HomeBussinessTaoiseach leads tributes following death of Irish business titan Tony O'Reilly

Taoiseach leads tributes following death of Irish business titan Tony O’Reilly

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The Taoiseach is among those to have paid tribute to businessman Tony O’Reilly, widely regarded as one of Ireland’s greatest business figures and as a Lions rugby legend, who died in hospital in Dublin on Saturday. He was 88.

In a statement, the O’Reilly family said: “In the coming days there will be many worthy tributes made to Tony O’Reilly’s unique and extraordinary achievements in the fields of business and sport – as well as to his extraordinary philanthropic vision which was best evidenced by the establishment of the Ireland Funds at a dark time in this island’s history.

“But, for us, he was a dearly-loved dad and a granddad. He lived one of the great lives and we were fortunate to spend time with him in recent weeks as that great life drew to a close.”

Taoiseach Simon Harris described Mr O’Reilly as “a giant of sport, business and media” who left permanent legacies in all three.

“He was a trailblazer who aimed big on the international business scene,” he said. 

“Through his work in the UK, US and Ireland he forged a path that many other international business figures from Ireland would follow.

“Modern-day Ireland likes to see itself as an island in the centre of the world – Tony O’Reilly was one of the first Irish businesspeople to truly believe that.

“In a life so varied it is hard to focus on one area, however, Tony O’Reilly’s founding of the Ireland Funds with the late Dan Rooney had a transformative effect on the island of Ireland.

“The Ireland Funds is an example of peace and reconciliation done brilliantly from the ground up in communities. It has been one of the largest donors to our shared island and the cause of peace and is still going strong. I know Mr O’Reilly was enormously proud of the funds.

“Tony O’Reilly was a giant and his passing will be felt by the many people he encountered in his long life.

“My thoughts are especially with his children and grandchildren at this sad time.”

Chryss O’Reilly and  Tony O’Reilly in the Tattersalls Gold Cup.

Mr O’Reilly was born in Dublin in 1936 and was educated at Belvedere College where his rugby skills were developed, and later at UCD, where he studied law.

He made his international debut for the Ireland rugby team as a centre against France in 1955 at the age of 18. 

He would go on to be capped 29 times. He also became the youngest player ever selected for the British and Irish Lions. 

His 37 tries across two tours remains a Lions try-scoring record.

He worked in fuel importers Suttons in Cork, before joining the Irish Dairy Board or Bord Bainne where in 1962, at the age of 26, he invented the Kerrygold brand and developed it into a global success. It remains one of Ireland’s best-known global consumer brands.

Around this time, he married Susan Cameron whom he had met when playing rugby with the Lions in Australia. They went on to have six children.

Following his success in Bord Bainne, he led Irish Sugar and developed a joint venture with US food giant Heinz, where Henry J Heinz, the grandson of the founder, spotted his talent.

He joined the US multinational and by the time he was 33, he was chief executive of its UK operation with 10,000 employees. 

He then moved to its US headquarters in Pittsburg where he became one of the most highly-paid executives in the United States.

He used his growing personal fortune to develop his own personal business empire in Ireland, often flying in from the US to Dublin on a Friday night for meetings and rugby matches before returning to the US for work on Monday morning.

In 1973, he took control of Independent Newspapers – publisher of the Irish Independent, Sunday Independent and Evening Herald. He was 36.

In 1979 he became president of Heinz and in 1987 he became the first non-family member to be chairman.

Anthony O'Reilly, Chairman of the Waterford Wedgewood group during their Annual General Meeting in 2005. 
Anthony O’Reilly, Chairman of the Waterford Wedgewood group during their Annual General Meeting in 2005. 

He had homes in Dublin, Kildare and a holiday home in Glandore, in West Cork, as well as homes in Pittsburgh, the Bahamas, and Deauville, France, but he was also an active philanthropist, setting up the Ireland Funds which ploughed money from US donors into reconciliation projects around the Irish border.

In 2001, he was knighted by the late Queen Elizabeth for his services to Northern Ireland, the first such award for an Irish citizen and something for which the Government had to grant permission. He preferred thereafter to be known as Sir Anthony.

Back in Ireland, he took control of the struggling Waterford Wedgwood group in 1990 and saved it from financial collapse but its difficulties in later years would contribute to his own financial downfall.

His marriage to Susan ended in divorce in 1990 and in 1991 he married Greek shipping heiress, Chryss Goulandris who was independently wealthy.

In 1995 he was involved in a consortium that made an unsuccessful bid for the State’s second mobile phone licence, a competition that was won by Denis O’Brien’s Esat Digifone.

After a protracted takeover battle with Mr O’Brien in 2001, Mr O’Reilly successfully gained control of Eircom, which had been floated two years earlier.

A decade later, Mr O’Brien began buying shares in the Independent Newspaper group, before in 2012, he managed to oust Mr O’Reilly and his son Gavin from the board.

Tony O'Reilly became president of Heinz and in 1987 he became the first non-family member to be chairman.
Tony O’Reilly became president of Heinz and in 1987 he became the first non-family member to be chairman.

But Mr O’Reilly had bigger problems as Waterford Wedgewood was haemorrhaging cash.

His financial empire began to crumble and State-owned AIB appointed a receiver over some of his assets forcing him to sell his properties in Ireland.

He went into bankruptcy in the Bahamas in 2015 around the same time he faced health problems, and he moved to live in Deauville, France. He exited from bankruptcy in January of this year.

Tánaiste Micheál Martin was among those to pay tribute to Mr O’Reilly this evening.

He said he was “saddened to learn of the passing of Tony O’Reilly”, describing him as “a pioneering spirit who had an extraordinary impact on Irish business, sport, media and society.”

In a post on X, Irish Rugby said “A legend of the game has passed” while the British and Irish Lion described him as “one of the greatest of all the players to have worn the famous red jersey”.

“We have lost a true legend of our sport,” they said.

Mr O’Reilly is survived by his sons Cameron, Gavin and Tony jnr, and daughters Susie, Justine and Caroline. Susan O’Reilly died in 2014.

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