"I could not think of a nicer homecoming than you have given me here today," an emotional and entertaining Sir Anthony O'Reilly told an audience of old school and international rugby friends at the opening of the O'Reilly Room in his old clubhouse in Dublin yesterday.
"I have been through some tough moments in medical history with my back, which probably comes from my rugby-playing days" the one-time businessmen said, making his first public appearance in Ireland in almost a decade.
During his address at Old Belvedere Rugby Club, Tony, as he was known to friends from his rugby days, showed he had lost none of his gregarious ability to work the room and entertain an audience with stories new and old.
"He's looking well," said one old colleague.
"He's always welcome here," added another.
"Lest we get carried away with the kind words, I would like to tell you that some years ago I was walking towards Cardiff Arms Park to see an international when I got the greeting 'there's the boyo' from a Welsh fan.
"His friend didn't recognise me and asked 'who is he?', to which his friend replied, 'well, he used to be Tony O'Reilly'."
The former president of Heinz Corporation and chairman of INM, who will be 82 on May 7, arrived at the club's ground off Anglesea Road in Dublin in his black Mercedes, accompanied by his wife Chryss Goulandris. Dressed stylishly with a lapel pin of the French tricolour, denoting where he now lives, he was greeted by his son Gavin and friends.
He was welcomed to the rugby club by its president, James McCarthy, whose father Jim - who died three years ago to the day - was a lifelong friend on and off the rugby field.
"We are very proud to see the welcome home for Tony here today," said Mr McCarthy, thanking "those who helped get Tony over here for this joyous homecoming."
Among the invited guests were three former Lions colleagues: Ronnie Dawson, Ray McLaughlin and Niall Brophy, captain of the Blackrock College senior cup team who denied O'Reilly a senior cup medal in 1954.
He also mentioned Bill Mulcahy and the "great gentleman of rugby," Ollie Campbell, who were in attendance.
"Today is a homecoming for all things Old Belvedere," said Mr McCarthy, who thanked the former businessman for his "unstinting support" for the club and the school.
"I want to know who the hell let Niall Brophy in," O'Reilly began, and proceeded to pick out old teammates, especially Joe Hackett, whom he said was a "great hero" of his in their younger days. He recalled being brought to Belvedere College by his mother 75 years ago, and how she persuaded Fr O'Riordan to enrol him, even though the age limit was eight and he was only seven years of age at the time.
"Being a good footballer is about being a gentleman," he said, adding, "although I had some problems in that department myself."
After speaking for about 10 minutes, he concluded: "The lesson about winning and losing is that if you don't know how to lose, you don't know how to live."
The Belvedere College choir sang the school song and the businessman appeared genuinely moved, telling its members: "I am honoured... thank you very much, all of you."