“We’ll leave it there, so,” as he’d say himself, but let’s face it — we don’t want to.
Bill O’Herlihy entered the great studio in the sky yesterday, not quite a year since he retired from his role as the nation’s top sports anchorman with the finale to the 2014 World Cup.
Looking back, maybe the manner of his departure that night characterised his 49-year tenure in national broadcasting. “Now hold on Bill,” Eamon Dunphy said as the Corkman signed off. Then began the tributes segment, and as the clips rolled and the kind words poured in, Bill didn’t collapse into an emotional wreck, but instead smiled graciously, possibly a little embarrassed by all the fuss — and then thanked everyone else.
As news fell yesterday that he had died, peacefully but unexpectedly in his family home, we all remembered the avuncular, steely yet humble man with whom we have shared some of the country’s greatest days and nights.
Olympic gold medals, World Cup Finals, Italia 90, the first Sunday Game — the man we all know as Billo was there, gently but assuredly guiding us through the action, probing for angles, all the while engaging and engaged and transparently enjoying himself.
Eamon was back paying tribute yesterday. It was hard not to be moved as he spoke on RTÉ’s News At One, his voice faltering as he remembered his lifetime friend and colleague as a family man and as a journalist with the great but rare skill of being able to “make it human”.
The Corkman, 76, is survived by his wife Hillary, daughters Jill and Sally, grandchildren and extended family, but hopefully it’s not ungracious to claim that in some ways it felt like he was a part of a far larger family — the viewing public. He was like everyone’s favourite uncle. Ten World Cups, 10 Olympic Games, the first rugby World Cup, Champion’s League finals, and some on-screen blow-outs and bust-ups, always managed with extreme authority and judicious ease.
He had cut his teeth at this paper, beginning work in his teens, before moving on to RTÉ’s news department and the flagship 7 Days programme, but it was in sport where he found his home.
Everyone has a favourite moment. Who can forget “Fantastic! I said at the start: Ciao Roma!”, delivered with a daft hat on his head straight after the classic penalty shoot-out win over Romania in Italia 90. Or the incendiary exchanges after Roy Keane had been unceremoniously removed from Manchester United. Or the evident cheer as Ireland bagged an Olympic medal. Or the delivery of the phrase “Okey doke” into common usage.
It seems no one has a bad word to say about him, and why would they? The worlds of journalism, sport, politics, public relations and more have now joined in paying tribute to someone Taoiseach Enda Kenny described as one of the best types of Irishman. For once, the use of the term “a national treasure” doesn’t seem out of place.
He’d even taken to Twitter in recent times, and his last tweet showed he wasn’t afraid to poke fun at himself, linking to a clip of his “alter ego”, Risteard Cooper, in the role of Billo discussing an FAI Junior Cup Final match.
“Things happen to me by being in the right place at the right time,” Billo told this newspaper a few years ago as he launched his autobiography. Well Bill, when you were on the box, every time was the right time.
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