Friday 23 August 2019

How a postman's multi-million gambling frenzy began with just a single €1 bet

Postmaster Tony O'Reilly had a €10m gambling turnover - but his world came tumbling down, says Declan Lynch

Frankie Dettori on Authorized, winning the 2007 Epsom Derby. Photo: Rebecca Naden
Frankie Dettori on Authorized, winning the 2007 Epsom Derby. Photo: Rebecca Naden
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

I have just finished writing a book with a friend of mine. And while I have written other books, I am finding something very unusual going on with this one.

Though it will not be published until February next, by Gill Books, we are already receiving requests from radio and television programmes and from the newspapers for interviews.

The fact that the book has been written has been a news story in itself, with reporters in various publications concentrating on the man with whom I have been writing it - the former postmaster in Gorey, Co Wexford, one Tony O'Reilly, who was seized in a spectacular way by an addiction to online gambling.

There was always something special about the story of Tony O'Reilly, then in his late 30s, who developed a gambling addiction of such ferocity under the username Tony 10, he eventually had a turnover of €10m in his Paddy Power account.

Though I'd been writing about this issue for some time, and noted the growing number of cases involving people getting into serious trouble with online gambling in particular, when the O'Reilly story broke in June 2011 it was clearly coming from a different dimension.

It was not just the scale of it, the €10m turnover, the enormity of the numbers in general, the fact that he had somehow managed to steal €1.75m from An Post in a period of roughly 18 months. It was also his disappearance on the morning that the fraud was discovered, which in such circumstances tends to be a prelude to the discovery of a body washed up on the shore - but in this case was leading to the realisation that he had gone on the run to Northern Ireland, where he was still gambling.

They found him in a hotel in Carrickfergus, but it was a visit to a branch of Paddy Power in Belfast which had helped to locate him. And this to me seemed crucial, because it demonstrated the catastrophic force of this form of addiction, the fact that a man knowing that his life is already ruined by it, can still be powerless to resist its attractions.

So I wrote about this, and about its aftermath, in this paper, his arrest and conviction and sentencing to four years in jail, with one year suspended in 2012 - and about other crucial features of this case, such as the fact that this man with an ordinary income, married with one child and living in a modest house in his home town Carlow, had been a guest of Paddy Power at the Aviva Stadium for the Europa League final of 2011, and the Budweiser Irish Derby at the Curragh. Which right there seemed to blow a massive hole in the Responsible Gambling policies proclaimed by Paddy Power and by the betting corporations in general.

His father, who is also called Tony, contacted this paper wanting to talk to me - a message which usually strikes an ominous note, though not on this occasion. They had found the articles in these pages more acceptable than the coverage in other organs, which had paid little attention to the issue of addiction, to the vulnerability of people who are being consumed by internet gambling.

Though Tony had now started his sentence in the Midlands prison in Portlaoise, he had already embarked on a programme of recovery in Cuan Mhuire in Athy, was exploring ways of becoming an addiction counsellor, had given talks in schools. He wrote to me, and I wrote back.

POWERLESSNESS: Gambling addiction can ruin lives, but there is hope of recovery. Former postmaster Tony O’Reilly after being found guilty of a €1.75m fraud Photo: Patrick Browne
POWERLESSNESS: Gambling addiction can ruin lives, but there is hope of recovery. Former postmaster Tony O’Reilly after being found guilty of a €1.75m fraud Photo: Patrick Browne

He was clearly an intelligent man who was developing a deep understanding of what had happened to him, of the nature of the forces which had swept him away, which had left one of the youngest post office managers in the country languishing in a cell in the Midlands Prison and later at Shelton Abbey outside Arklow.

We continued our conversations when he got out of prison - we are both fans of Liverpool FC, which gives us a heightened awareness of the essentially tragic nature of existence - but still there was no definite plan to write a book.

After the madness which he had been through, Tony was reluctant to be drawing any more attention to himself if he could help it; he needed time to get his life started again, to maintain his own recovery and to learn how to work in the recovery of others.

Everyone told him "it would make a great movie", but movies were far from his thoughts.

He was busy working in the Cuan Mhuire facility in Gardiner Street in Dublin, a kind of a transition house for people who've come through addiction treatment, and who are homeless. And I suppose my main concern in relation to telling his story in any form was that it was such a large responsibility.

I always knew it was special, but in getting to know Tony I kept hearing more of it - utterly terrifying stuff, like the documented record of his Paddy Power account, which on the first page of his betting history features a bet of one euro - one single solitary euro - which somehow turns into daily bets of €20,000, €30,000, €40,000 as you get towards the back pages.

We would talk of the near misses he'd had, the last-minute goals that destroyed him, the shots that hit the post, the times when he vowed to get out while he was ahead, or at least while he wasn't too far behind, only for those moments to be lost in another surge of adrenaline - like the time when he was getting married in Cyprus, sitting in his hotel room watching the Epsom Derby, praying for Authorized to win, because he had gambled away the final instalment which was meant to pay for the wedding.

The gods took pity on him that day - Authorized won, he was saved.

Short of dying, just about every bad thing which can happen to a person in the gambling arena happened to Tony O'Reilly. He had been a successful person in all sorts of ways who had made a few wrong moves and thrown away all those fine prospects, he had became notorious.

But since somehow he did not die, he would keep asking himself the question: what good thing will come of this?

And so the book is written, which has been a privilege for me, accompanied by a constant awareness of the need to do it justice.

One obviously good thing that will come of it, when it is published in February, is that Tony will be giving any money he receives from it to Cuan Mhuire, and to Eist Cancer Support Centre in Carlow.

We are co-authors, in the sense that I am describing what happened, along with excerpts from a jail journal written by Tony in Portlaoise and Shelton Abbey. But the story is all his, he went all the way to hell to get it.

And somehow he brought it back.

Sunday Independent

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