Interviewed by Sue Leonard
Published in Reality Magazine. February, 2013
Bill O’Herlihy is best known as the anchor man of soccer at RTE. But that is only the latest stage of his eventful career. His moves from print journalism, through TV current affairs, on to sport; alongside a thriving career in PR seems to have slotted into place effortlessly. So much so, that O’Herlihy sometimes wonders if the Lord had a hand in it.
At 74 he has a strong faith.
“I was born into a house of love,” he says. There were six children, and we weren’t well off. My father had a respectable job in local government, but it wasn’t well paid. Life was a struggle, but a struggle with a smile.
“It was a very Catholic household. We said the rosary every night, and under no circumstances were we permitted to miss mass. But that would have been the tradition of the day amongst our friends.”
Religion came into discipline, too. If the children has misbehaved, to get the truth, they’d be marched in front of the picture of the sacred heart.
“Religion was so strong, that you would never tell a lie before the sacred heart.”
O’Herlihy’s father lived out his faith.
“He was a good Christian man. Every Sunday, come rain or shine, he collected money for the sick and the poor. He did not feel this was sacrificial; he believed he was doing good work and he did it. My father was the first person in Cork to introduce Meals on Wheels; in Lough Parish, though he didn’t get any credit for it. He was an example to us all.”
Once a pioneer, O’Herlihy joined the Cork Examiner at 16, but was never part of the drinking culture. It wasn’t until he married, at 32, that he broke his pledge. And that was by mistake.
“Hilary drank Vodka and bitter lemon, and I drank bitter lemon. I sipped hers, by mistake, and once the pledge was broken, it was broken. I had no intention of restarting. That week, I remember, I drank Sangria.”
He went into TV by mistake too; starting with RTE as a Regional reporter. Then he joined Current Affairs, heading up a top ratings programme called 7 Days. But that’s when his career hit a glitch.
“We produced a programme on illegal money lending in Dublin, using hidden microphones and cameras. That caused a terrible furore. There was a tribunal, which we lost, and that finished me.
“The decision, though, was political,” he says. “The real issue was another programme we’d shown, presenting a survey on what would happen if there was a referendum on getting a first past the post vote. Fianna Fail had called for this, and our perception was that if passed, Fianna Fail would get 109 seats our of a total of 144.
“The government of the day thought RTE should be an arm of government, and that survey enraged them. And the consequence was that Current Affairs was neutered for a generation. This was 1971.”
His career since then, has been relatively trouble free. It took him a while to find his feet in PR, but the company has prospered, and he feels happily at home presenting sport. His home life is happy too.
“I’ve tried to replicate what my parents gave us; and I think ours is a very loving house. I have two gorgeous girls, Jill and Sally, and Hilary is a smashing wife. We have four grandchildren; Martha and Bill in Jill’s case, and Jack and Isla in Sally’s. They’re lovely kids.
“We have what I call a three line whip. They come every Sunday for dinner; the lot of them. I think it’s very important to maintain your relationship with the grandchildren and their parents, and not let us drift apart.”
Hilary is a member of the Church of Ireland. And Bill has huge respect for her faith.
“When we married it was, very much, Ne Temere. I always feel, when you are in a mixed marriage, and the children are Catholic, the non-catholic loses out on an awful lot. I go to mass every Sunday, and so do the children. Hilary goes to church every Sunday.
“I will go to the Church of Ireland service with her on Christmas day. We always went to her church on feast days, as a family. And on those days I would not go to mass as well. That would be disrespectful.”
It would be wrong to suggest that O’Herlihy’s life has been entirely happy. His father died of a heart attack in his seventies, and he lost his mother to a nasty form of cancer. Both his sisters died, young and quickly, from various forms of cancer. But it wouldn’t occur to him to blame the Lord.
He has had his own health problems, too. He had a heart attack, followed by a brush with cancer. And he is utterly convinced that God’s intervention saved him both times.
“I had a meeting at RTE for the Los Angeles Olympics, which should have gone on all morning, but finished early. So I was able to go on to a lunch meeting with a company called Parc, who had a hospital in Bagdad. The medical director was over to talk to the College of Surgeons.
“I walked in and he didn’t like the look of me at all. He said, ‘are you ok?’ I said I had a slight pain in my chest and down my arm, and he picked up the phone and rang the cardiologist John Horgan. He said, ‘I’m bringing down a person who is starting a heart attack.’ That evening, I should have been going to London. If I’d gone, I’m told, I would have died.
“The other time I wasn’t feeling well, or looking well, and I was in bad humour. My three ladies said, ‘you have to have an MOT. They forced me to the Beacon Clinic, and within a week I had an operation for colon cancer. They took out a tumour the size of a lemon, and a foot and a half of intestine, and nothing has happened since. These things don’t happen by accident. I am certain the Lord intervened.”
We’ll Leave it There so, by Bill O’Herlihy with Ewan MacKenna, is published by Paperweight.
© Sue Leonard. 2013