Friday 20 September 2019

The sad and public fall of the House of O'Reilly

The bankruptcy of Tony O'Reilly was the last act in the unfolding tragedy of his business life, writes Liam Collins

Tony O'Reilly: ‘I have built a reputation for honest dealing and straight talking’
Tony O'Reilly: ‘I have built a reputation for honest dealing and straight talking’
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

We may be a nation of begrudgers, but who among us takes pleasure in seeing a once great man humiliated and stripped of the trophies of a glittering career; the trappings of a once successful life but, most of all, the dignity and status they once conferred on him?

To give him his full title, Sir Anthony O'Reilly saw it all crystallise in a short, dry hearing in the aptly named Ansbacher House in the Bahamas this weekend. Finally, harried and pursued by his bankers for legitimately owed debts of many millions, he drew a line in the sand and endured what must be the final indignity for an ego as big as his: bankruptcy.

It is no longer a bad word in the Irish lexicon because it has now become so commonplace, but to go from billionaire to bankrupt in a few short years is akin to one of the great beasts of the jungle being brought to ground by a pack of jackals.

Yet, despite his tribulations, he'll probably never be like you and me, struggling to make a mortgage payment or rolling over a utility bill in the hope that next month there won't be so many outgoings. Reduced to just two homes - his residence in Lyford Cay in the Bahamas and his chateau in France - there will probably be a couple of million in spare change hanging around when it's all over. He is also married to Chryss Goulandris, or Lady O'Reilly, heir to a private Greek shipping fortune.

But everything is relative.

When he turns 80 on May 7, 2016, Tony O'Reilly should be able to celebrate the end of his agony and enjoy his remaining years in peace, but there will be none of the trappings and jet-set lifestyle of an international businessman left - unless it comes courtesy of his wife.

It may not even be about the money, because during his life, it wasn't always about the money - it was about winning, on the rugby field or in business deals or at the Heinz Corporation in Pittsburgh, where he eventually presided over the boardroom like an old-style potentate. To be fair to him, it was also about giving - to friends and fallen associates, to the foundations that bore the name of his parents and, ultimately, to the cause of a better Ireland.

It was a sad week. There was the sale of his holiday home in Glandore, Co Cork.Then, the paintings were removed from his house in Fitzwilliam Square in Dublin, although he seldom visited either. That came on top of the sale of his Castlemartin estate and stud farm in Co Kildare, and the exhausting war of attrition between O'Reilly and his bankers - particularly Allied Irish Bank, as they sought an inventory of his worldwide assets, including the Claude Monet painting and the many trophies he collected in a lifetime as the golden boy of Irish business.

"I have spent my whole life in business. I believe that, throughout a range of different commercial interests across a host of countries in several continents, I have built a reputation for honest dealing and straight talking," said O'Reilly as he tried to fight off his creditors. And you can almost hear the pain in those few words.

But reputation alone counts for nothing now. Despite his status, his borrowings were vast and his assets, even his personal ones, mortgaged and encumbered to the hilt. Such is the fate of great men who think that someone or something will 'always come good'.

Then, as other banks waited in the wings, AIB led the charge looking for summary judgment of €22m from Tony O'Reilly personally, and another €22m from two of his investment companies.

But probably an even greater tragedy for O'Reilly was the personal side of such a fall from grace. A serious back operation and his personal financial troubles led to a sudden withdrawal from public life when he realised it was all falling apart.

He didn't reply to friends who wrote to sympathise with him - something the old O'Reilly would never have neglected. He wasn't able to be present in London for the funeral of his first wife Susan, the marriage (second) of his son Gavin or the 50th birthday party of his son Cameron.

It is such things that keep ordinary families together and such things that can only lead to pain in an extraordinary family such as theirs.

In his book The Maximalist, Matt Cooper concludes by recounting how the O'Reillys, Tony and Chryss, returned to Castlemartin for the last time at Christmas 2014 to box up their personal possessions, which had been left on display at the mansion during the sale process. He speculates that not only was O'Reilly leaving a house, but the place where his parents are buried and which he would have expected to be his own last resting place.

"The Latin inscription over the teal-blue front door, which translates as 'the forgetfulness of a busy life is very agreeable', screamed at him now that he had so little to do other than deal with banks and lawyers about his debts," says Cooper.

Of course, the final outcome wasn't the first time that Tony O'Reilly sailed close to the wind. His tenure at the American company, Heinz, and his ownership of Independent Newspapers (now INM), provided him with an incomparable access to cash - and, over the years, he borrowed lavishly but not always wisely, ploughing vast amounts of money into various ventures with almost limitless self-belief.

Nothing was ever enough and, eventually, that drive enticed him into the abyss of Waterford Glass and the dogged loyalty to his 'calling card', the London Independent newspaper, which together destroyed his fragile fortune.

The king of brands, which he was, long before such things were recognised, always got what he wanted, but the price was often too high and in the end, it proved fatal.

As the years take their toll on old friends and business associates, there are few left now to remember the gilded years of Tony O'Reilly - on the rugby field or holding the room in the palm of his hand.

I recall seeing him speak for the first time in the Willard Hotel in Washington at an Ireland Fund dinner. It was a magnificent combination of wit and anecdote, accompanied by a serious analysis of the Troubles, with a vigorous shake of the begging bowl at the cream of Capitol Hill, who were more than willing to give at the end of his speech.

But what I remember most is the senior Irish government minister who came on after him, droning on and on and on. It was only then that I realised why Tony O'Reilly got to where he was.

Sadly, it took only one lifetime to burn it down. Such is the ephemeral and fleeting nature of fame and fortune. Empires always crumble, but rarely do they collapse in such a spectacular conflagration as the fall of the House of O'Reilly.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss