KIERAN SHANNON: No person in Irish society could escape reach of Bill O’Herlihy

Last year, when I met Bill O’Herlihy for the first and only time just days before his last broadcast anchoring the RTÉ football panel, he made one of those characteristic self-depreciating comments as we were finishing up.

He’d been asked about his plans for the future. His wish was to present some non-sport, interview-based programmes, along the lines of Miriam’s summer Saturday nights show, or Gaybo’s Meaning of Life. He didn’t see it happening though.

“There’s a hell of a difference between how entertainment would be viewed by RTÉ and how sport would be viewed [by them],” he chuckled lightly. “And there’s a hell of a difference between an A-list act like Gay and someone like me.” Yet short of when Byrne himself one day appears at the pearly gates and gets to utter a line he’s surely rehearsed well at this stage, has or will there be anything like the flood of glowing epitaphs for an Irish broadcaster like there has been for O’Herlihy?

Michael O’Hehir was a national institution but not known to every generation or sphere of Irish life; Eamonn Andrews too was a more remote figure, by geography and generation, by the time of his passing. No person in any sphere of Irish society could escape the reach of O’Herlihy.

He was sport’s Uncle Gaybo. The nation’s Uncle Bill. So much so, we simply called him Bill or Billo.

And unlike Gaybo, he wasn’t divisive (though he’d have admired Byrne’s capacity to be so). For sure he took part — anchored, facilitated, encouraged, stoked — in rancorous debate but he himself was above it all. While Gaybo or Dunphy could enrage folks, O’Herlihy himself was universally liked, admired, even loved.

 

Des Cahill put it well yesterday: He always seemed to be there for all the great days. Or, a bit like Gaybo in another field or Leonard Cohen in his songwriting, he covered all the Big Ones. Stuggart ’88, Italia ’90, Atlanta ’96, the aftermath of Saipan: He brought them all to us.

It wasn’t what he covered though, it was the way he covered them. He both thought like a punter and a pro. Always in his mind was what the viewer wanted and needed. We forget it now but there was a time only people in Single Channel Land watched football on RTÉ; anyone with a choice tended to opt for the BBC or ITV on the grounds of credibility. By 1990, that had all changed. O’Herlihy would cite a survey that would show that 93% of the country over the age of five watched the penalty shoot-out against Romania. And most watched it on RTÉ.

“There was a survey done by RTÉ about soccer [a few years earlier] and we discovered that only about 30% of the people watching RTÉ understood the game,” O’Herlihy would remind me when we met last year. “That had a hugely profound influence in how I approached it. My attitude then was to help people understand the game without preaching.

“The 1990 World Cup was the definitive programme for us because it changed people’s perceptions... People came to the conclusion that the RTÉ coverage was better, (that it was) more analytical yet accessible and entertaining.” A large part of what made him such a master was that he had the humility to be a student. To herald him as a genius is to imply his skills were some kind of gift. They weren’t. They came from his training in The Cork Examiner and later RTÉ and above all from his own openness of mind. He observed how to listen.

“The two guys that inspired my style of broadcasting would have been Gaybo and [Michael] Parkinson,” he’d say in that interview. “I always felt that an awful lot of other anchors didn’t listen at all: they had a list of questions and regardless of what was being said they were going to ask those other questions. But very often Gaybo’s next question came from the last answer.” His career was so vast, we forget or underestimate aspects of it. As much as he’d portray himself as someone with a limited knowledge of football during his time working alongside Dunphy & Co, he knew enough to be this paper’s football writer.

He could cover any sport and often did. He grew up in Glasheen, St Finbarr’s country, watching Christy Ring. “I hated Ring when he played for the Glen,” he’d smile, “and I loved him when he was playing for Cork.” He used to present The Sunday Game alongside Jim Carney before Michael Lyster assumed the chair. He used to anchor rugby before Tom McGurk; it was O’Herlihy and/or shows presented him that gave the likes of George Hook, Mick Doyle and Brent Pope a break.

A few other things were striking about him: His self-awareness; he had both the humility to say his successor Darragh Maloney was a more polished presenter , yet the confidence to acknowledge he himself was the “better interviewer”.

His love for family and Cork. “The first time I cried as an adult was when Dad died. I was fifty-something at the time. It just all of a sudden hit me as I was leaving Cork. The place would just never be the same again.” His open-mindedness and generosity of spirit as well as his keen scepticism. “In this country we seem to have a schizophrenic relationship with English football,” he’d say. “I’m an Arsenal man. Other friends are Man United or Liverpool men. And yet then they want to see England beaten. That to me makes no sense. I would love to see England win a World Cup — although they don’t have a ghost of a chance the way they’re been run at the minute.” He wasn’t just there for our best days. He represented the best of us.

Journalist. Pro. Gent. Not just loved but respected. Not just respected but loved. What finer epitaph or fuller life could any broadcaster or man have?

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