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The life of O'Reilly
Fond memories of Tony O'Reilly before he stood alongside Nelson Mandela
Eamonn McCann, 21 Jun 2001
Independent Group boss Tony O’Reilly last month organised a private memorial service for his old rugby friend and former business associate Andy Mulligan.
The service took place in O’Reilly’s private chapel on his private estate and was conducted, according to one account, by O’Reilly’s “chaplain”.
It came as something of a surprise to me that O’Reilly has a “chaplain”, as well as a chapel of his own on his Castlemartin demesne. Perhaps the next step will be his own Church, over which he’ll preside as infallible leader.
Or is Independent Newspapers ahead of me there?
At any rate, O’Reilly will have arranged the ceremony out of genuine affection for his old chum, and why not? They go back a long way. And rarely has one chum been regarded with such reverence as O’Reilly was by Mulligan.
The relationship was well-expressed some years ago in a piece by Mulligan in the Sunday Independent to mark O’Reilly’s 50th birthday.
It was the sort of piece which tends to stick in my sort of mind.
Mulligan began by explaining that O’Reilly was just the wittiest fellow a chap could ever hope to go on a rugby tour with. He had “flair, caution, intelligence, speed, determination and decisiveness... [but] his most deadly weapon of all was his humour.”
Two examples of the O’Reilly wit were provided.
Once, O’Reilly left his sports car illegally parked in a Dublin street for a day. When he returned, a garda berated him. “Your car’s been there for 24 hours. What’s your excuse?” Quick as a flash, O’Reilly shot back: “Same as yours, I’m up from the country”.
Then there was the fact that O’Reilly’s father had been Inspector General of the Irish Customs. Once, when this came up in conversation, O’Reilly suddenly quipped that the only other person to have held that title was – Danny Kaye!
Danny Kaye was an unfunny American comedian who appeared in a film called The Inspector General, so more telling perhaps were Mulligan’s reminiscences of life as O’Reilly’s sidekick in the days of their rugby greatness.
O’Reilly and Mulligan once agreed to turn out in a club game in Wales for – this being the era of strict amateurism – travelling expenses only. To get to the ground the pair of pranksters hired an “executive plane”, then completed their journey by Rolls Royce.
“When O’Reilly stepped out of the car like Jay Gatsby,” chortled Mulligan, “the crowd full of Welsh miners sucked in its breath. When he presented our expenses to the home club, it was like a Detroit negotiation. He emerged with fistfuls of greenbacks, followed by the local club manager sighing, ‘God, boyo, we’ll have to mortgage the ground.’
Mulligan evidently believed that the Welsh miners had sucked in their breaths as an expression of awe at the arrival of the two lustrous figures. He didn’t consider the possibility they were silently conveying resentment and disgust.
Having been selected for an early ’60s rugby tour to South Africa, the two pals got to thinking about the effect of anti-apartheid sanctions on life in that sub-blessed land, and resolved to do something about it. So they registered a “small import agency” called Ireland International, packed their bags with tidy, desirable items – including whiskey cake, Irish tweeds, “honey-pot sticky fly-catcher” and hand-woven underwear – and set up “mini trade fairs” at each hotel the team stayed in, and flogged the items to rugby supporters.
Irish team officials, Mulligan conceded, were “appalled” at the pair’s enterprise, but the lads made a neat profit and “had a lot of laughs”.
Last year, O’Reilly paraded himself before Dublin society at Nelson Mandela’s elbow. Mandela was in town to deliver the 2000 Independent Lecture, sandwiched between Henry Kissinger and Bill Clinton. On that occasion, O’Reilly described Mandela as “a man I have always admired”.
Not when he was hawking hand-woven knickers to the racists of Jo’burg, he didn’t.
But then, making a profit from apartheid won’t have seemed reprehensible behaviour to O’Reilly. Nor will it have seemed hypocritical then to have hosted and heaped praise on the man who had most influentially called for sanctions to bring apartheid to an end.
To O’Reilly and his ilk, money is the only morality, profit the only law-giver. Mulligan, throughout his life, proclaimed this gospel, and elevated his friend O’Reilly as the leader whom the gospel had foretold.
Absolutely appropriate that O’Reilly should mark his passing with a ritual in a monument to personal greed.
And speaking of people who have got their own Church, which we were... Henry McCullough has never been an angel, but he used to be a genius with Wings.
I was reminded of this while watching Wingspan on Channel 4 a few weeks back, and Paul McCartney going misty-eyed with wonderment as he recalled his first introduction to the man with the bible-dust of the Portstewart valley on his boots and the music of the devil in his soul.
There’s no more than half a dozen Irish acts you’ll die deprived if you don’t see, and Henry McCullough is one of them. He’s coming your way over the next week, or at least close enough to get there if you leave now.
Here’s the schedule: Fri 15th June, Ardhowen Theatre, Enniskillen; Sat 16th, The Cobblestone, Dublin; Mon 18th, Edgewater Hotel, Portstewart; Fri 22nd, The Menagerie, Belfast; Sat 23rd, The Moving Stairs, Boyle; Sun 24th, The Quays, Galway.
Two thoughts occur as I cogitate on McCullough at the Ardowen or the Cobblestone. One, why isn’t he playing huge outdoor arenas? Two, wonderful he’s playing venues to savour the occasion in.
If McCullough had done nothing in his musical existence except ‘Failed Christian’ he’d be entitled to a footnote at least in the world history of rock. It’s already provided him with his footnote in the history of Ireland.
The great Susan McKay, in her trailblazing book Northern Protestants: An Unsettled People, seeking a way of describing her own subtle, contradictory, Co. L‚Derry background, finally hit on it: “I suppose I am what Henry McCullough calls a ‘Failed Christian’.
Failed Christians have got their own church, they smoke and they drink and they lie and they curse. Then they look in the pious face of time and snarl with such angry despair it’s uplifting. This is the way Robert Johnston would have come on if he hadn’t sold his soul to the devil at all but only leased it, and so was cursed to keep impossible hope alive.
To some, McCullough is the last man in the world to imagine with Wings. But McCartney didn’t become a zillionaire by failing to recognise and under-pay prodigious ability. Macca implied on Channel 4 that McCullough’s contribution to ‘My Love’, including a solo widely recognised as one of the all-time jewels of the guitar, was the Portstewart man’s finest hour, but he was wrong. It was Wings’ finest hour.
McCullough was a member, too, of Joe Cocker's Grease Band, of the vastly underrated Sweeney's Men and of the hugely entertaining Fleadh Cowboys. He doesn’t play much with people who aren’t brilliant. The current band includes jazz-inflected Neil Everett on keyboards, Chrissy Stewart (The People, Eire Apparent, The Frankie Miller Band) on bass, and newcomer Stephen Quinn on drums. For reasons some of us don’t fathom, but then geniuses with Wings are mysterious brings, they are enormous in Poland.
You can catch them at the aforementioned venues prior to their barnstorming of Upper Silesia.