On March 8th, 1966, an explosion rocked O’Connell Street in Dublin’s city centre. A granite column with a statue of British naval hero Horatio Nelson atop was strapped with explosives and blown in half. Erected in 1809 in celebration of Nelson’s victory at the Battle of Trafalgar four years earlier, it had been a bone in the craw of the nation’s capital from the time it was built, but especially so in the four decades since the Irish Free State was founded in 1922. Nobody was charged with its destruction. Most people were happy to see it go, and in the aftermath of the blast, the Irish Army destroyed the remaining shard of the column with controlled explosions.
On the night it was blown up, Teresa O’Reilly was staying in the Royal Hibernian Hotel across the river from O’Connell Street. The explosion woke her, so she woke her husband, Frank, in terror. He told her he heard nothing and to go back to sleep. He was most likely exhausted, as he was in the city that night to sign a deal that had taken years to negotiate, one which knitted three distilling dynasties into a whiskey superpower and which secured the future of a drink that had declined almost to the point of extinction. His was a well earned rest.
Frank O’Reilly was born in Dublin in 1922, the year that the Free State came into being, but he still lived in that mixed identity between the old ways of the empire and the fledgling state. His father, Charles, was a physician who served with the British army as a lieutenant-colonel in the Royal Medical Corps in the First World War, and Frank followed in his footsteps, serving in the Second World War with the British Army’s Royal Engineers from 1943 to 1946. O’Reilly spoke to Dr Ivor Kenny about his life and career in 1987 for the book In Good Company: Conversations with Irish Leaders; it is from that book that all the below quotes from O’Reilly are taken.
Raised in Booterstown, O’Reilly suffered chronic asthma as a child and was sent to Ampleforth, an English private boarding school run by the Benedictines on the edge of the Yorkshire moors. With its high altitude, it was felt that O’Reilly’s asthma would improve, despite the fact that in the evenings at Ampleforth, senior boys would have a cigarette and a glass of sherry in the housemaster’s study. When he graduated he went to Trinity College Dublin to study engineering, but it was almost inevitable that he would end up in the family business – whiskey.
Frank O’Reilly’s grandmother was a Power from Wexford; the family were members of parliament, close friends of The Liberator Daniel O’Connell, and owners of the Powers whiskey distillery at John’s Lane in Dublin. The sixth and last Power baronet was Sir Thomas Power who died in 1932 without issue – he was Frank O’Reilly’s granduncle. James Power founded the John’s Lane Distillery in 1791 in Thomas Street, at that time the western gate of the city.
“Before I went to Trinity, my uncle Bertie O’Reilly, had asked me if I would like to go into distilling. At that stage, I didn’t want to tie myself down but I told him that I would like to work in Ireland, particularly in an industry that was associated with agriculture. However, I also felt I’d like to see more of the world before being tied down.”
So he joined the British army.
“My mother and father told me that I must do what I felt I should do. I do feel my mother may not have been too happy about my joining the British army at the height of the war but she didn’t say so. When I look back now on that decision I am sure it was the right one.
“I had the option of joining the Irish Army but I felt I wanted to be active rather than defensive, helping to put an end to the dictatorships we had endlessly talked about in college. It was dreadful the way everyone else was suffering while we on this neutral island were letting the main stream of life go by. I’m a bit of a James Dillon on that, I think neutrality is for the birds. It’s a political catch-cry; neutrality is impossible in this day and age.”
O’Reilly found the adventure he sought, and saw some of the world, and met many of its peoples, but eventually found his way back to John’s Lane.
“I went into Power’s on the engineering side. It was the only distilling company in Ireland that was publicly quoted on the stock exchange. At that time, the whole country was in the doldrums and none of the distilleries was doing well but powers was doing probably better than the others. We had modernised the place somewhat (there was no IDA in those days!). Powers always had a reputation for being innovative – it was for example the first place in Ireland to use electric light. There were three large distilleries at the time: Powers, Jameson in Bow Street on the other side of the River Liffey and, in the South, Cork Distilleries Company. There had been 26 distilleries in Ireland at the turn of the century, and only five in the late Forties.”
By 1987 – when O’Reilly was being interviewed by Ivor Kenny – there was only one distillery in the Republic of Ireland at Midleton and Bushmills in Northern Ireland.
“As [distillery] engineer, I was responsible for a modest programme of modernisation and then, for no apparent reason, was brought into the management side of things. This was the first time in all my working life that I had a desk job and it took some getting used to. I believe I worked very hard as an engineer and that’s a thing that never did anyone any harm. Distilling is a continuous process. You literally lived in the distillery and were called in the middle of the night or early in the morning ro start your shift. I might finish my work at half past five or six, then go down to the old Dolphin Hotel, have a couple of pints and a good steak and a chat with my friends, than back to the distillery to meet the shift coming off at eleven thirty, go to bed in the distillery at midnight and get up at six.
“We had 300 employed there and we all knew one another. Powers never had a strike in its history but while the men did not always agree with management, nor the management with the men, the matter at issue was always talked out. Another important thing was that the supervisory office, called the distillery office, was down in the yard, not stuck up in some crow’s nest. You could leave the door of your office open and nothing was ever touched. Even now, I would much rather be down among people where I can see them and talk to them. It’s some help if you even have to walk through people to get to your office.
“I started to get involved in outside things, like the Federation of Irish Manufacturers or visiting various departments such as the Department of Supplies to get export licences. For example, I recall that once we wanted to export ten thousand cases of whiskey to Canada Dry in New York and the existing restrictions did not permit it. This was typical of how the distillers at that time were hampered when the opportunity was ripe for exporting. It took the industry a long time to get over restrictions and to live down the appalling image created abroad during the war by ‘Irish whiskey’ which never saw Ireland! It was perhaps understandable from the Government’s point of view because the Revenue had to be protected but it really was short-sighted. This, of course, was before Mr Seán Lemass’s conversion to free trade; he was Saul to begin with, not Paul. But what a wonderful job he did for Ireland during his many ministries and as Taoiseach.
“In the distillery, I had always been involved with the Excise and through them with Revenue. We had a close rapport. The early 1950s (during which time I also got married – to Teresa Williams, the daughter of a Tullamore distiller!) saw my first involvement with other civil servants. My reaction was one of astonishment at the system. The red tape was appalling. It took a pathetically long time to get the smallest thing done, licences for this and licences for that. The amount of time wasted by industry walking down to Merrion Square was enormous; hours spent on the phone for things that should have been done instantly. The other side of that coin was the total honesty and dedication of our civil servants. Their integrity was outstanding/ You could just never believe that anything could have been done in an underhand way. We are very lucky to have such a good civil service.
“In the early 1950s I became joint managing director along with Mr John A Ryan, of John Power & Son. He at that time had become a director of the Bank Of Ireland and of the ESB. The chairman, Bertie O’Reilly, my uncle, died in 1955 and the board appointed me as chairman to succeed him. John and I worked closely and happily together for 11 years in managing Powers. The company progressed.
“In the early sixties we were looking around and deciding that the Irish distilleries on their own were too small to make the major export drive required for themselves and the country. Jameson’s was a family concern, as were Cork Distilleries, the latter with IR£1,000 shares. Powers was a quoted company. Both Powers and Cork Distilleries had branded products while Jameson’s was mainly in the bulk trade, its whiskey bottled by wholesalers. We started talking together, John Ryan was becoming more involved in the Bank Of Ireland and ultimately became its governor. He also continued as a director of the ESB eventually to become its longest serving director – 32 years. What a record.
“Aleck Crichton and Billy Kirkwood acted for Jameson’s and Norbert Murphy and Stephen Murphy for Cork Distilleries. Norbert Murphy could perhaps be described as a little autocratic. We all talked for almost two solid years. We met in Cork, Dublin, and Waterford, in one another’s homes and in various other places. The circle was held very tight. Mr Laurence Culshaw, a senior partner in Deloittes from London, acted as our midwife – a charming gentleman, very able. From first to last, there was never a leak. This was particularly important for Powers because their shares were quoted and were dealt in quite a lot. The merger astounded everybody when it was announced. I venture to say there’s no way you could do that today.
“The reason the merger took so long was, I think, a very natural one among companies that had been in direct competition with each other for a hundred and fifty years. The three companies had also developed different cultures. Their traditions were quite different. The Jameson family originally came from Scotland. The company was closer to the Distillers Company than any other Irish distillery company; indeed a Jameson had married a Haig. Powers were very much Dublin/Wexford oriented. Cork Distilleries were an amalgamation of several distillers in that county that came together at the end of the nineteenth century and were dominated by the Murphy family and in particular Mr Norbert Murphy. He was a very charming man but almost certainly regarded the others as ‘those foreigners from Dublin’ that he did not want to know. He was 78 when the discussions began, 80 when they ended and 83 when he died, having seen Irish Distillers well launched and becoming President of, as it was then known, UDO – United Distillers of Ireland. Two years was a long time and we almost reached the stage of saying ‘We’re going to go elsewhere’ because we in Powers knew that we would have to find somebody else – we were just not big enough.”
O’Reilly might not have felt they were big enough, but he had transformed the way Powers operated – the firm had traditionally avoided blends, but under his control it introduced column stills in 1958 and created blended whiskeys for export. They also reduced the strength of the alcohol in Powers in Northern Ireland as a test run and then in the Republic. Profits more than doubled from 1960 to 1965. They even purchased Tullamore DEW whiskey from O’Reilly’s in-laws (Teresa Williams was of the David E Williams family – the DEW in Tullamore DEW).
“We had the largest and most modern bottling plant in Fox and Geese, we had modernised the distillery, we were experimenting with lighter whiskeys. We had 60% of the vodka market at the time. Then in the euphoria of that era, we were poised for expansion, for export, but we were just too small. If the merger had not come off we would have had to go elsewhere, probably outside the country. Anyway, we signed, sealed and delivered in 1966.
“The night of the signing party, we stayed in the Hibernian. My wife, Teresa, woke me to tell me that she had just heard an awful bang. I said, ‘I hear nothing, go to sleep’. That was the night they blew up the pillar – 8th March. In celebration!
“After the wedding, we had to get into the marriage bed. The original idea was that the chairmanship would rotate but that was quickly knocked on the head. I was elected the first chairman, It took another two years for the merger to settle down. Our first priority was to get a managing director who was not ex-Power or ex-Jameson or ex-Cork.”
In 1968 O’Reilly recruited Kevin McCourt to be chief executive. Under his guidance Irish Distillers became more marketing-oriented, bypassed wholesalers, sold direct to retailers, introduced blended versions of the traditional Irish whiskeys, and closed its four existing distilleries to concentrate production in a new plant in Midleton, Co. Cork, which opened in August 1975.
“We decided on Midleton, which was barley ground and with clear pure water readily available. It was the right decision, though since then we have had some labour problems there, something which the group report on our move to Midleton did not anticipate.”
After the merger there was one distillery outside the group – Bushmills. After an investment by Seagrams in the Irish Distillers group, there was the possibility of a takeover of Northern Ireland’s only remaining distillery.
“We in Irish Distillers were very keen on having a single Irish whiskey industry. That, of course, meant Northern Ireland as well and that meant Bushmills. It’s very much an Irish distillery even though it could be said to have a semi-Scottish tradition. It had become somewhat run down, having been purchased by Bass Charrington who did not invest in it. We managed to acquire Old Bushmills and so after hundreds of years we had Irish distilling in one organisation. We proceeded to invest substantially in Bushmills as we had done with the others in Midleton.
“In the Fifties, Frank McGinty who was then the senior representative in Ulster, and myself did a pilgrimage of pubs in the North, where the sales of southern whiskey were pathetic, only about three thousand cases of Powers a year – and it was then the major southern whiskey selling there. We went into pubs in the Falls, in the Shankill, in the docks area, in central Belfast and in towns and villages all over Northern Ireland. We met with nothing but a warm welcome and we did a lot of business. In two years instead of selling three thousand cases a year, we were selling twenty three thousand cases a year. Now, in the Eighties, sadly such a pilgrimage would not be possible. That’s how far we’ve gone down. Isn’t it a tragedy?”
In 1985 he was elected chancellor of Dublin University, a position he held for 13 years; he was also chairman of the Restoration Committee of the Irish College in Paris, from 1986 until its reopening as the Centre Culturel Irlandais in 2002, for which Pope John Paul II bestowed on him the honour of Knight Commander of the Equestrian Order of St Gregory the Great – quite the honour for a man who described himself as ‘the chairman of vice’ (he was also a director of tobacco company Player-Wills, as well as being a heavy smoker himself). O’Reilly was instrumental in selling IDL to Pernod Ricard in 1988, avoiding a hostile takeover by the UK’s Grand Metropolitan group.
He died aged 91 in 2013, and was survived by his wife Teresa and their ten children. In 2017, members of the O’Reilly family were welcomed to Midleton Distillery, where they got to see the archives and witness the distilling powerhouse their father helped create. In 2022, Frank O’Reilly was posthumously awarded the Chairman’s Award at the Irish Whiskey Association annual awards night for his service to the industry.
You can buy Dr Ivor Kenny’s In Good Company here.