Tributes paid after businessman Tony O'Reilly passes away following short illness

Tributes paid after businessman Tony O'Reilly passes away following short illness

TRIBUTES have been paid to businessman, philanthropist and sportsman Tony O'Reilly, who passed away on Saturday following a short illness.

O'Reilly, 88, a former chairman of US food company Heinz and CEO of Independent News & Media (INM), made 29 appearances for the Ireland rugby team.

In a statement, Taoiseach Simon Harris described O'Reilly as 'a trailblazer who aimed big on the international business scene'.

O'Reilly passed away at St Vincent's Hospital in Dublin on Saturday.

O'Reilly during a training session with Ireland in 1958 (Image: Allsport / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

"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," read a statement from his family.

"As well as 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."

Sporting and business success

O'Reilly played for Ireland for 15 years after making his debut against France in 1955.

He also toured twice with the British and Irish Lions and made 30 appearances for the Barbarians.

After joining the Irish Dairy Board in 1962, he helped create the Kerrygold brand for Irish export butter.

As Managing Director of the Irish Sugar Company, O'Reilly forged links with Heinz and in 1969, was appointed to lead its British subsidiary.

He was later appointed Senior Vice President of the company's US division and ultimately became chairman of the company in 1987, the first non-family member to hold the post.

O’ Reilly speaking at the INM business AGM in Dublin in 2006 (Image: Leon Farrell /

Meanwhile, he took control of INM in 1973, later acquiring the Belfast Telegraph and the Independent newspapers as well as overseeing the firm's expansion beyond Ireland and Britain.

His other business interests included Waterford Wedgewood, where he was chairman from 1995 until 2009.

Alongside businessman Dan Rooney — who later served as US ambassador to Ireland — O'Reilly established the Ireland Fund at the height of the Troubles in 1976 to help support Irish people at home and across the world.

Initially operating in America, the fundraising organisation now has 12 chapters across the world.

His work with the Ireland Funds was recognised in 2001 when he was knighted for services to Northern Ireland.

'Transformative effect on the island of Ireland'

Leading the tributes, the Taoiseach said O'Reilly was 'a giant of sport, business and media and left permanent legacies in all three'.

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

"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.

"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.

"I know Mr O'Reilly was enormously proud of the funds.

"Tony O'Reilly was a giant and his passing will be felt by the many people he encountered in his long life."

O'Reilly with his wife Chryss in Dublin in 1993 (Image:

In a statement, the Ireland Funds credited O'Reilly's 'insight and love' for Ireland as driving him to help set up the organisation.

"Countless lives have been improved and the extent of Tony's philanthropic reach may never be fully known," read the statement.

"The greatest tribute we can offer is to continue the work he began almost 50 years ago.

"We thank Tony for his vision, his charismatic leadership, his service, and his commitment to our mission."

Meanwhile, a statement from the IRFU described O'Reilly as 'an influential figure in the fields of sport, business, philanthropy and media [whose] influence and legacy transcends his many achievements on the rugby field'.