President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins has paid tribute to Irish businessman and Ireland Funds founder Tony O'Reilly, who died aged 88 on Saturday following a short illness. 

O'Reilly, one of Ireland's leading business figures, was the former owner of the Irish Independent and Belfast Telegraph newspapers and owned more than 100 newspapers at one point. 

He eventually lost control of the business following a bitter boardroom battle with Dennis O'Brien and was bankrupted later in life. 

In a statement, O'Reilly's family said he died in St. Vincent's Hospital surrounded by loved ones on Saturday. 

"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," a spokesperson for O'Reilly's family said. 

"As well as 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." 

President Higgins described O'Reilly as a man of "great personal charm", adding that he had a "gift for delivering a number of significant philanthropic initiatives". 

The President said O'Reilly's role in setting up the Ireland Funds, which gave money from US donors to reconciliation projects during the Troubles, was among the most important contributions that he made during his life. 

"It is understandable that the positive contribution in terms of utilizing the Irish diaspora at a time of Ireland's difficulties, through the Ireland Funds and the impact which that made on a North/South basis, will be at the top of most people's list of the contributions that he made," Higgins said in a statement. 

Higgins added that O'Reilly showed leadership at a time when Ireland "needed to draw on all of the friends and contacts that it had". 

"His life was, by any measure, a full one and he will be missed by all of those who knew him. I send my sympathies to his family." 

Taoiseach Simon Harris described O'Reilly as a "trailblazer" and a "giant of sport, business, and media". 

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

"Modern-day Ireland likes to see itself as an island in the center of the world - Tony O'Reilly was one of the first Irish businesspeople to truly believe that." 

Born in Dublin in 1936, O'Reilly enjoyed a hugely successful professional rugby career, scoring a record number of tries for the British and Irish Lions, before going on to establish a hugely successful business career, launching Kerrygold butter in the 1960s.

At the time, Irish farmers sold unbranded butter to the UK and it was often mixed with products from other locations to the detriment of its quality. 

Following his success with Kerrygold, O'Reilly led Irish Sugar and developed a joint venture with US food giant Heinz. He became chief executive of Heinz's UK operation by the time he was 33, overseeing 10,000 employees. 

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

He became President of Heinz in 1979 and became the first non-family member to become CEO of the company in 1987. 

O'Reilly's work with the Ireland Funds made him a target of republican paramilitaries and his son Tony O'Reilly Jr. once revealed that his father received bullets in the mail and kidnapping threats at the height of the Troubles in the 1980s. However, he said O'Reilly "took it in his stride". 

O'Reilly became involved in a protracted legal battle with businessman Denis O'Brien after the Irish Government sold off Eircom in 1999. 

O'Reilly successfully gained control of the company in 2001 but did not enjoy an amicable relationship with O'Brien, who began buying shares in Independent Newspapers several years later. 

O'Brien eventually took control of the company and ousted O'Reilly and his son Gavin in 2012. 

As the financial crisis deepened, O'Reilly desperately fought to save his company Waterford Wedgewood, a holding company for a group of firms that specialized in crystal, porcelain, and bone china products. 

O'Reilly and his brother-in-law Peter Goulandris poured investments into the company to keep it afloat and invested a final $50 million in the hopes of securing a financial rescue package from Bank of America. 

However, the deal fell apart and the company folded, spelling disaster for O'Reilly, who had risked many of his own assets to save the company.

No longer receiving a dividend from the Independent, O'Reilly faced loans that he could not repay, prompting AIB to appoint a receiver over some of his assets. He subsequently went into bankruptcy in the Bahamas at the same time that he was battling health problems.