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Tony O'Reilly became one of the most powerful figures in Irish life and we can learn from his story

Tony O’Reilly was many things – a rugby superstar, a driving force of economic development in Ireland and a media mogul, which is why he is one of the most interesting non-elected public figure in Ireland over a period of about 60 years, writes Matt Cooper.

Matt Cooper

BUSINESS IS NOT not boring. The details of the deals and decisions that make business people richer or poorer are not dull.

Ignore them and you don’t understand the financial consequences to the people who made the wrong decisions that led to the economic crash of the last decade – one that of course ended up impacting on the rest of us too. Or the benefits of the jobs that are created by their ambition and drive and the money made and which flows to others too.

I regarded the inclusion of such details as essential to a biography such as The Maximalist.

Tony O’Reilly was many things – a rugby superstar in the 1950s, a driving force of economic development in Ireland in the 1960s, a possible political contender on many occasions, a media mogul for nearly 40 years both in Ireland and abroad, a patron of the arts and the founder of one of the most important bulwarks against the advance of the IRA – which is what makes him arguably the most interesting non-elected public figure in Ireland over a period of about 60 years.

SIR ANTHONY O REILLY WATERFORD WEDGWOOD Source: Graham Hughes/Photocall Ireland!

Primarily however he was a businessman because his power and influence flowed from the wealth he accumulated through doing business. Indeed, doing business was almost his raison d’etre, most certainly the core around which everything else orbited.

You would not write a biography of a concert pianist without discussing his playing technique, irrespective of how colourful his life outside of his art was, or of a celebrated surgeon with explaining the nature of his operations.

You wouldn’t write about a politician’s life without tallying the votes he gathered. Hence, my biography of Tony O’Reilly includes lots of details of his business activities, as well as lots of other stories about his other interests and how these all impacted on his personal and family relationships.

SIR ANTHONY O REILLY WATERFORD WEDGWOOD PORTRAIT LANDSCAPE Source: Graham Hughes/Photocall Ireland!

Businessmen are not boring either. Well, many are not. Some are, of course; just as in most walks of life there are people who are obsessed with what they do, to the exclusion of all else, which makes them appear limited to those not interested in their fixation.

He could command a room when he walked into it 

There are many, however, who have far wider interests and who are entertaining company, or who have other achievements that make them interesting. A few are charismatic, who command a room as soon as they walk into it; O’Reilly was one. I say was because he no longer trusts himself to walk into company for fear he will not create the reaction that he once did, that interest in him would be pity.

That is in itself is a pity because Tony O’Reilly is a man, still alive, aged 79, who has lived a life in full. I thought recently of one of my favourite novels, William Boyd’s “Any Human Heart”, an epic journey of one man’s life over a century, and realised that O’Reilly’ real life story is as epic in its scale as Boyd’s fiction.

While O’Reilly’s life may not have involved going to war (a real one, as opposed to business battles, although he read military history avidly) as Boyd’s hero did, but more than enough has taken place to justify the size of “The Maximalist” as a book.

Indeed, over 50,000 words were cut from the initial draft – and may others had not been written in the first place – such are the things he did and in which he was involved.

It still matters, even if he, living in a hotel suite in New York with his wife, for which she pays, tries to deal with his debts – which he has not been able to clear by the sale of his assets, is no longer a significant figure in Irish life.

How he rose from unusual circumstances – his father had abandoned his wife and four children to set up home with Tony’s mother – to become such a powerful figure in Irish life, (and extraordinarily, a Knight of the British realm, revelling in the title of ‘Sir’) enjoying a life of plenty some would envy and others would considerable unconscionable in its excess – is a story that demands to be told and not just because of prurience. There is much that many can learn from it.

The Maximalist by Matt Cooper is published by Gill & MacMillan. Matt Cooper is the presenter of The Last Word on Today FM. He is also the author of ‘The Maximalist’ a biography of Tony O’Reilly which is available to buy now. 

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