A major documentary on Irish television on Sir Anthony O’Reilly, one of the biggest figures in Irish America, provided some fascinating insights.
Born to parents who were not married – a huge setback in Ireland of the 1940s – O'Reilly soon left that social stigma far behind him.
He was a dazzling figure: a big, strapping, brilliant rugby player who was revered on and off the field for his sporting prowess and business acumen.
He was a wunderkind, playing for the British and Irish Lions at just 19, founding and branding Kerrygold by age 26 and running Heinz, one of the biggest brands in the world, by his mid-thirties.
O’Reilly accumulated newspapers like others collect postage stamps, first the Irish Independent, then the London Independent, then a vast number of titles in Australia, South Africa and New Zealand.
Soon after he purchased telecom companies, oil drilling companies, property holdings, and finally the jewel in the crown, the Waterford Wedgwood brand. At his height he was on the Washington Post and Mobil Oil boards, a confidant to kings and luminaries such as Nelson Mandela.
Here in America he founded the American Ireland Fund with Dan Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was a remarkable initiative, one that allowed American businesspeople with Irish backgrounds to become involved in Northern Ireland.
The Ireland Fund and what it has become today, the premier Irish charitable organization in the world, is his real legacy.
In the midst of all the success there was always the paradox. The more he seemed to accomplish the more he needed the recognition. One of the seminal moments in the documentary shows O'Reilly firmly insisting he be called Sir Anthony O’Reilly after being knighted by the Queen.
Quite why an Irish-born business great would need such a British title probably goes to the insecurity at the heart of the man. Like his newspaper’s slamming of John Hume when he dared to seek an opening with Sinn Fein and end The Troubles, there were many troubling aspects to the O'Reilly legacy.
(Amazingly Seamus Mallon, Hume’s deputy all the years, was liberally quoted in the documentary praising O'Reilly to the skies – a form of revenge perhaps on Hume who Mallon intensely disliked by the end of their political careers.)
Unlike with his corporate career where he possessed the Midas touch, in latter years in his private business dealings everything O'Reilly touched turned to dust, most notably Waterford Crystal.
Once one of the world’s great brands, Waterford fell on very hard times, unable to change with the new millennium. O’Reilly stuck with it when others would have bailed, and it cost him his empire.
As the documentary revealed, O'Reilly is now being pursued by Irish banks to whom he owes hundreds of millions.
No one could take comfort in how it has ended up for him. Like Icarus he flew too close to the sun, but it was a hell of a wild flight.
Tony O’Reilly remains one of the most remarkable Irish men of his generation. His present woes cannot take that away from him. Like all larger-than-life figures his faults were larger-than-life too.
A contradictory figure in so many ways, his legacy will be debated for years to come.