More than okey jokey

You think you know Bill O’Herlihy. He’s like that inoffensive ornament on the living room mantel that blends in against a beige wall. The background noise you’ve got used to.

The uncle that’s always there at special occasions, good humoured and chatty, but you don’t delve deeper into his personality and before you realise it he’s gone, back to his day-to-day meanderings you know nothing about.

But whatever about you underestimating a man too often introduced shallowly as the chair of a football discussion, you wonder does he undervalue himself? Back at the beginning of the year, when the suggestion of ghosting his autobiography crept up, we went for a cup of tea together to discuss the finer print. He was warm and engaging, but he was reticent too as his opening words were as worrying as they were humble. “To be honest, I don’t know if anyone wants to read about me,” he announced. “And I’m not even sure I’ve done enough to justify a book. What is there to write about?”

Minutes later though, there was an unstoppable torrent of stories as empty cups were whisked away and refills arrived at our table. It was a jumble of personalities and eras, of characters and places, together forming a sort of social history you didn’t dare interrupt.

There was ‘Texas Dan’, the sadistic priest in St Finbarr’s, Farranferris, who terrorised his class and hit O’Herlihy 47 slaps across the face one day as punishment for not knowing the Greek numeral for the same value. There was his brother Jack, a Cork minor hurler, who showed up for a school game after days of mitching only to be told by his teacher and coach, “If we don’t win this match today, just be aware of one thing. I will tell your father you are not going to school.” There was Neil Blaney after his sacking, telling O’Herlihy as he stormed out the back door of the Dáil, “Listen son, when I have nothing to say, I have fucking nothing to say.” There was Eamon Dunphy refusing to talk to him on and off air for a couple of days during the 1982 World Cup because he thought O’Herlihy called him, and not his comments, cheap. There was Mick McCarthy taking offence when, before a panel appearance, O’Herlihy told him that he would not tolerate populism. There was his mother and two sisters being taken by cancer and his own brief struggle with the disease that tore savagely through his family. It went on and on.

It’s a couple of months later, and after many, many hours spent in his company, you tell him that for a person normally so shrewd in all aspects of his business life, he was oddly way off on both counts about the book. But he takes little notice. Instead, his mind is racing again, this time towards the next set of stories he’s about to create as he gets ready for firstly the European Championships before the Olympics a little down the line. “There’s a huge amount of work and it’s daunting in that sense,” he says. “RTÉ have made a huge commitment by buying rights so we have to deliver in terms of viewership figures at a time when we’ll be competing against international channels as well.

“In terms of the soccer, from our perspective, we’ll have to be on the ball and balance forensic comment with entertainment. I have had the view that there has been a huge disconnect between the Irish spectators and the Irish team because they are cautious, dull and have been lucky. But that will change once a major finals starts. It always does. Thinking about it over the last few days in fact, I realise I still get a fantastic buzz out of it, but the soccer in particular because this is the world game. So I am as enthusiastic today as I was many years ago. Maybe even more than I was back at day one.”

Defining day one is difficult with O’Herlihy. It’s not because at 73 years of age, the beginning has been lost in the grayish haze of time, but because there have been so many beginnings. By 16 and before his Leaving Cert he had left Farranferris, a school he insists was great other than that one priest, and headed for the doors of this very newspaper and in the footsteps of his grandfather, who had once been the news editor. Here he worked in the reading room, making sure printed pages were mistake free, before he was moved to the Evening Echo as a sub-editor.

“One day, and the Echo never knew this, of course, there was no lead story. Nothing that I could justify being the front page. It was well before the war in Vietnam, or Indochina as it was then, but there was a huge battle that was symbolic and important in terms of everything that followed. It was in Dien Bien Phu, and I got a paragraph in over the wires and decided this would be fine as long as I could spice it up... So I got my typewriter and fabricated an entire story based on this paragraph. There was hand-to-hand fighting and all kinds of stuff going on by the time I was finished with it.”

Neither editor nor readers noticed his handiwork, but within a couple of years others had taken notice of him and he was doing bits and pieces for RTÉ on the side. First up was radio, although at half-time during a dour FAI Cup match at Turner’s Cross, Fred Cogley contacted him. “‘You’re boring the listeners to death,’ he told me. ‘But the game is terrible,’ I said, ‘nothing is happening.’ ‘I don’t care’, said Fred, ‘lift it, give the impression something will happen.’”

That didn’t work out but by the time television came calling shortly after in the form of Newsbeat, the provincial programme best compared with Nationwide, he was equally unsure of his performance when interviewing a woman in Cappoquin who had survived the sinking of the Lusitania 50 years earlier. “God help her and me, she was half-senile and as a result, the interview was awful,” he smiles.

But here’s a key consideration with O’Herlihy. The confident character on television is an imposter and there’s a story that sums him up better than anything you’ll have seen on screen. Despite his own reservations, he thrived on Newsbeat and at once stage bumped into Pat Smiley of The Irish Times at The Cork Show. “My God, if I was on television like you, I’d really cash in,” Smiley said, talking about women. “But he didn’t know what it was like,” says O’Herlihy now. “When we went into the towns and villages of Ireland, hundreds would watch us work and I’d hear the comments of the women saying things like, ‘My God, he’s smaller than I thought he was,’ or ‘He’s not good looking at all, how do they put him on the television’. People see me and make a judgment as to how I am but I’m the very opposite to expectations and even today I am quite introverted.”

In those early days of television, his unusual mix and match of contradictory character traits made him a hit. He went from interviewing Tim Hayes, who had buried himself alive in order to try and make the Guinness Book of Records, to a job with 7 Days, the predecessor to Prime Time. Suddenly Israeli prime minister Golda Meir was lecturing him on Irish nationalism in Tel Aviv and he was standing before Ian Paisley who he told without thinking, after a wrongful accusation he’d been drinking, that he was an orange man. “I meant the beverage,” he laughs.

It was shortly after, that a programme he conducted into illegal money lending in Dublin nearly ended his career as a tribunal was called. It concluded that the programme content had been exaggerated.

“It was a farce and a travesty,” he maintains. “Everyone knew well that the government had been out to get us. In my view and a lot of people’s views, we had been set up and hung out to dry. I remember Tony Hedderman, who went on to become Attorney General and a Supreme Court judge, saying to me that this was the Alice in Wonderland tribunal and he wasn’t talking about us. It was the fairytales of Ireland.”

Funny how things work out because from that rubble emerged the Bill O’Herlihy we now know and love. With his current affairs career ended by findings he still rejects, he asked to be transferred to sport as it was a place he thought he could keep his head down. “Michael O’Hehir was head of sport and I went into his office to learn more about my new role,” he says. “‘Bill, I don’t want you, but you are welcome,’ were his very first words to me. He told me my hard image was all wrong for sport. ‘I don’t want you at all,’ he continued. “You are here now but I can tell you this for nothing. You will not be broadcasting for a minimum of six months.’”

Two days later O’Herlihy was broadcasting, himself and O’Hehir forged a strong relationship, sports broadcasting evolved. Indeed, by 1972, his big break had come when, as anchor, his current affairs background smoothly and steadily guided RTÉ through the coverage of the ‘Black September’ attacks at the Munich Olympics.

Soon after came Dunphy and by 1986 John Giles, who was never wanted because of his reluctance to talk to the media when Shamrock Rovers manager, was there too. Those two allowed him to demonstrate other skills. “When I ask them questions, I know the answers. Frequently. We did a survey for Italia ’90 and it showed that only 32% of those watching understood the game. In different surveys done since, that hasn’t changed radically. So I have to ask questions the people at home would wish to ask. In that respect, frequently I know what the answer would be and sometimes I get obviously put down for asking what the panel consider to be a stupid question. That’s part of the job.”

It’s working too because in all he’s done 17 major soccer tournaments and London will be his ninth Olympic Games as anchor. His favourite memories predictably involve David O’Leary’s penalty, Michael Carruth’s gold and Usain Bolt taking athletics to a higher plane. As for the bad times, being told they couldn’t question Michelle Smith on air because “it would spoil the mood of national celebration” hurt the journalist in him. During the Lansdowne Riots, having to say on air if anyone saw his young daughter at the game, could they please take care of her hurt the father in him.

“None of it stopped me though,” he says. “The only major event I missed in that time was the Los Angeles Olympics because I had a heart attack and was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time and I believe God has looked after me in that way. I watched John Treacy from a hospital bed and shortly after I got warned that if I wasn’t careful I could be a cardiac cripple and I had to try and get on with my life as normal. And I have, although with a summer like this ahead, that isn’t easy. I’ve my PR business and I have to take care of my clients and give both them and RTÉ the time they deserve. I’ll have to pace myself because I’ll require a fair amount of re-energising through sleep and I might go for a couple of snoozes in the afternoons too.”

But he’s done it before and he’ll do it again as he is working out a new two-year extension to his contract with RTÉ, although his bosses have warned him to give the golf a rest over the coming month. “Staying off the course could be the hardest part,” he laughs.

So you think you know Bill O’Herlihy? It’s best you think again.

* Ewan MacKenna is ghostwriter of Bill O’Herlihy’s autobiography, released in the autumn.

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