Business and politics figures at funeral of Denis O’Brien snr

Church of Sacred Heart in Donnybrook filled with 800 mourning businessman’s father


Many prominent and formerly prominent figures from the worlds of business and politics joined family and friends of businessman Denis O’Brien for the funeral this afternoon of his father, also named Denis.

The Church of the Sacred Heart in Donnybrook, Dublin, was filled with a crowd of about 800 people, many intimately associated through business with Denis O’Brien jnr.

They included former taoiseach Brian Cowen and former junior minister Conor Lenihan; Michael Lowry, Independent TD and former Fine Gael minister at the time Mr O’Brien junior won the mobile phone licence; financier Dermot Desmond; chairman of the Ardagh Group, financier Paul Coulson, and its chief executive Niall Wall; Leslie Buckley, chairman of Independent News and Media; Mark Roden of Ding, who helped Mr O’Brien set up Esat; beef baron Larry Goodman, and Sean FitzPatrick, former boss of Anglo Irish Bank.

Other attendees included prominent figures from the worlds of sport and entertainment, including Bono of U2.

Quality music

In a service notable for the quality of its music – instrumental and vocal – Denis O’Brien snr, who was 86 when he died on February 21st and was known to all as Dano, was remembered as a successful businessman and sportsman, a can-do man who lived life to the full.

His wife of 61 years Iris O’Brien, and children, Joanne, Abigail, Denis and Kerry, were at the centre of that life.

His son was among the pall bearers who carried Mr O’Brien snr’s coffin, a large dark green and lacquered American-style casket, into the church to the strains of Be Still My Soul (Finlandia), played by Encore Occasions, an ensemble comprising harp, violin, cello, classical guitar and piano.

In a homily, Fr Paul Byrne said Mr O’Brien snr and his wife were a devoted couple and that his long life, and their long time together as a couple, accentuated the impact of his death. With death, gone was the partner with whom one wishes to share news or life’s up and downs, Fr Byrne said.

The celebrant and Mr O’Brien snr’s daughter, Joanne, in a later eulogy, both recalled that aged 14, Mr O’Brien had run away from Rockwell College, hiding initially in the bell tower as other school boarders headed home.

Ran away to sea

The young O’Brien hitched a lift to Cork and ran away to sea, spending four years in the merchant navy, starting as a cabin boy.

He came home eventually to the great relief of his parents, said Fr Byrne, which was why the reading from the Gospel was the tale of the prodigal son.

He sat the Leaving Cert and gained entry to the Royal College of Surgeons but dropped out after a year - the strain of study along with working nights to support himself proving too great.

Instead, he started to sell medical supplies, the start of his business career.

Mr O’Brien jnr read the first reading from the Book of Sirac – “a loyal friend is like a safe shelter; find one and you have found a treasure. . .” a maxim held to by Mr O’Brien snr and, by all accounts, his son.

In her eulogy, Joanne O’Brien recalled how her father relished travel and cultures different to his own. He also abhorred racism, she said.

Her father had married a Protestant. He had “an abiding dislike of bigotry” and “hated narrow-mindedness”, she said. Her father and mother together “took on the disapproval of the Church and society together”.

Bedtime stories

She recalled her father’s bedtime stories were often variations involving a damaged bird, dreamt up by Mr O’Brien and known to the children as Broken Wing.

She described allegorical tales in which the hero bird helped others and stood out against prejudice.

The little bird had lost his parents and was physically damaged, said Ms O’Brien, “but by great good fortune, Broken Wing was rescued from certain death by a kind and wise older bird who, importantly, belonged to a different breed. This little bird grew up to be strong, brave and perceptive and did great things despite his disability.

“Dad’s many stories about Broken Wing were all about how he constantly spotted other animals in trouble and came to their rescue. Broken Wing was such a hero and we all loved the stories about him.”

In his eulogy, Denis O’Brien recalled a daring father who got into scrapes with the family on holidays – a go-kart crash in Madrid, a car crash on the way home and, in between, a “beautiful swan dive from a height of about 15 metres” into water from which the tide had withdrawn.

O’Brien snr was an accomplished swimmer and gold-medal winning diver who once, said Fr Byrne, rode a bicycle off the top board at the Blackrock Baths.

Mr O’Brien jnr also said the 1973 fuel crisis prompted his father to start a horse nutrition business which brought him all over the world. His success, said Mr O’Brien, was built on “trust, fair dealings and long-term relations”.

‘Keep going’

His edicts to his children were “Keep going, be loyal to your friends and keep together”.

“We are not quitters; no surrender,” he told them.

Fr Byrne was assisted by Fr Lorcan O’Brien and also by Rev Andrew McCroskery, Church of Ireland rector of St Bartholomew’s church on Clyde Road, not far from the late Mr O’Brien’s home on Aylesbury Road.

Encore Occasions, with soloist Naoise Stuart-Kelly and the choir of UCD Choral Scholars, provided music throughout, including How Great Thou Art, The Lord’s My Shepherd, Ave Maria, Pie Jesu, Song of the Angeles, In Our Day of Thanksgiving, and three pieces by Sean O Riada – Is Naofa Thú, A Íosa Fuair Tús and A Uain Dé.

Also among the congregation were horse dealer Jonathan Irwin; entrepreneur John Gallagher; Independent TD Michael Lowry; former CRH chairman Kieran McGowan; former auctioneer and formerly of the National Asset Management Agency, John Mulcahy; property developer Mark Kavanagh; former chief executive of Allied Irish Banks Colm Doherty; chief executive of the Football Association of Ireland John Delaney and his partner Emma English; former Irish rugby international Keith Wood; chairman of the Irish Sports Council Kieran Mulvey; former senator Maurice Manning; public relations consultant Eileen Gleeson and Denis O’Brien junior’s personal media adviser James Morrissey; restaurateur Patrick Guilbaud; John McColgan of Riverdance fame; president of the Worldwide Ireland Funds Kieran McLaughlin; and Jim Loughran of Frontline Defenders, a charity supported by the Iris O’Brien Foundation.