Tony O'Reilly. photo.

Tony O'Reilly Dead at 88

Tony O'Reilly, who for many years was Ireland's most prominent figure on the international business stage, has died at the age of 88.

O'Reilly, who made his name in America as the chief executive and chairman of Pittsburgh-based Heinz, died in St. Vincent's Hospital Dublin after a short illness.

In an extraordinary life that first came to prominence with his exploits on the rugby pitch, O'Reilly would rise to Olympian heights in the Irish and international business world only to descend to the stygian depths of bankruptcy in the second decade of this century.

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O'Reilly was co-founder of the Ireland Funds and that organization will be widely seen as a significant part of his legacy.

According to the Ireland Funds website, "In 1976. Dan Rooney, the former US Ambassador to Ireland and owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers football team, along with fellow Pittsburgh businessman Anthony J.F. O’Reilly, created what was then The Ireland Fund. With a trinity of goals – peace, culture and charity – The Ireland Fund appealed for support for Ireland and its people from all Americans, but especially those of Irish descent. Over the following decade, The Ireland Fund formed a thriving fundraising network of chapters in cities across the U.S. including Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York, Palm Beach, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Naples, San Francisco, San Diego and Washington, D.C."

Throughout his long career, the multi-capped Irish international rugby player ran newspapers in Ireland (the Independent Group), the UK (London Independent) Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

During the 1990s, when the Echo annually named an Irish Person of the Year, O'Reilly was among the title holders.

Such was his prominence in U.S. business circles in the 1980s that a Wall Street Journal story at one point named O'Reilly as a possible vice presidential partner for George H.W. Bush, seemingly ignoring the constitutional bar on non America-born nationals being able to occupy the Oval Office - a potential task that hovers over the role of every vice president.

A family spokesman said that O'Reilly had died on Saturday, May 18 in St. Vincent’s hospital in Dublin after a short illness.

“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,” said the spokesman who went on to praise O'Reilly's "extraordinary philanthropic vision" which was "best evidenced by the establishment of the Ireland Funds at a dark time in this island’s history".

The statement added: “But, for us, he was a dearly-loved dad and a grandad. 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."

President Michael D. Higgins in a tribute stated: "There were so many aspects of Irish life that Anthony O'Reilly touched in an innovative and changing way that his passing will draw tributes from so many that knew him and worked with him.

"It is understandable that the positive contribution in terms of utilising the Irish diaspora at a time of Ireland's difficulties, through the Ireland Funds and the impact which that made on a North/South basis, will be at the top of most people's list of the contributions that he made.

"The leadership he gave in that action was at a time when Ireland needed to draw on all of the contacts and friends that it had.

"The innovation that was part of all of his life extended from the application of science and technology, sport, the labyrinthine nature of commerce and the ever tumultuous space that constituted newspaper ownership at home and abroad, to what was a personal commitment to staying with what he saw as a symbolic Irish activity in Waterford Crystal.

"A man of great personal charm, he used that gift for delivering a number of significant philanthropic initiatives. His life was, by any measure, a full one and he will be missed by all of those who knew him. I send my sympathies to his family.”

Taoiseach Simon Harris described O'Reilly as "a giant of sport, business and media" and "a trailblazer."

O’Reilly is survived by his sons Cameron, Gavin and Tony Jr., and daughters Susie, Justine and Caroline. He had 19 grandchildren. Susan O’Reilly, his first wife, died in 2014. His second wife, Chryss Goulandris, died in August of last year.