I remember Tony O’Reilly. Ever since I was a youngster, he was presented to us as our golden boy. Good looks, Irish international rugby player, record number of tries playing for British and Irish Lions, gorgeous Australian wife, lots of children, the boss of Heinz in the US. There was nothing this blessed man touched which didn’t turn to gold.
With the Troubles and then the 1980s and 1990s, things changed a bit. He hadn’t at that stage been given his honorary knighthood by Queen Elizabeth, but the energy and spleen with which his columnists and reporters attacked the Hume-Adams talks of the time showed that he must surely soon receive some such bauble. Hume was a fool, his columnists told the world. He was being hoodwinked by Gerry Adams. These talks were a sham, they would never end with the IRA abandoning the gun and the bomb,John Hume was degrading himself and all right-thinking people by such contact. (That was a great epithet then – ‘right-thinking’.) The barrage from the O’Reilly press went on for as long as – maybe longer than – the Hume-Adams talks.
When those talks paved the way to peace and Sir Tony’s paper was proved spectacularly wrong, no one there blushed or broke stride. They now concentrated their fire on Sinn Féin. That party might have abandoned violence but their entry into politics was a sham and the Irish people should not be taken in. They were men with murder in their hearts and blood on their hands, they were a threat to the country. And so to this day it goes. You’ll search long and hard through the Indo or Sindo before you’ll discover a piece that gives due credit to Adams for his part in peace-making, or an editorial that tells you Sinn Féin are a legitimate political party with aspirations that are to be applauded.
Meanwhile, now in his late seventies, the golden boy is running out of brass.On Sunday Brendan O’Connor, one of his columnists, surveyed the wreckage of O’Reilly’s financial empire and somehow made it seem a virtue that Sir Tony owes almost €200 million to eight different banks and that he’s been told to cough up €22.6 million to the AIB. Lesser men, O’Connor suggested, would have tried not to pay back the debt. Sir Tony was doing everything within his power to pay back his debts. This might even involve his having to sell his jewel in the crown, his beloved Castlemartin Estate in Co Kildare.(No, Virginia, he doesn’t live there,)
Is this a tragedy? A case of an Irish Icarus, flying so high that his golden wings melted and he plunged to the ground? I think not. O’Reilly lives in the Bahamas, his present wife is not short of a bob, and you may be sure he’ll spend his declining years in the lap of luxury, massive debts or no massive debts. Besides, you have to be a great man with one fatal flaw to be considered a tragic hero. O’Reilly, by his never-ending assaults on Hume as well as Adams – or rather the assaults he had his underlings perform – showed himself to be a small-minded, politically stupid man who did his level best to brainwash the Irish people about the Troubles in the north. If there’s a tragedy, it is that he was to a degree successful.