Irish business and rugby ‘giant’ Sir Tony O’Reilly dies aged 88

Sir Tony O'Reilly at the opening of an Independent News and Media printing plant in Newry, Northern Ireland, in 2007
Sir Tony O'Reilly at the opening of an Independent News and Media printing plant in Newry, Northern Ireland, in 2007 - Julien Behal/PA Wire

Sir Tony O’Reilly, one of Ireland’s leading business figures, has died at the age of 88.

Mr O’Reilly, who was also known as a media magnate and international rugby player for Ireland and the British and Irish Lions, died in St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin on Saturday.

Ireland’s Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Simon Harris described Sir Tony as a “trailblazer”.

Mr Harris said: “It is with great sadness that I have learned of the death of Tony O’Reilly. Mr O’Reilly was a giant of sport, business and media and left permanent legacies in all three. He was a trailblazer who aimed big on the international business scene.

“Through his work in the UK, US and Ireland he forged a path that many other international business figures from Ireland would follow.

“Modern-day Ireland likes to see itself as an island in the centre of the world – Tony O’Reilly was one of the first Irish businesspeople to truly believe that.”

Ireland’s deputy premier Micheal Martin said Sir Tony had an “extraordinary impact on Irish business, sport, media and society”.

In a statement, his family said: “In the coming days there will be many worthy tributes made to Tony O’Reilly’s unique and extraordinary achievements in the fields of business and sport.

“As well as to his extraordinary philanthropic vision which was best evidenced by the establishment of the Ireland Funds at a dark time in this island’s history.

“But, for us, he was a dearly-loved dad and a granddad.

“He lived one of the great lives and we were fortunate to spend time with him in recent weeks as that great life drew to a close.”

Born in Dublin in 1936, Sir Tony made his international debut for Ireland in rugby in 1955 and soon became the youngest player to be selected for the Lions.

In his business career he pioneered the dairy brand Kerrygold, turning it into one of Ireland’s most well-known global consumer brands.

He later became the chairman of the food giant Heinz and in 1973 took control of Independent Newspapers, publisher of the Irish Independent, Sunday Independent and Evening Herald.

He was also known for his philanthropy, setting up The Ireland Funds, which gave money from US donors into reconciliation projects around the Irish border.

Sir Tony, who had joint Irish and British nationality, was knighted in the 2001 New Year Honours by the late Queen Elizabeth II “for long and distinguished service to Northern Ireland”.

Mr Martin said on X: “Saddened to learn of the passing of Tony O’Reilly a pioneering spirit who had an extraordinary impact on Irish business, sport, media and society.

“Through the Ireland Funds, Tony changed the global narrative on peace and reconciliation on this island.

“My deepest sympathies to his children, family and friends.”

As news of his death emerged, the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) posted on X: “A legend of the game has passed. Our deepest sympathies to his family and friends.”

Sir Tony was the father of six children.

Mr Harris said ‘‘his passing will be felt by the many people he encountered in his long life My thoughts are especially with his children and grandchildren at this sad time.”

Mr Harris added: “In a life so varied it is hard to focus on one area, however Tony O’Reilly’s founding of the Ireland Funds with the late Dan Rooney had a transformative effect on the island of Ireland. The Ireland Funds is an example of peace and reconciliation done brilliantly from the ground up in communities.

“It has been one of the largest donors to our shared island and the cause of peace and is still going strong.’’