Ireland’s Own had the privilege, and pleasure, of featuring the late Bill O’Herlihy as our cover story back in November 2012. We were saddened to hear of his passing this morning. Below is the interview we carried with him, in full. May he rest in peace.
It is the morning after the night before and all is quiet on Baggot Street. Last night the Republic of Ireland soccer team put the Faroe Islands to the sword, yet speculation surrounding the future of manager Giovanni Trapattoni’s position hangs in the air of the coffee shops that line one of Dublin’s most famous roads.
In a building just removed from the main thoroughfare, Bill O’Herlihy is sitting in his office at O’Herlihy Communications. He takes a sip from his cup of tea, munches on a piece of chocolate cake and in his own humble way announces that he has some news. The World Cup Final in 2014 will be his last broadcast. The RTE bosses have been informed of his decision and he continues, ‘Should the Good Lord spare me then I’ll slink off into the darkness after that, if I’m still capable of slinking. The next Olympics are in Rio in 2016 and events will probably be starting around midnight. I have no doubt that Darragh Maloney or someone will take over my seat. There plenty of fine young analysts coming through – the likes of Kenny Cunningham, Didi Hamman and Richie Sadlier. Over the next few years you will notice a seamless transition of the old and the new.’
Bill has enjoyed a long and successful run. Born and raised in Cork City, he was the oldest of four brothers and two sisters. From an early age knew that he wanted to be a journalist. His grandfather had been the news editor of the Cork Examiner, and that meant the journalistic genes in his family were strong. When he was sixteen, his father took him along to meet with the chairman of the Examiner at the time, John Crosby, and he was told that any O’Herlihy would be good enough for their newspaper. When a job became available, Bill would be the first to know.
Two months before he was to sit the Leaving Certificate he received a note to say that there was a job in the reading room – if he wanted it, he was to let them know. He started the following Monday week. At the age of seventeen and a half, Bill’s journalism voyage had begun.
He worked his way through the various departments that constituted the Cork Examiner, doing his time in the circulation department, the editorial department of the Evening Echo where he worked as a sub editor, before finally landing the coveted role of reporter. The young and extremely ambitious O’Herlihy saw himself as a future editor of the long running south-west publication, but an unexpected intervention by RTE’s radio and later television bosses saw his life travel down a path that he had never really intended.
‘The Examiner was a great place to work and I had some very good colleagues. I never had any intention of leaving there. My ambition was to become the editor. At the time I did a small amount of radio sports reporting for a guy called Harry Thullier. He had a programme on RTE called Junior Sports Magazine which went out on a Saturday, Jimmy Magee worked on it as well. The most regular contributor was Bill Twomey who was the manager of the Opera House in Cork, but he was also a rugby commentator and during the rugby season he would be away covering internationals. At the start I filled in for him and then I started doing things on a regular basis.
‘Then out of the blue, in 1965, came a call from Frank Hall, who was over a television programme called Newsbeat. They were doing a story on the 50th anniversary of the sinking of the liner Luisitania off Kinsale, and asked me to do an interview with a survivor. My immediate reaction was to say no, as I had no interest in television. I didn’t consider myself good looking enough or think that I had the presence to be a television presenter. They kept after me and after three days I said yes, provided they wouldn’t use it if it wasn’t good. It was a very tough interview because the poor lady was old and in the early stages of dementia. I thought it was desperate but Frank Hall thought it was good. It was broadcasted and that was it. It was my foot in the door of RTE, even if I hadn’t put my foot in deliberately.’
For the next couple of years Bill combined being a freelancer with RTE with his work for the Examiner until a call came from the current affairs department of Montrose, and the offer of a job on Seven Days, the Prime Time of its day. Had he known the job was to be based in Dublin, and not Cork, he would never have accepted it. His girlfriend, Hilary, who would later become his wife, was a Dublin girl working for the ESB but stationed in Cork. His mother thought it outrageous that he would give up a pensionable job with the Examiner for a short-term contract with RTE, but he still went ahead with it. Now he laughs that he has been in Dublin longer than he was in Cork, even if he has lost none of the accent, or tribal instincts.
Bill remained with Seven Days until 1971, when he feels his current affairs career was irrevocably damaged by a programme on illegal money lending, which he says became the tool of the Fianna Fail administration of the day to attack current affairs broadcasting. After the programme was aired there was a huge outcry because they had used hidden cameras and microphones – and showed criminal activity openly on the streets of Dublin. It also showed that the problem was affecting many people. There was such a furore that it was decided there should be a tribunal investigation into the programme.
‘The bottom line was that after 52-day tribunal, which was prejudicial in its attitude in my judgement, it was decided the programme was not authentic and that myself and editor were irresponsible in the use of the facts,’ he recalls. ‘I wouldn’t accept that for one minute but that was the formal response. Seven Days came off the air in 1971. I had a two-year contract so I was offered tangents. I had a nibble from the Irish Times – but the question was if I was interested. I was very lucky that there was a good guy in RTE called Oliver Maloney who was head of human resources. He became a good friend and when I suggested to him that I might take the Irish Times nibble, he told me not to be silly. He said you can’t leave RTE because if you did people might misunderstand – they might think that you did something wrong. I recommend very strongly that you stay.
‘He asked me what I would like to do and I told him I’d like to go into sport. Mick O’Hehir was the head of sport at the time and on my third day he came in and he said ‘Bill you’re with us, I don’t want you, but you’re welcome.’ And he said the reason he didn’t want me was that my image was too hard.
‘Sport had a softer image and he told me that I wouldn’t be broadcasting for a minimum of six months. The next day he called me in to tell me that Seamus O’Riana, the president of the GAA had started an organisation called Feile na Gael. He was in Dublin and was anxious to promote the organisation and I was to do an interview with him. I said to Mick, “You told me yesterday that I wouldn’t be broadcasting for six months and he said, “Well that was yesterday today’s it today and I want you to do it.” After that I was on every night. There was a bulletin every night and I used to read racing results and people used to ring up and say it was very sad to see Bill O’Herlihy reading racing results. I was delighted – I was getting married and had a job. Sport was a very pleasant environment. I left in 1972 to start my own public communications company O’Herlihy Communications which is still going strong today.’
Though Bill has been RTE’s anchorman for the Olympic Games for nearly 40 years, he is probably best recognised through his role as presenter, and often referee, on the station’s live soccer programmes. He has been working for almost thirty years with Eamon Dunphy. In fact, he and Eamon held the fort for quite a while before John Giles and Liam Brady were recruited to form a panel of soccer analysts that very often provide more entertainment than the matches themselves.
‘The soccer story began with Dunphy,’ says Bill. ‘Myself and Eamon did eight or nine years on our own with very few facilities, just chatting between matches. Eamon began to feel that we were repeating ourselves and that there was a requirement to have another person there. He very strongly suggested John. John was someone who was not regarded very highly by RTE in the area of comment because when he was manager of Ireland he was very limited in his attitude to the media – he was very circumspect. He didn’t say very much, and they didn’t see him as somebody who could make a huge contribution to broadcasting. Once he got the job and wasn’t connected with any teams and could speak his mind freely, he was terrific.
‘People might not imagine it but we have a very happy programme. We discuss all kind of things the issues of day off camera apart from football. Eamon is very interested in politics, so am I. John is very interesting on English politics and has very strong views of the way Missus Thatcher destroyed the whole sense of community in the United Kingdom. Then you have someone like Ray Houghton who gives me golf lessons during matches.’
Bill had a very busy summer 2012. It began with him anchoring the European Championships where he feels the Irish soccer team was humiliated. That was followed by the London Olympics which he feels were the best Olympics in terms of organisation – he was particularly impressed with the support and welcome shown towards the Irish and sees it as a direct result of the recent Queen’s visit to these shores. Although he acknowledges our team of boxers excelled, he wishes our track and field team adapted a similar approach to preparations in the build up to Brazil, in 2016.
‘Trapattoni’s methods were exposed as out of date at Euro 2012,’ he says, ‘and his management skills and tactical skills didn’t measure up against the really good teams. You have to give him credit because when he took over he inherited a complete shambles. He put structure on the team and in different circumstances we might have got to the World Cup finals. Where you wouldn’t give him credit is that he didn’t develop the team. His treatment of players has been very strange both in his comments about them and the rows he has with them. Beating the Faroe Islands was no big deal. It was put into context with the Swedes coming back to draw with the Germans- we could be in trouble because of that.
‘As regards the Olympics, I wouldn’t be one of those that say the Irish team did great in the Olympics – they did not. The boxing team did great. Their high performance strategy clearly works. I believe track and field has lost its way – we have to get the same focus that is used in boxing transferred to track and field as well.’
These days Bill O’Herlihy takes life that little bit easier. He has survived serious health problems including cancer of the colon, to come out fighting on the other side, and carry on doing what he loves to do. He is happily married to Hilary and their two daughters Jill and Sally have given them four grandchildren, Martha, Bill, Jack and Isla to love and spoil, as all doting grandparents would. He is deeply religious and though he believes the Lord works in mysterious ways, he is proud of his faith and enjoys going to Mass as regularly as he can. He has never been to a World Cup finals, or European Finals, or Olympics – he has been too busy working! He says the biggest sporting occasion he has attended was the Ryder Cup, when it took place in the K Club in County Kildare. As the clock slowly winds down on a terrific career in sports broadcasting, his many armchair fans will have plenty of time to brace themselves for his departure. He smiles when he thinks of hanging up the microphone after all these years, but is well aware of the legacy he will leave behind.
‘Though I was disappointed in many ways at losing the current affairs gig all those years ago, there is no question that I was better off in sport,’ he concludes. ‘I think my contribution to current affairs would never have been as interesting as it has been to sport. Sport has been very good to me, and I think I have been good to it too.’
Hear, hear Bill, and so say all of us.
In conversation with Shea Tomkins for Ireland’s Own, November, 2012.