Oliver J. Murtagh, who has died, was a sommelier, earning a reputation for discretion, charm and exceptional kindness during his years of service to the profession.

Oliver always dressed in black tie and appeared to know everyone’s name and what they drank. The latter skill seemed like genius to those whom he had just met, but in fact it was an art he had perfected, involving a selection of wines and other beverages.

In a legendarily hospitable setting, Oliver was often the key to success, welcoming guests and making them feel part of an inner circle, directing a small army of waitresses and waiters, and dealing with unforeseen hiccups.

Oliver was unflappable and disasters were not allowed to happen. He presided over many functions with over 1,200 guests seated for lunch or dinner, all of which he seemed to enjoy as much, if not more so, than the hosts.

He looked after the welfare of his customers in all sorts of subtle ways, ensuring that they did not drink too much. He would make a great show of pouring that one last glass of wine to a guest, but in fact only give them a thimbleful.

His memoirs, had he written them, would have created a stir, but that would not have been his style. Instead, he was mindful of his customers’ reputations and would not tolerate back-biting at his hotel.

Born in Collinstown, Co. Westmeath, Ireland, he was one of three children of Nicholas and Mary Murtagh. Oliver was destined for the hospitality industry from a young age. St Marys Hotel School Athenry Co. Galway was established in the late 1950s by the Galway Vocational Education Committee to provide training for Hotel and Catering Personnel in the growing Tourism Market. The Vocational Education Committees throughout Ireland granted scholarships to successful applicants. This was for the duration of the entire course and was a residential scholarship.

Oliver won a scholarship and commenced his studies in 1964. It was a very intense course and covered a diverse range of subjects including Irish, English, French, German, Business Studies, Food and Beverage Studies – Bar, Restaurant and Banqueting.

During the course there was great emphasis on diligence, professionalism and commitment to the cross section of subjects taught both theory and practical. This remained with Oliver throughout his career and considerably influenced his success in the food and beverage industry.

Oliver worked for over 40 years in the hotel and restaurant sector including at Kelly’s Resort Hotel, Rosslare, Co. Wexford, which to this day is a noted family hotel with a huge emphasis on French wines.

Oliver gave most of his working life working as Head Waiter in Banqueting at the Burlington Hotel Dublin. Oliver’s larger than life personality matched that of some of his best customers, and he was considered ‘one of them’. He loved his work and always referred to the hotel as ‘my hotel’.

Andrew O’ Gorman, Secretary, Irish Guild of Sommeliers, in his eulogy to Oliver at his funeral Mass at the Church of St. Paul of the Cross, Mount Argus, Dublin had the following to say about Oliver: “I have known Oliver Murtagh for over 45 years and during that time we became very good friends. He was totally dedicated to the hospitality industry and this was evidenced by his long career in the Burlington Hotel Dublin and his involvement with the Irish Guild of Sommeliers.

“He was a tireless worker and organiser in the promotion of the Irish Guild of Sommeliers and held the position of President on a number of occasions right up to his sudden death. Oliver had great pride in the Irish Guild of Sommeliers uniform and the chain of office which he wore with distinction. He was well known and highly regarded nationally and internationally.

“I travelled with him to numerous Association Sommelerie International competitions and events worldwide including Brazil, Argentina, Croatia, France among many other counties, the last one being to Antwerp, Belgium, in March last year.

“On those trips Oliver regaled members from many countries into the early hours of the morning with good conversation and telling stories with the customary glass of wine in hand. No matter what country he visited he was always interested in its cultural and historical aspects. He had a passion for visiting old cathedrals and churches and never left without saying a few prayers and lighting the customary candle.

“The last cathedral I visited with him was the famous Cathedral of Our Lady of Antwerp which has a long history. The Stations of the Cross in this Cathedral are replicated in the church of the Marino Institute of Education Dublin.

“Oliver was already planning for the next ASI International competition in Cyprus. He had been looking forward to judging the Bartenders Association of Ireland National Cocktail Championship which took place this week. The President of the Bartenders Association of Ireland Declan Byrne paid a fitting tribute to Oliver from the competition stage on Tuesday last (4th February).”

The Bartenders Association of Ireland were saddened to learn of the passing of Oliver: “He was an absolute gentleman and played a vital role each year judging Ireland’s National Cocktail Championship. He was always willing to give freely of his time to assist young bartenders in their career development. He was an expert judge and successfully played a part in selecting National Cocktail Champions who went on to become International Award Winning Bartenders.

“Oliver Murtagh was a consummate hospitality industry professional, an inspirer of Irish sommeliers, a masterful organiser and, above all, a gentleman.”

For many years, he presided over the well-oiled machine that was the Burlington Hotel banquet hall, with an eagle eye for the minutest detail, while greeting and seating guests with style and panache.

But he will be best remembered in Ireland and throughout the world as a champion of professional sommeliers. Known and admired by senior sommeliers, educators, wine professionals and in many countries, he had a unique ability to spot and nurture talent, mentoring a succession of Irish candidates for the ASI Best Sommelier of the World, and the Africa and Europe Sommelier contests together with his excellent committee. As a unique team, they managed Irish Guild of Sommeliers competitions which produced outstanding international candidates such as Didier Fiat and Julie Dupouy medal winners at the World Sommelier Contests in Brazil 1992 and Argentina 2016 respectively.

Oliver devoted much of his life to the industry which he truly loved and will be fondly remembered by colleagues and those whom he helped in their careers.

Oliver will be sadly missed by the entire membership of the Irish Guild of Sommeliers. He was its guiding light for a long number of years. He was known to the entire wine trade & had a great personal relationship with its representatives.

Tributes were received from sommeliers all over the world and from his Irish colleagues in the Guild, wine industry among many others.

He will be sadly missed by his sisters Annette and Patricia (Salesian Sisters), cousins, neighbours and many friend.

Andrew O’ Gorman, Secretary, and Irish Guild of Sommeliers

Oliver J. Murtagh died February 3rd, 2020

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