Legacy of a life cut short during the Vietnam War

Extended members of the O'Reilly family gathered in Moycullen to celebrate the life and achievements of their brother, uncle and relative, First Lieutenant, Anthony O'Reilly on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of his death. Photos: Joe O'shaughnessy.
Extended members of the O'Reilly family gathered in Moycullen to celebrate the life and achievements of their brother, uncle and relative, First Lieutenant, Anthony O'Reilly on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of his death. Photos: Joe O'shaughnessy.

Lifestyle – Galwayman Anthony O’Reilly died in action serving as a US solider in Vietnam in 1968. As his family honour him 50 years on, his niece Hilary tells STEPHEN CORRIGAN about Tony’s extraordinary life.

The Vietnam War was a defining event of the 20th Century – and one Galway man was at the coalface, ultimately losing his life on the battlefield at just 30 years old.

That man was First Lieutenant Anthony O’Reilly, a native of Eyre Street in Galway City, who is this year being remembered by his family on the 50th anniversary of his death.

Tony grew up in Galway – went to school in St Joseph’s (the Bish) and excelled at rowing. It was a very ordinary life before he left his native land; and though his death was premature, the eight years he spent as a US soldier were nothing short of extraordinary.

The circumstances in which Tony joined the US Army aren’t altogether clear to his family but there are at least two stories that seem credible, explains his niece, Hilary McLoughlin.

“After school, we think he wanted to join the British Army and went off to London but there, he ended up joining the US Army,” says Hilary.

“My cousin tells a story that my uncle Liam never got over his death because he was with him that night and he felt he should have persuaded him to stick with the British Army, but they met these American GIs and they had offered him more money.”

An alternative story is that Tony wanted to go to America and to get a Green Card, it was necessary to enlist for three years – but he was there for eight years when he died.

“We don’t think it was his career ambition to join the army but when he did join it, he loved it – he applied to go to Officers’ School and got it and that’s how he ended up in [the US army base] Fort Benning,” says Hilary. “He was in Germany, based in Frankfurt, for about five years and we do know that he was involved with the Bay of Pigs operation in Cuba,” she adds.

These are just some of the stories his family recalled at a memorial held in Tony’s honour last month.

Some 50 of them gathered at Hilary’s Moycullen home to commemorate a man most had never met – a testament to the impact he had on those who do remember him, she says.

“His two brothers have died but his sisters are still alive. His sister, Irene, was over from America, my mother Pauline and her sister Joan were here. His sister-in-law came over from England and all my generation of cousins were here. My uncle Peter’s family were represented by his children and they came from the UK and Dublin.”

She feels it was apt, on the 50th anniversary of his death, to confront the grief of his loss – something that was too difficult for the family in the immediate aftermath of his death.

“It was about two things, really; it’s about recognising the sacrifice this man made and recognising that war may seem heroic, but the reality is that war is ugly.

“And it’s about laying the sadness of our family to rest and achieving some peace for the older generation for their loss,” she says.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.