, Pope John Paul II bestowed on him in that year, 2002, the honour of Knight Commander of the Equestrian Order of St Gregory the Great.

This was perhaps particularly appropriate for O’Reilly, who was, at various times, a member of the National Hunt Steeplechasing Committee, of Bord na gCapall (now Horse Sport Ireland), president of the Equestrian Federation of Ireland, steward and trustee of the Turf Club, chairman of Punchestown Racecourse and of the Kildare Hunt, chairman of the Royal Dublin Society executive committee and, from 1986-1989, its president.

Royal Engineers
O’Reilly joined his family’s firm in 1946, after serving with the Royal Engineers from 1943 to 1946, a service which included time with the famous 7th Indian Division during the bitterly fought liberation of Burma from Japanese occupation in 1944-1945.

He was joining then an almost moribund industry in which the four remaining Irish distilleries – Cork Distilling Co, Jameson’s, Power’s and Williams of Tullamore – were struggling to survive in a small domestic market.

They been largely shut out from their traditional US and British markets since the first World War, due to Prohibition in America in the 1920s, de Valera’s economic war in the 1930s and the second World War itself.

Joint managing director of Power’s with his cousin John A Ryan by the 1960s, O’Reilly realised that, as John A’s son John Clement Ryan told The Irish Times last week, “the commercial reality was that the industry was going to disappear” without radical reorganisation.

In a delicate operation replete with old rivalries, he, John A Ryan and directors in the Cork and Jameson companies (the Tullamore business had been effectively absorbed by Power’s in the 1950s) created IDL in 1966, and O’Reilly became chairman.

It was in his role as the first chairman, that O’Reilly made what was undoubtedly his most significant contribution to Ireland’s economy and society.

Crucial decisions
In his capacity as chairman, he led the new united company in making four crucial decisions.

They were – bringing in an outsider, Kevin McCourt, as chief executive officer from the start to help unify the new board; creating Jameson’s as the company’s international brand to prevent the wastage of marketing resources across several brands; building a completely new modern distillery for all of the company’s operations at Midleton, Co Cork, and ensuring that his successor as chairman from 1983, Michael Killeen, formerly of the Industrial Development Authority (IDA), would also be an outsider.

Remaining on the board as a director, he was instrumental in negotiating with the French Pernod Ricard drinks group its friendly takeover of IDL in 1988 in the face of a hostile bid led by the British Grand Metropolitan group.

John Clement Ryan remarks of this that the Irish company had “struggled manfully for two decades but we were still tiny on the world stage and needed a partner with global reach”.

O’Reilly had many other important business interests.

He was at various stages a director of the Dublin match manufacturers Maguire and Patterson and also, with a nice symmetry, of tobacco company Player- Wills, president of the Marketing Institute of Ireland and, from 1982, chairman for several years of the Ulster Bank and a director of its then parent group, National Westminster, both now part of the Royal Bank of Scotland.

Honorary degrees
O’Reilly was conferred with honorary degrees of doctor of laws (LLD) by both Dublin University and the National University of Ireland, in 1978 and 1986 respectively, and he was an honorary fellow of TCD.

He married Teresa Williams, of the Tullamore distilling family in 1950, and is survived by her and by their 10 children – Mary, Charles, Jane, Olivia, Margaret, Rose, Louise, Peter, Paul and Julie, by grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and by a sister, Maymsie.