Bill O’Herlihy: The front of house man for major sporting events had hidden talents

He gave the impression of having the same knowledge as an armchair fan but that is what made him such a great broadcaster, writes Special Correspondent Michael Clifford

ONE of Bill O’Herlihy’s many talents was his ability to hide his talent. To a whole generation, O’Herlihy was the avuncular figure moderating the opinions of the Three Amigos, Giles, Brady and Dunphy. He was the guy who asked the questions on the lips of the TV audience.

He gave the impression of being half scared to offer an opinion in the exalted company of his panel. He came across as possessing only the same knowledge as an armchair fan of the game. That’s what made him a great broadcaster.

Bill O’Herlihy: The front of house man for major sporting events had hidden talents

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In an interview with the Sunday Tribune in 2006, he laid out his broadcasting role.

“I used to love the simple but perceptive way Paddy Downey (former Irish Times GAA correspondent) wrote and I asked him about it one day,” O’Herlihy said. “He said to me, ‘I know a woman in Barna who loves the game but doesn’t understand it and I always write for her’. Well, that’s what I try to do and it might have something to do with why I survived so long. I make the panellists look good. My function is to draw out their knowledge and not to try and dominate it.”

Presenting sport wasn’t even his main gig. While fronting the nation’s sports on TV, O’Herlihy also had a day job, his public relations business, which he had built up over 30 years.

His route into business tells another tale. O’Herlihy started out as a journalist and was part of current affairs department in RTÉ. Fallout from a controversial programme on moneylenders, at a time when investigative TV reporting was in its infancy, brought his journalistic career to a halt. His PR experience also brought him into politics, when again he broke new ground as one of Fine Gael’s “national handler”, in the 1980s.

Journalism was in the blood when O’Herlihy was growing up on Magazine Road in Cork. His grandfather had been news editor of the Cork Examiner as it then was. Bill’s early ambition was to emulate the old man and become editor.

The eldest of six, he went straight into the paper from school, and began his ascent to reporter.

“I had great opportunities there,” he told me in that 2006 interview. “There were terrific journalists to learn from and the Examiner was a very paternalistic organisation.”

Pretty soon, he was noticed and found himself working a nixer as a southern based reporter for RTÉ’s Newsbeat programme. Before long, he was in RTÉ working on current affairs.

Then came the 7 Days programme in 1971 on moneylending, and the fallout that resulted in a tribunal. Careers were put on hold. The government was uneasy at the sight of the state broadcaster challenging the status quo with searing journalism.

“I was damaged by it, and there’s no point in saying otherwise,” he said. The sports department in RTÉ provided an escape route.

He moved, but the pull of business wouldn’t leave him alone, and within a few years he left to start up a PR company.

Bill O’Herlihy: The front of house man for major sporting events had hidden talents

By then, he had the broadcasting bug and there was no shifting it. “I always saw myself as a journalist who just happened to be working on TV and when I left RTÉ I thought that was the end of my broadcasting career. But after I left I began to miss it. I discovered I’d become a TV animal.” When RTÉ came calling a few years later, he jumped at the chance to do a spot on presenting in sport.

For the following 30 years he was the front of house man for all the major sporting events.

From the euphoria of Italia 90, to the delicate celebrating of Michelle Smith’s gold medals in the 1996 Olympics, the torture of Saipan, the unbridled joy of Katie Taylor.

While that sideline career was in its infancy he found himself drawn to Fine Gael under Garret Fitzgerald. His family in Cork traced their allegiance to the party back to the foundation of the state, so it was a natural home for his political instincts.

Fitzgerald was the great white hope of Irish politics when he came to power in the mid-80s. The brief of the national handlers was to finesse policy and presentation. O’Herlihy brought some common sense, which was not Garret’s forte, and communication savvy to the party.

He remained close to Fine Gael, working in various roles, including, at one time, as adviser to Michael Lowry when the Tipperary TD was the minister for communications.

The day job went from strength to strength. By the mid 2000s, he was interesting in capitalising on the silly money that was being paid in corporate takeovers, particularly for PR firms. It didn’t come to pass before the great fall, and he joined the legions that took a major hit after 2008.

Bill O’Herlihy: The front of house man for major sporting events had hidden talents

He had his health scares along with way, but he always recovered with the help of his tight knit family, wife Hillary and daughters Sally and Jill. In terms of his roots, his spirit never left Cork. On air he often grabbed a passing opportunity to big up his origins.

However successful his career was away from the box, he will be most widely remembered for being Billo, leading, as Des Cahill said on RTÉ radio yesterday, our greatest days. They weren’t all great. The station’s coverage of uncritical praise for Michelle Smith at the ’96 Olympics, at a time when swimming was rife with drug controversies, was a low. Later, O’Herlihy revealed that the presenter and panel had been told not to deflate the national mood with too much prying into the sport.

Saipan was no cakewalk either. On that occasion, he had to draw on all his talents to mediate between Giles and Dunphy whose decade old friendship was being sundered before the nation.

On the really great days, he was in his element, reeling with infectious enthusiasm, yet retaining the instinct to ask the serious questions for the folks back home. This he did through a career that took in 10 World Cups and 10 Olympic Games.

One of the sorrowful mysteries of RTÉ is why he was never given a shot at light entertainment. His ability and personality was tailor-made for the uniquely Irish chat show.

If Gay Byrne was the template, then O’Herlihy would have been an ideal prototype. Yet, it would seem, that once he had been labelled as a sports broadcaster, a paucity of imagination in the state broadcaster ensured his talents were not fully utilised.

It will be of some solace to his family that he got to leave the broadcasting stage on his own terms. His final programme, the World Cup Final in July, culminated with moving tributes.

Then he addressed the camera: “I take my leave with so many great memories through more than 40 years of sports broadcasting,” he said, before delivering a perfect farewell speech.

Then, he dipped his head and pulled on a silly hat that had materialised earlier in the programme.

“So we’ll leave it there so,” he said. “Okey dokey. Good night and God bless.” A fitting farewell for a consummate professional who was the subject of widespread affection.

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