Author and broadcaster, well known for 'Change of Heart'

Sat, Jun 12, 2010, 01:00

Bill LongBILL LONG, who has died aged 78, was a writer and broadcaster of eclectic taste and of perhaps greater curiosity, was also Ireland’s longest surviving heart transplant recipient.

He was born in Waterford where, with his father, mother and brother, he lived with his maternal grandparents on the coast in a thatched long house that had three-foot thick adobe walls.

His grandfather had a small holding and his father, who had trained as a bothyman, or gardener, in the Phoenix Park and at Powers Nurseries, grew vegetables for sale in the hotels in Tramore. In his memoirs, (soon to be published by New Island Press), he describes an idyllic, rural, Catholic childhood in the 1930s.

Bill Long, from an early age, read widely and eclectically, ranging from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, Tales of a Wayside Innby Longfellow and the westerns of Zane Grey. A neighbour had come back to The Glen after having been a cowpuncher in the States, where he had been friendly with Grey who had given him signed copies of his books. He lent these to Long along with a copy of The Imitation of Christto take to his boarding school.

During a retreat, Long wrapped Wild Horse Mesain the covers of the spiritual volume he was meant to be reading, but alas a keen-eyed brother spotted his unusual absorption in the book and it was confiscated.

An elderly bachelor farmer who used to “ramble” of an evening to talk with the family, left some money so that Long could attend a boarding school, but he disliked it and left after two years to go to the Christian Brothers in Tramore. But at 14, he insisted on leaving school altogether.

He joined the navy, but he did not stay long in the service and became a cub reporter on the Cork Examinernewspaper, as it then was, and later worked for the newspaper that they owned in Waterford, before moving to the I rish Press, and on to the I ndependentand The Irish Times.

For a short period he was employed by RTÉ but then got a job in public relations for the cosmetic company Revlon. He lived for a time in London, making frequent visits to the US and South America.

His book, Brief Encounters, Meetings with Remarkable People,describes such celebrities as Raymond Chandler, who lived next door to him in London and had spent much of his youth in Waterford, so liked to share his memories of the city and its people with Long. He also knew Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and writer with whom he spent a Christmas in the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky.

Meeting Katherine Anne Porter, the American author of A Ship of Fools, late one night in New York, he said changed his life as she said he should avoid “trivial scribbling” and devote himself to writing.

He gave up Revlon, but with a family to support he turned to making radio documentaries including Jacobs award-winning, Singing Ark, Flowering Floodabout Dylan Thomas and his poetry. He was a popular broadcaster on Sunday Miscellany, RTÉ Radio One’s short story and poetry programme, though he fell out with the teachers’ unions and RTÉ over a piece he did for Thought for the Day, when he mentioned that some teachers were double jobbing.

Besides broadcasting and writing, he lectured in Maynooth on homiletics – the art of preaching.

In 1993, he published a well-researched book on Irish lighthouses called Bright Light, White Water,which describes how each lighthouse off the Irish coast was built and their subsequent history and that of their keepers. While writing this book, he lived for periods of time in the Baily lighthouse at Howth. “At night, shutters up, wind wailing and whistling against the three-foot thick walls, the sea soughing and sucking against the base of the cliff, one might well be on some remote rock station,” he noted.

Shortly after he completed this book, he suffered a heart attack and in 1994 received a new heart. RTÉ filmed the operation and his recovery and he also chronicled his experiences and feelings in his book Change of Heart, which he hoped would make more people aware of the vital importance of donorship. His transplant was successful and he was Ireland’s longest-surviving recipient of a new heart.

He went on to write and edit more books and had just finished a memoir when he died. He is survived by his wife Peg and two sons and two daughters.


Bill Long born: April 28th, 1932; died May 21st, 2010