Businessman Tony O’Reilly (88) dies after short illness

Glasnevin native who played rugby for Ireland made a fortune as chairman of Heinz before investing in Irish companies

The death has occurred of the businessman Tony O’Reilly (88), who made a fortune as chief executive and chairman of the US food company, Heinz, and used his wealth to invest in Irish companies including Waterford Glass and the Independent group.

A family spokesman said that he died on Saturday in St Vincent’s hospital in Dublin after a short illness.

Losses suffered by the Irish companies contributed to O’Reilly losing much of his wealth later in life, leading to his eventually being declared bankrupt in the Bahamas in 2015, aged 79, after AIB – which opposed the bankruptcy decision in the Bahamas – had secured a debt judgment against him for €22.6 million. He emerged from bankruptcy in January of this year.

From Griffith Avenue in Glasnevin, Dublin, O’Reilly was born in May 1936, went to Belvedere College and University College Dublin, qualified as a solicitor, played rugby for Ireland, and enjoyed early success as an Irish business executive before moving to the other side of the Atlantic where he became one of the most highly-paid executives in the United States.


Before he moved to the United States O’Reilly was the head of Bord Bainne, the Irish Dairy Board, and the Irish Sugar Company, with his appointment to the latter being suggested by the then taoiseach, Jack Lynch. In 1969 he became the head of Heinz in the UK, and two years later moved to Pittsburgh to take on the role of senior vice-president with that corporation.

He remained with Heinz until 1998, becoming chief executive and chairman and overseeing a twelvefold increase in its size. While running his hugely successful career in the US he also returned regularly to Ireland to oversee his investments here. At the height of his career and wealth he was known to some of the most powerful political figures of the age, and had homes in Dublin, Kildare and Cork, as well as in Pittsburgh, the Bahamas, and Deauville, France.

He was a founder of the philanthropic US Ireland Fund, which raised hundreds of millions of euro for the cause of peace and reconciliation in Ireland and helped undermine IRA fundraising efforts in the US. 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.

O’Reilly married Susan Cameron, from Australia, in 1962, with whom he had six children. After a divorce in 1990 he married Greek shipping heiress, Chryss Goulandris who, after O’Reilly’s knighthood, became Lady O’Reilly.

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.

He led a consortium that successfully fought against O’Brien when the State decided to privatise telecoms company Eircom in 2001, but later lost control of the publicly-quoted Independent group to O’Brien in one of the most high-profile corporate clashes of recent decades. When the Independent group’s financial fortunes later deteriorated, both men lost substantial amounts of money.

During the hearings of the Mahon tribunal in Dublin Castle, evidence was heard about tense discussions between the government of the late John Bruton and O’Reilly, who was critical of government inaction over unlicensed TV operators, who were perceived as a threat to O’Reilly’s Irish interests but were also a difficult political problem for the government.

Following a meeting between O’Reilly and a government adviser in the former’s holiday retreat in Glandore, Co Cork, Bruton formed the view that the Independent group would take a hostile attitude towards his government in the then upcoming 1997 general election.

On the eve of the poll, the Irish Independent ran a front-page editorial headed “Payback Time” which attacked the outgoing government and backed Fianna Fáil and Bertie Ahern, who emerged as taoiseach.

Prior to his being declared bankrupt in 2015, O’Reilly sold off many of his assets, including valuable paintings and many of his properties, including his house and lands at Castlemartin, Co Kildare, and moved to live in Deauville. His wife, who was independently wealthy, died in August last year.

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

Colm Keena

Colm Keena

Colm Keena is an Irish Times journalist. He was previously legal-affairs correspondent and public-affairs correspondent