Fintan O’Toole, the Irish Times’s prize columnist for many years, wrote a staggeringly mean-spirited assessment of Sir Anthony O’Reilly shortly after his death on May 18.

Published: 28 May 2024

He opined that being told as a school child that he was illegitimate was probably the reason for “the obsessive hunger for success that was evident in the career of a man who could not be content with being one of the highest paid chief executives in the United States but also tried to build a private industrial empire and to pursue the dream of being a global media mogul.”

(Actually, as Sir Anthony told a colleague, “The priest wanted to humiliate me. He told me that my parents weren’t married, that my father had another family and what did I think of that…In that moment, all I could think was that my slightly pompous father who sat at the end of the table waiting for his tea, was actually a buccaneer and loved my mother so much. I just admired him for it.”)

According to Mr O’Toole, his purpose was “to control news, to have power over image and information” — his main interest being primarily “in the prestige and power he could get from owning” newspapers.

An Anglophile, he “swaggered in his English title” and “cosplayed the life of an Ascendency landlord”.

Sir Anthony had become head of Bord Bainne at the age of 25, which inspired Mr O’Toole’s sneer: “He became a marketing genius when he put a gold wrapper on a slab of old Ireland, creating the Kerrygold brand that still glitters on the shelves of the world supermarkets”, but although “Ireland’s most iconic capitalist, he ultimately did more to wrap it in a golden sheen of wealth than to create an ideal of sustainable prosperity.”

And so on and so on. Virtually nothing was said about his stunning talent and courage as an international rugby star, about his astonishing success as head of HJ Heinz, which he turned into an $11 billion business.

No mention of his creation of the Ireland Funds, which steered rich Irish Americans away from financing violence and towards supporting reconciliation.

Or his rare commitment as a newspaper owner to truth for its own sake. Part from the stipulation that there could be no editorial support for “men of violence”, he left editors to make their own decisions. Even if they published disobliging attacks on his business allies, he did not interfere.

I knew Sir Anthony only slightly but it was enough for me to realise he was the best kind of patriot and a noble crusader for free speech.

First, as chair of the British Association for Irish Studies I was one of those receiving encouragement for a cause challenging hatred and lies. And later as a journalist, I came to realise that as the proprietor of newspapers that included the Belfast Telegraph and the Sunday Independent, he uncomplainingly paid a fortune in libel damages.

He once asked me if I had any idea what pressure he was constantly put under to get rid of me.

He was kind: I still remember the short letter he sent me after the death of my father — an historian he had known by sight when he was at University College Dublin — just saying that he remembered that shock of white hair. And he made entertaining speeches and was funny because he liked to entertain.

He was brought to bankruptcy because he over-extended himself and, in Ireland at least, was too indulgent of his employees in Waterford Crystal and Wedgwood and sank himself financially to keep them going.

The loathing Denis O’Brien felt for him — which was not reciprocated, because Sir Anthony was no grudge-bearer — led finally to his bankruptcy.

I was pleased to see letters in Irish Times savaging what the President of Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers’ Association described as Mr O’Toole’s “extraordinarily pinched and petty article.”

And I liked the maxim recited at his funeral: “You win and you lose, and If you lose, and if you don’t know how to lose, you don’t know how to live.”

“I am happy. I had a great life”, he said a few weeks ago. He sure knew how to live.

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