Saturday 14 December 2019

They think it's all over: it is now for Bill O'Herlihy

Bill O'Herlihy will referee an RTÉ panel for the last time tomorrow night when Argentina and Germany meet in the World Cup final. John Meagher joined him in studio as the clock ticked down to the final whistle

Bill O'Herlihy is preparing to sign off for the last time.
Bill O'Herlihy is preparing to sign off for the last time.
Bill O'Herlihy and his wife Hilary
Bill O’Herlihy prepares for another broadcast in RTÉ before the veteran broadcaster calls time on his illustrious career with World Cup 2014 coverage. Photo: Ronan Lang.
John Meagher

John Meagher

It's a matter of hours before RTE's coverage of a quite extraordinary World Cup semi-final between Brazil and Germany, and the station's veteran football host, Bill O'Herlihy, is a study in calm.

He has been too long in the game to get worked up about the business of live television and, besides, RTé's director of football, Eugene O'Neill, is the one who has to worry about times and schedules and making sure that everybody is in the studio at the appointed time.

"I've never considered myself to be a 'television personality'," he says. "I'm simply here to facilitate discussion within an expert panel. They – Eamon, John, Liam and the others – are the stars. I'm simply piggy-backing along."

One might be forgiven for accusing O'Herlihy of false modesty – he has been an RTé fixture for almost 50 years and is something of a national treasure thanks to a genial presentation style over the decades. But an RTé staffer who works closely with him insists he's not one for airs and graces: "He seems genuinely surprised by the attention he's been getting this week."

The attention centres on the fact that tomorrow's World Cup Final will mark the 75-year-old's swansong. "I could have continued for another two years, but thought it would be best to bow out now, at the end of the World Cup. And what a tournament it's been."

Our interview on the floor where many of the sport and children's programming staff are located is interrupted time and again with colleagues from across the station who want to wish him all the best for the future.

Bill O'Herlihy with RTÉ soccer pundits John Giles and Eamon Dunphy in 1998
Bill O'Herlihy with RTÉ soccer pundits John Giles and Eamon Dunphy in 1998

If he is feeling any emotion, he's keeping it bottled up. "There won't be tears," he says. "At least I hope there won't. I've had a really great life and have been very lucky to be in the right place at the right time." He says he is looking forward to spending more time with his family – wife Hilary and daughters Jill and Sally.

Being presenter of Ireland's football coverage during the heady Charlton years was fortuitous timing indeed. "It was a phenomenon like nothing we've seen before or since," he says. "The 1990 World Cup wasn't just about participation in a football tournament, it was about the entire country getting behind something in a once-in-a-lifetime way."

Varied Career: Actress Jayne Mansfield with Bill O'Herlihy, Tralee in 1967.
Varied Career: Actress Jayne Mansfield with Bill O'Herlihy, Tralee in 1967.

O'Herlihy started out as a sub-editor in the then Cork Examiner. His grandfather had been news editor back in the day and he was told that the O'Herlihy name carried weight: although there was no position there when he first applied he was told he would be looked after when something came up. Sure enough, within six months, he had a job there.

If that sounds as though good fortune simply fell into his lap, it mirrors the trajectory of his career in general. The way he tells it, his moves from print journalist to current affairs reporter and on to sports anchor were happy accidents rather than anything to do with talent or ambition. "I did a broadcast report for RTé on the 50th anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania, which I thought was terrible, but they seemed to like it and I kept getting more regional reports to do. Then I was asked to join the current affairs department."

O'Herlihy relished his role in 7 Days, the early RTé precursor to Prime Time. An encounter with Ian Paisley included the Unionist firebrand attempting to discredit the Corkman by asking to smell his breath for signs of alcohol consumption. O'Herlihy was a teetotaller at the time.

A programme on illegal moneylending in 1968 embarrassed the government of the day. He was hauled before a tribunal and, he says, made a scapegoat of.

As there was more than a year remaining on his contract, O'Herlihy was moved into the sport department. "[Legendary GAA commentator] Mick O'Hehir wasn't happy about me coming in and made that very clear," he says, "but I kept my head down and got on with the work."

He proved to be the right man in the right place for the Munich Olympics of 1972. "My current affairs background meant I was comfortable with having to deal with the terrorist attack in the Olympic Village that dominated the coverage before the Games began." From his earliest days as sports presenter, he made a conscious decision to keep his opinions to himself and to bat for the ordinary viewer who wasn't an expert either. "I don't want to criticise Adrian Chiles [ITV football host], but when you act like you're the star, you're going to come in for criticism."

Later, in the tiny editing room where Eamon Dunphy, John Giles and Liam Brady gather to go through that night's clips of goals and other play, O'Herlihy is nowhere to be seen. He isn't needed there. He has worked alongside Dunphy for 36 years. "We get on very well," he says. "There was only one occasion where things got a bit out of hand and that was during the '82 World Cup.

''I had said to him that a comment he had made on air was 'cheap' and he took that to mean that I was saying he was cheap which, of course, I wasn't. For the next two days, he responded to every question with a 'yeah' or a 'no', until [then head of sport] Tim O'Connor told us this couldn't go on and we would have to sort ourselves out."

A couple of hours later, in the make-up room, Dunphy offers a heartfelt tribute to O'Herlihy: "Bill makes it look easy which, of course, it isn't. His great skill is his ability to listen and he's got that journalistic brain, too. He knows what a good story is."

O'Herlihy says he is aware of the view, popular on social media, that he and his panel have become tired. I tell him I wrote an opinion piece on that very theme some years ago. But his response is bullish: "We've been getting great figures for this World Cup and they speak for themselves. There's nothing anodyne about the opinions of John, Liam, Eamon and the others and that's not always the case elsewhere. They might be including players who are still in the game and don't want to be seen to be critical."

For the past 41 years, O'Herlihy has combined his television work with that of public relations lobbyist. He says he has been careful to ensure that there's "never a conflict of interest" between the work done by O'Herlihy Communications and a high-profile position at the national broadcaster.

He has come in for criticism for his willingness to lobby on behalf of the tobacco industry, although he insists that he is not advocating to get people smoking. "Absolutely not," he says, before adding with the practiced ease of a consummate PR man, "what I'm doing is highlighting the damaging effect of illegal tobacco smuggling for the Irish economy." He says this work has had an impact on his business and his ability to win certain accounts.

He doesn't smoke now, but in the 1970s he was getting through 50 cigarettes a day. He suffered a heart attack when he was just 45 in 1984 and spent 18 days recuperating in the now-defunct Richmond Hospital in Dublin. "I'd a lot of work stress then," he says. "I had been reluctant to go back on television in case I would get another health scare, but my consultant asked me if I wanted to be a heart attack cripple or someone who was living life as normally as possible and that set my mind straight."

Cancer – which robbed him of his mother and two sisters – hit six years ago. "I had part of my colon removed, but I'm absolutely fine now. Haven't looked back."

He pauses, lost in thought. "I really have been lucky, you know."

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