High flyer: a profile of Michael O'Leary

Michael O'Leary is a houshold name in this country, but he is actualy a retiring and private individual. Hilary Curley profiles a new man for new Ireland.


Michael O'Leary's parents originally came from Kanturk, Co Cork but moved to Mullingar, Co Westmeath where he was born in 1961.

The entrepreneurial gene came from a range of sources. Timothy O'Leary was an entrepreneur setting up a range of business over the years that enjoyed varying degrees of success. His uncle, Noel O'Callaghan, is one of the most well known entreprenuers in Ireland with interests in property, hotels and horse breeding.

The eldest of six children, Michael attended the Christian Brothers primary school and went to a private boarding school in Clongoes Wood, Co Kildare where he met and became friendly with Tony Ryan's three sons. After school, he worked for a time as a barman after school in the Greville Arms Hotel in Mullingar.

He went to Trinity to study business and on graduation went to work the KPMG tax consultants, formerly Stokes, Kennedy and Crowley. At that stage he began to dabble in buying and selling property, primarily in the newsagents business, where he admitted to Eamonn Dunphy during an interview on TV3, that he made less than a 100,000 pounds.

Michael O'LearyWhen Michael O'Leary went to carry out a farm audit for Tony Ryan, he obviously created an impression because he was offered a job with Ryan in the Guinness Peat Aviation (GPA) company in 1986. Siobhan Creaton reports in her book on Ryanair that he agreed to work for Ryan and not for the GPA. And, he said he would take the position for a year, foregoing a salary in return for five per cent of any profits he generated.

O'Leary was offered a directorship of Ryanair in 1988 but at that stage the airline was making serious losses. He advised Ryan to shut the airline down but when he refused, O'Leary spent two weeks in Texas at the office of the worlds first low-cost airline, Southwest Airlines. It had identified the strategy of flying into secondary airports with lower landing fees. Michael O'Leary came back to Ireland fired up with ideas and became chief executive of the company in 1994.

Much has been written about Michael O'Leary and while his professional persona is extreme, he remains essentially a very private person with a small but loyal group of friends. He counts Charlie McCreevy and Mary Harney among that select few.

He says himself that he is abrasive but also says that he is mercurial, visionary, and strangely enough, humble. His passions are rugby, horse and cattle breeding and he recently built a large house in his home county of Mullingar where he lives with his wife, Anita Farrell, a banker from Dublin.

"Am I cold-hearted and ruthless?" he asked himself during the interview on the Dunphy Show last year. " I think in business terms, yes I am. I'm here to run a company. We must make money to survive. And we must out-compete the competition. I hope in my family and personal relationships I am somewhat more caring. I think I am. But you know, we all make mistakes".