For a recent edition of Ireland’s Eye I had the great pleasure of spending a morning with Bill O’Herlihy. He talked liberally about his life and career, how he thinks Fine Gael made a mess of Irish Water and how they “need to get their act together” if they want to get re-elected, and more besides. It was before the former Fine Gael adviser and PR man started a Youtube series with former Fine Gael strategist Frank Flannery and he issued a ‘come and get me plea’ to broadcasters.
He doesn’t want to leave it there – Bill O’Herlihy looks back, and forward!
One of Bill O’Herlihy’s most famous phrases in a five-decade broadcasting career was “we’ll leave it there so”. In July he finally did leave it there when he retired from sports broadcasting after the World Cup Final.
It’s been four months since the broadcasting legend bid television viewers an emotional farewell, the decision to retire his own, and when Ireland’s Eye arranges an interview we expect to find him relaxing at home or perhaps strolling around a golf course, free from the shackles of work at the age of 75. Instead, we’re shocked to find him sitting at his desk at the headquarters of his respected PR firm O’Herlihy Communications.
“I’m busier than ever,” he jokes. With a roster of clients in all walks of life, Bill was busy working on the Bumbleance, a children’s ambulance service, as well as juggling calls when he took time out to talk to us.
The good-humoured personality wasn’t sure if anyone would want to read about him. “Sure won’t I be forgotten about in three months,” he said referring to his retirement from television.
Hardy. There have been few broadcasters like Bill O’Herlihy and certainly there will be none like him in the future. With a remarkable story to tell, there is no leaving it there with Bill and, like Gay Byrne who retired before him, he is keen to get back on the box since he retired, issuing a ‘come and get me’ plea to Irish TV stations such as TV3, UTV, TG4 and of course RTE, whom he worked with for one year shy of 50 years.
COME AND GET ME
Having been the face of RTE Sport since the 1970’s, Bill would the perfect fit for a sports interview series but, surprisingly, the phone hasn’t rang.
“I haven’t been offered anything,” Bill says of the past few months. “There has been some tentative discussions and I would be interested in an interview series but it hasn’t progressed at all. It hasn’t got past a kind of notional thing and there’s no discussion on it good, bad or indifferent. A lot would depend on who the people would be, what the budget would be, would the series be ambitious… I’d be very careful with what I do but an interview series on television would interest me. I’d like to do it, but it’s in the lap of the Gods.”
His come and get me plea should be headed. Very rarely in the history of Irish television has there been a broadcaster like him. So why did he retire?
“I had been on television since 1965 and I had been saying to myself that the day was dawning that I might want to retire. I didn’t want to continue into the stage that people might say ‘Bill, you’re losing it’ and I wanted to go at a time of my choice. I thought about doing it last year but said the World Cup Final would be the time to go, and what a great tournament to go out on.”
Bill has presented ten World Cup tournaments and it truly was the end of an era when he stood down, breaking up the football ‘dream team’ of O’Herlihy, Eamon Dunphy, Johnny Giles and recent recruit Liam Brady. The analysts were sad to see their ‘gatekeeper’ go.
“It’s true. The lads were very disappointed, but they understood it and came to terms with it. We had something very special and I’ll miss the lads.”
Bill and Dunphy first worked together in 1978, with Giles joining them in 1986. Bill brought out the best in both men, able to let the conversation flow as if it were in your own front room. Non-football people could understand what they were on about and when the Irish national team began to taste success in 1988 it was halcyon days for the trio, particularly when the World Cup of 1990 meant millions were tuned into them.
Bill leaving brings into focus the question of age, and Giles and Dunphy now have to think of what next, just as Bill did last year. Many think it is a plum job, but Bill has a sharp reminder it was hard work, and at 75 he decided he needed to take a step back.
“You didn’t do it with your hands in your pocket. If we had a Wednesday match, work began at least a week before, and a lot would be done by Monday. We would have editorial meetings and meetings with the panel before the match to look at everything that might determine the result. We looked at matches in a forensic way in editorial meetings, and I kept it on track and followed a distinct editorial line. We had no agenda.”
Bill was a trailblazing anchorman and his approach to panels and ability to create a stir was very favourably commented on by UK media. The ‘dream team’ were not without their moments of controversy, and they were never shy in calling a spade a spade setting up clashes with players, managers, clubs and even whole countries along the way.
Indeed Bill has never been far from controversy in a journalism career that started when he was aged 16.
EARLY DAYS IN TV
After a number of years with the Cork Examiner, Bill admits he had “no interest” in doing TV when he joined RTE in 1965.
“I’ve been very lucky with RTE,” he admits. “Frank Hall got me to interview a woman who survived the sinking of the Lusitania off Kinsale for Newsbeat. It took him three days to persuade me to do the interview and I was a one-eyed man in the valley of the Blind. I thought it was awful as the poor woman was senile but he saw something and he wanted me to do all his work out of Cork, which I did with permission from the Cork Examiner. I still wanted to be its editor. My grandfather had been its news editor and I loved working there. Television was almost a distraction, but I got into it when Frank Hall was exploiting the stories and people of rural Ireland. It was groundbreaking television.”
Bill moved to current affairs and the “tough-as-nails” 7 Days programme. Controversy soon came knocking as the current affairs department were viewed “as enemies” by the Government of the time. Bill established a fearsome reputation in this area but found himself almost finished in RTE when he was hauled before a Tribunal after he did a hard-hitting expose of illegal money lending.
“We exposed a huge problem, but the episode became the straw that broke the camel’s back”
The team behind the show were brought before three Judges, including a former director of elections for Fianna Fail and a judge who was the subject of an expose on 7 Days’. Bill recalls it as “the Alice in Wonderland Tribunal” and says it was obvious they couldn’t win. Bill was accused of exaggerating the content.’7 Days’ wasn’t axed but was treated in an unfriendly way and deemed ‘unauthentic’. This, in turn, caused problems within RTE and the programme was axed in what Bill recalls as “a vicious way”.
He was saddened that the “red hot” team split up. People like David Thornley (“who I thought was the best-ever current affairs presenter on TV”), John O’Donoghue, Ted Neilan and Paddy Gallagher are names he mentions.
Thinking his RTE and current affairs career was coming to an end, Bill nearly went back to print journalism but was surprisingly asked by RTE to go into sport. But the reception was hostile here too!
“I was imposed on Michael O’Hehir, who made it clear to me he didn’t want me in the sports department. He said ‘Bill, I don’t want you, but you are welcome’. He then said the reason was because I was too tough. Sport was an area where you couldn’t be tough. He told me I’d be finished in six months.”
They soon got on well. “Years later after a meeting he put his arm around me and said ‘Bill I didn’t want you, but I’m glad you’re here’.
Sport was a very restricted area in the early 1970’s with Racing and Gaelic Games being the only live sport broadcast. Then, in 1972 Bill got his big break covering the Munich Olympics when terrorists attacked the games.
His current affairs background came into focus when he steadily guided RTÉ through the coverage of the ‘Black September’ attacks. He has since gone on to present ten Olympics, ten World Cups, Ten European Championships, and plenty of major international athletics, rugby and golf tournaments.
Surprisingly, he hasn’t actually been to any of them!
“The only place I was ever at was the K Club for the Ryder Cup in 2006!” he says.
Budgets were mentioned as one reason as RTE never had the finances to send a whole studio out to far flung locations.
For years Bill was the face of the Sunday Game alongside Jim Carney before Michael Lyster took the chair and he anchored rugby before Tom McGuirk before becoming the face of soccer. His departure from it will leave a void, but he is happy that people like Tony O’Donoghue and Darragh Maloney are there. He is happy too that Roy Keane, a fellow Corkman, is never far from the headlines and involved with the Irish senior team.
His favourite sport of all is hurling. Reared in the era of Christy Ring he was spoilt for choice as a youngster with the Barr’s (St Finbar’s), The Glens (Glen Rovers) and the Rockies (Blackrock) playing on his doorstep. He played Junior Hurling for Lee Rovers, but joined the Cork Examiner aged 16 so reporting on sport took precedence on playing it.
He also played soccer and tried his hand at rugby, with disastrous consequences.
“I played two games of rugby and it frightened the life out of me. Never again!”
Away from sport, Bill was for many years associated with politics. He was one of Garett FitzGerald’s ‘national handlers’ when Fine Gael came into Government in 1981 until 1987. He played a key role in getting FitzGerald elected. So what does he think of today’s Fine Gael Taoiseach?
“I know Enda Kenny, I’m a big fan of Enda Kenny. He’s a good guy who has been badly under-estimated in my opinion. He brought the party from nothing to Government. They came into an appalling situation and they have done well. Some of what they have done hasn’t gone down well with the punters but the media has been very negative. I think there should be a more positive reaction to what the Government has done. Even though they have made tactical mistakes in terms of presentation – I think their PR hasn’t been good and they have walked into an awful lot of trouble – they have done well.”
A PR Professional since the 1970’s Bill always keeps an eye on how politics and PR get along. The national handlers were always told what was coming down the line, and were always one-step ahead of the game. O’Herlihy reckons today’s PR, particularly that for the Government, is poor by comparison, particularly the Irish Water fiasco.
“It’s not done to the same professional level as it was. I don’t think they’ve thought out some of the communications strategies like water charges. Having come off the Troika with flying colours, a whole series of mishaps have occurred which has damaged the impact of what they have done and has given the impression they are adrift – Not out of control, but lost their focus. I don’t see any reason why they can’t retain power – I don’t think there’s any alternative that will benefit the country as much as the current administration – but they need to get their act together.”
A man of great faith, his belief in God saw him through the worst of times.
“I had a heart attack in 1984, in my 40’s, and cancer five years later. I was very lucky and have to thank the Lord for that.”
He explains he was in a meeting with a company called Park, who had a hospital in Baghdad, with their Director of Medicine when things went strange.
“I had been at an RTE meeting in the morning and had a pain in my hand and my arm. The Director of Medicine said to me ‘you don’t look well at all, are you OK?’ I said I didn’t feel very well. I told him about the pain in my arm and he rang John Horgan in the Richmond Hospital, which was open at the time. He said I have a fella here, you might recognise him from television, but he’s about to have a heart attack. I was brought in and I refused a by-pass initially I thought I was ok, but I eventually had three by-passes. I was going to pack up television after that. John Horgan was fantastic. He brought me back. He said I had two options: live a normal life or become a cardiac cripple. The latter will destroy you he said, and you will do nothing. He insisted I go back to television.
“I never had any reaction at all, and no reaction to the cancer which has cleared. When I found out, I took on the same attitude to it as I did my heart and put all my faith into God and into Our Lady and I said ‘I’m in your hands now, look after me’ and that was it. I’ve never had a problem since, I’ve been very lucky.”
His future TV career is in the lap of the Gods also, and with a bit of luck, we’ll see this great man on television again soon.