Goodnight and God bless Bill

Looking around Bill O’Herlihy’s office raised an immediate question.

Goodnight and God bless Bill

On the desk were mountains of documents, but no computer. In the corner was a small, bulky television set with a dusty VCR player underneath it. Sitting at the table in the middle of the room sipping tea was a man in his 70s, pawing through every one of the day’s newspapers.

That was the confusing contradiction that needed explaining because so much about O’Herlihy belonged to a different era, yet still he was at the forefront of sports journalism all these years on from a start in a now unrecognisable Ireland. Eventually the answer that revealed itself was that he was simply and subtly so good at his job that it had made him timeless.

That was the first morning of interviews for his autobiography back in 2012 but over the following months, a pattern emerged. “I’ve a serious question,” he’d say before you had a chance to take out your notes.

“I’m really not sure I should be doing this. I mean really, who wants to hear about me?” You’d try and boost his self-belief by explaining the esteem he was held in but after a while it would seep away again and he’d pause midway through a story. “Is this any use at all? I’m not sure it’s any good. Who cares about my role in that?” It was the most surprising and endearing of insecurities.

Why he lacked confidence in his standing is hard to say. He did talk about how, during his early days on television for Newsbeat, a friend in Cork told him if he’d that job, he’d really cash in, referring to the opposite sex.

Yet O’Herlihy occasionally found it a daunting experience as he’d travel the towns and villages of provincial Ireland. Often, before filming, he’d hear girls in the gawking crowd talk about how they thought he’d be taller, how they thought he’d dress better or how he was too ugly for television. “I didn’t have the voice, looks, talent or charisma,” he announced unashamedly.

Maybe that was behind his occasional shyness, or maybe it was simply that he was a decent, grounded human that saw himself as doing a job he was fortunate to have. No more. No less.

In this era of autobiographies, there tends to be a very obvious formula for generating interest and ultimately sales. You dredge for dirt, sluice for scandal and get everyone talking. But with O’Herlihy there was no dirt and, refreshingly, there was no need for dirt.

That’s because his life was a comprehensive journey through modern Irish history – social, political, journalistic and sporting. People forget that, such was his revolutionary success anchoring soccer, but long before the fun and games with the panel, there was a long and serious career in current affairs.

Given his professionalism, we tended to see O’Herlihy as unflappable but he came through the school of many hard knocks. After he did his first ever radio commentary on a Cork Hibernians soccer game, Fred Cogley came on the line and told him he had bored the listeners to death. When working for 7 Days – the Prime Time of its day – he did a report on exploitation of children in a residential school, and then back in studio conducted a live interview with the responsible minister Erskine Childers.

He asked about his report and got a 30-second answer. He asked again and got a 20-second answer. He asked a third time and Childers said: “You keep asking the same question and I’m telling you there is no exploitation”. There were still 15 long and daunting minutes still to fill.

Ian Paisley got the better of O’Herlihy too. In 1969, the first election in Bannside in 21 years took place and while Terrance O’Neill retained his seat, Paisley made enough gains to suggest the tide of Northern politics had changed.

On stage in BallymenaTown Hall, O’Herlihy went live on the news but was swaying due to the jostling crowd and a waft of whiskey was coming from a celebratory voter behind him. Before he could ask a question, Paisley looked down on O’Herlihy and announced on air, “Young man, can I smell your breath.” Later Paisley told him, “Go easy on the drink now, son.”

But through it all there was a wonderful ray of devilment with O’Herlihy too. In his first job as a teenager with the Cork Echo, he was responsible for having a front page story waiting for the editor when he returned from lunch.

Struggling one day, a line came over the wire about a battle in Indochina but a young O’Herlihy thought it needed spicing up so got on a typewriter and added in yarns about hand-to-hand combat and the like. His thinking was the readers didn’t even know where Indochina was, never mind care about the facts and it got by both editor and locals without a word said.

On another occasion, when meeting the King Hussein of Jordan in a line of journalists, the RTÉ cameraman missed the handshake so O’Herlihy jumped in at the end of the line for another shot. “Haven’t I met you somewhere before?” asked the monarch to O’Herlihy’s great amusement.

They were the tales he liked to tell and that was a crucial ingredient in understanding his make-up in that he never took himself too seriously and always enjoyed his work. Fortunately, for after a programme on money-lending for 7 Days led to a tribunal and its cancellation, O’Herlihy was shunted into sport. On his first day there the head of the department Michael O’Hehir called him into his office.

“Bill, I don’t want you but you’re welcome,” he told him.

Indeed by the 1975 Cup Winners Cup final, a game of few talking points between Ferencvaros-Dynamo Kiev reached half-time where O’Herlihy was alone in studio, with too much time to talk about too little. By the weekend, Eamon Dunphy took him to task in a column, saying O’Herlihy didn’t know what he was talking about.

O’Hehir’s logic was that he had the wrong persona for sport as his current affairs background made him seem too serious, but when anchoring the Munich Olympics, the murder of Israeli athletes thrust O’Herlihy into a roll he’d been trained for and from there he grew into an institution.

Dunphy came on board in the late 1970s as only he can, demanding the set be scaled down and the regular pundits be removed as they “hadn’t a clue”. By the 1980s John Giles was added as what we now know took shape. By 1990, O’Herlihy’s world changed forever as did the way we analyse and view sport in this country.

He was the keystone in that, even if it was those sitting across from him that got all the attention. And that was O’Herlihy’s great skill, to play himself down and occasionally play dumb, prodding, probing and winding up the analysts in order to get the answers he knew made for good television.

He made it look easy but it was anything but. Spending a day with him on a Champions League show back in 2012 was eye-opening. From the gallery, the chatter of numerous directors went directly to his ear piece with instructions yet he carried on as if there wasn’t another voice in his head. That day was eye-opening in terms of his energy as well. Starting work in his communications company early morning, he’d leave RTÉ close to midnight, with the same skip in his step as a much younger man heading into an unknown world of journalism in this very newspaper in the 1950s.

Of course to say you agree with everything someone does and believes in is to lie. And too often when remembering those who have passed, we fawn while not being fair and factual and that doesn’t do a person’s life justice.

Having been asked to run for president by Joan Fitzgerald in 1990, his links to Fine Gael were never hidden. But his admiration for Michael Lowry caused us to debate while after his retirement from television, his friendship with Frank Flannery was disappointing to me.

Then again, nobody’s perfect.

But he was a wonderful person, just ask his family. He took past illnesses in his stride with cancer and a heart attack helping him to be more positive about what he has rather than be negative about what he’d nearly lost.

In fact there’s one conversation we had in that office with no computer but a VCR player and with O’Herlihy sipping tea at the table that sums up much. Asked about his communications company, he said he’d been offered a fortune for it but in the end he decided against selling.

“Why?” you asked him.

“Well the buyer couldn’t assure me everyone would retain their job and for me that was most important.” It was also most representative and most decent.

Of course the greatest pity in all this is that he never got to enjoy his long-awaited retirement and his family never got to enjoy more of the man that seemed at times to belong to everyone. But what a life it was. So good night, and God bless.

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