Tuesday 20 March 2018

Boy from the reek has a vision for global TV

Pierce O' Reilly was told he was stone mad when he began a pilot project about local news, but he ended up in the Oval Office, writes Dave Kenny

DREAM: Pierce O'Reilly and Mairead Ni Mhaoilchiarain, co-founders of Irish TV, with their kids Tomas, Chaomhain and Ruan. Photo: Ronan Lang/Feature File
DREAM: Pierce O'Reilly and Mairead Ni Mhaoilchiarain, co-founders of Irish TV, with their kids Tomas, Chaomhain and Ruan. Photo: Ronan Lang/Feature File
INVESTOR: John Griffin with Pierce O’Reilly of Irish TV

Dave Kenny

'You could say I'm from the butt of the reek." Pierce O'Reilly is smiling. He is underselling himself and a little unsure that his southside Dub interviewer will understand the rural reference.

"I was raised at the foot of Croagh Patrick," he explains. "In a small place called Owenwee. We had nothing. Eleven people living in the same house. Five lads, two sisters, two parents and two grandparents."

It was a modest upbringing and he is undoubtedly a modest man. Today, however, the boy from the reek and his wife, Mairead Ni Mhaoilchiarain, are about to become global TV moguls. He's gone from a hard old station, to global TV station.

The couple – with multimillionaire Mayoman John Griffin – have announced the creation of 150 jobs with Irish TV – a round-the-clock service aimed at the diaspora in North America, Europe and Britain. There will be 34 staff at its HQ in Westport, five in a second office in Donaghmore, Co Tyrone, and three in each of the 32 counties.

Along with this, the €15m enterprise will have 10 people in Manchester, Liverpool and London and five in Cleveland, Ohio. The station will be launched by Enda Kenny on May 1 on Freesat, Sky and the US Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).

Griffin is the company's biggest shareholder. Last year he sold his London-based Addison Lee minicab company for €360m.

Pierce and Mairead have had an arduous journey getting their dream off the kitchen table and onto the airwaves. That dream was nearly stillborn when Pierce, 40, narrowly avoided being buried alive during 9/11 in New York – but more of that later.

"When we came up with this idea, we were in survival mode. On the breadline with three kids – Tomas, 7, Caolan, 5, Ruan, 4, – a mortgage and no work. We had loads of stories but no one wanted to hear them.

"It all began four years ago with a pilot project about a friend of ours who had cancer. He had a great story and really believed in us. We couldn't get anybody to broadcast it. Everybody was interested, and we spent six months in pitching mode, but no one wanted to commission it."

Instead of letting their friend down, the couple shot the documentary themselves.

"We asked our friends to work for free. Mairead and I then sat down and went 'how are we going to get this out?' so we set up Mayo TV. Within six months we had had 2.5 million hits on the website, so we decided to roll it out across the country ... " The seed for Irish TV was sown.

"We were interested in what people were doing on a daily basis – not celebrity stories. Real-life issues ... football, farming, fishing, fashion ... local stories."

These were the issues and stories that influenced the lives of those around them growing up.

"We're ordinary people. My father was in construction and my mother was a school principal – as was Mairead's dad. Her mum was a secretary. We both went to college in Galway. "We went all over the place working. After we did our degrees, Mairead worked in an Irish-language paper and then got a job with R na G reading the news. I worked for the Mayo News then Nemeton TV in Waterford and Midwest Radio, but we knew we had to broaden our horizons.

"We spent two-and-a-half years in New York. We absolutely loved it. Then 9/11 happened. I was 100 feet away from the Twin Towers when they went down. We were working in the Echo at the time. I had taken the subway as usual and the editor phoned me to go down and see what was happening. The train stopped and the conductor evacuated us. Had I been two minutes earlier I would have been trapped under the World Trade Centre.

"I worked day and night for the next month covering the story."

9/11 changed their lives. "We didn't feel as happy there anymore. We had $20-30,000 saved and had to decide whether we would go home and put the money on a site or go travelling. We travelled: Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Australia ...

"We realised that, wherever we went, people wanted to keep in touch with home. We're all 'global' today with social media, but we're still 'local' at heart." He gives an example.

"I remember phoning my father one day from New York to ask how things were going. He thought for a moment and replied 'Martin Joyce got a new tractor'."

There were momentous changes taking place in Ireland at the time, but the most important thing was that his neighbour had a new Massey Ferguson.

The couple returned to Ireland and Pierce worked in RTE for a while; Mairead got a job at the Irish Times.

"People said we were stone mad to think of setting up Irish TV. We didn't know how we would do it, but we wanted to create a station with family values, based on local stories. Something that would create employment for people like us who nearly got destroyed sending in programme submissions. We could almost paper our house with all the refusal slips.

"We sat down at the kitchen table and started working on going after Rupert Murdoch. Nothing fazed us.

"We're the type of people who will do anything. The elections were on and Enda Kenny came to Westport with his entourage. I got a microphone and put a sticker on it with 'Mayo TV' written in marker. I held it out and said, 'Deputy Kenny, Pierce O'Reilly from Mayo TV ... ' He stopped in his tracks and said 'I like the sound of that'. We hadn't a viewer or an advertiser at the time, just an idea.

"Kenny promised to do his first interview with us and invited us to America with him.

"On St Patrick's Day, we went to the White House. All the major networks were trying to get in. Out comes this aide and he says 'I'm bringing in CNN America, ABC America and ... that little guy over there from Mayo TV ... the cameraman shook for the entire shoot in the Oval office."

The couple knew they had a great idea with Irish TV, but needed money to make it work. (They still haven't taken a wage in three years.)

"I met John Griffin by accident. He's an extremely likeable man – and a wealthy one. I was stuck for cash and friends in London invited me over to see what they could do. One of them played golf with John twice a year and invited him along to a pub in Camden.

"We chatted and he said 'Pierce, I like the idea, let's talk tomorrow'. He had just sold his business for £300m. I had €23 in my pocket and was sleeping on a floor. The following day, he took out his chequebook ... and handed me £50,000. He didn't know my second name or where I lived. 'Pierce', he said, 'there's plenty more tender where that came from. I believe in your project'." Pierce and Mairead's dream of beaming rural Ireland to the world had become a reality.

"When we were at the White House, Enda Kenny asked Obama what message he had for the people of Ireland. He said, 'Dream big dreams'. We dream it and we dream it big."

Sunday Independent

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