The reasons behind O'Reilly's decline were complex but also very simple
Published 28/06/2014 | 02:30
'Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy,'' wrote F Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald-style Gatsbyesque allusions to the collapse in the fortunes of Sir Anthony O'Reilly have been many in recent weeks – and will gather pace as some of the jewels in his once mighty business empire come up for sale.
Like all such stories of decline and fall, the reasons behind it all are both complex and simple. But after the analysts and experts have had their say, the core problem is that he was simply over-borrowed when the whirlwind of a vicious unforeseen recession swept from country to country. It has happened before – it will happen again.
My first meeting with Tony O'Reilly was when, shortly after his marriage to Chryss Goulandris, the couple made an impromptu visit to the old Independent offices in Middle Abbey Street. I was Night Editor of the paper at the time, working in what is now a lost world of typewriters, with a clanking printing press thundering away beneath the building.
The newly married couple arrived unannounced shortly after 2am, and wandered round the cavernous old offices, soaking up the atmosphere of a paper "being put to bed", as it was done in those days.
The motley group of late-night, early-morning journalists and printers were slightly taken aback at having Ireland's richest man in their presence, at such an unlikely hour.
But he ambled around the building amid the detritus of half-eaten takeaway meals and unfinished cups of coffee. He stayed and chatted for some time, enjoying the frisson of a twilight world, which was part of newspapering at that time. And when he was gone, his last words, spoken in that familiar mid-Atlantic drawl, lingered on. "Enjoy yourselves,'' he told us.
Later in the mid-1990s, when I edited the 'Irish Daily Star', I would have some relatively fleeting one-to-one chats with him, usually at some of the social events he hosted around company AGM time.
He was tall and imposing, with sharp, alert eyes, aware of the minutiae of circulation, but always radiating positive energy, and more often than not sheer good humour.
This much commented upon humour and endless store of jokes and one-liners – many of them self-deprecating – helped maintain an aura of languid charm. It sometimes belied a steely determination to always zone in on the bottom line.
But for all his hard-focused business acumen, Tony O'Reilly – and it may be part of his eventual undoing – on occasions did seem to allow his heart to rule his head.
Business analysts would argue this was most manifest in the story of Waterford Glass, where the fact it was an iconic Irish company made him too emotionally involved, possibly clouding his judgment.
In later years, when editing the 'Herald' and the Irish Independent, there would be various other occasions when the O'Reilly presence would dominate sundry gatherings. It could be to do with the core business, or when hosting social events, for the likes of Nelson Mandela or Henry Kissinger.
His sense of history and world affairs was deep and profound, and from his conversations it was clear events in Ireland, and geopolitics across the globe, were a source of ongoing fascination.
His role as a "newspaper baron" obviously gave him an inside track, given that he was on first-name terms with many world leaders. But despite his multinational persona, one felt he always believed himself to be very much an Irishman – and an Irishman with a sense of destiny.
On a visit to his home in Deauville in northern France, its links with William the Conqueror were an obvious source of pride.
On another occasion at his house in Glandore, in west Cork, the sometimes ordinariness of the billionaire lifestyle was palpable. He loafed about in casual clothes, while his wife tried to work out problems with the television remote control so that she could watch some horse racing.
However, it is perhaps through newspapers his personality was best reflected. The wayward, unforgiving, but intrinsically romantic world of the printed word as it was during the O'Reilly era continued to enthrall.
Maybe he was too willingly seduced by it all. Or perhaps he should have noted some insights offered by the Irish-American journalist and writer Pete Hamill, when he once warned all involved in the business: "Remember newspapers will always break your heart."
One feels the O'Reilly heart will hold firm during this latest test to his will – and that despite advancing years, the old inner steel remains.
He was a tough businessman who reached the dizzy heights. But through it all he retained a sense of generosity, coupled with style, grace, panache and humour, plus a genuine willingness to embrace the wider world.
These are not qualities you can cash in down in the Commercial Court. But they are priceless – and their value will endure.
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