Unflappable sports anchorman who also ran a top-flight public relations agency

Bill O’Herlihy: September 28th, 1938 - May 25th, May 2015

Bill O’Herlihy, who has died aged 76, was a journalist whose career, stretching over print and broadcast media for more than half a century, was as legendary as his skills.

He cut his teeth on the Evening Echo in Cork, and then on the Cork Examiner (where his grandfather William had been news editor). Before long, the inveterate RTÉ talent-spotter Frank Hall had noticed him, and engaged him as a part-time Cork reporter for his groundbreaking early evening programme Newsbeat. His first interview for that programme – which gives some indication of the length of his broadcasting pedigree – was an interview to mark the 50th anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania.

In 1968 programme editor Muiris Mac Conghail offered him a job with Seven Days, which he accepted in spite of his mother's apprehension about leaving a good job on the Examiner. Within a year, that programme's genius for establishing brave new norms in broadcasting was highlighted when its feisty investigation into illegal money-lending in Dublin, presented by O'Herlihy, seriously wounded the amour propre of the Garda Síochána (the programme suggested, justifiably, that they were doing little about the problem).

More significantly it gave the Fianna Fáil government and its vindictive minister for justice, Micheál Ó Moráin, an opportunity to set up a judicial tribunal which, as O’Herlihy later put it in an interview with the academic Robert Savage, was “a circus staged to punish upstarts at Donnybrook”.

Janet Moody, who worked on the same programme and was also unfairly singled out for criticism, remembered him this week as “energetic, enthusiastic, positive and unfailingly cheerful”, adding: “He was great to work with as he always thought that things would work out well and he would make sure that they did.”

O'Herlihy was particularly upset because the Seven Days controversy effectively ended a potential career as an investigative reporter, a role he particularly enjoyed. He was transferred to sport, where an initially suspicious Micheál O'Hehir told him that he wouldn't be on air for six months. A day later he put him on camera, explaining to the puzzled reporter: "That was yesterday and this was today."

Public relations

In 1973 he was asked by two senior advertising executives, Desmond O’Kennedy and Jack Young, to revive the then dormant Public Relations of Ireland agency, while his career as a sports anchor continued, with RTÉ controller of programmes Michael Garvey’s blessing, on a part-time basis.

His success in moving to “the dark side”, as journalists often jocosely refer to that branch of the communications industry, was marked by his agency’s success in attracting clients as important as British Airways and Coca-Cola, and hiring talent as diverse as Eileen Gleeson and Fintan Drury.

It was not without controversy, not least when his company became involved with high-profile, risky issues such as the Cherrywood rezoning development in south Dublin, and with the oil-for-food programme during the period when sanctions were imposed on Iraq by the western powers.

O’Herlihy was typically up front about his engagement with these enterprises; the potentially damaging side effects vanished as quickly as the proverbial water off a duck’s back.

His career as a sports presenter spanned 10 Olympic Games and as many World Cups but - paradoxically - rarely if ever involved his attendance at, or direct commentary on, any of these events. His huge strength was as chair of a sports panel, which was to involve pundits including Eamon Dunphy, Johnny Giles and Liam Brady.

He didn’t so much appear on television as inhabit it, as if he were holding court in the snug of a comfortable country pub. In this setting his musical Cork tones, his encyclopaedic knowledge and his unflappable courtesy generated an atmosphere of co-operative equanimity even in the face of turbo-charged egos and sharp-edged disagreements. His panel during Italia ’90 garnered a viewership figure of 92 per cent.

Less well known, for many years, was his strong political and emotional attachment to Fine Gael, which also – like his journalism – had a family background.

He became a close media adviser to Garrett FitzGerald in the 1980s, and was a key figure in a body which became known collectively, and not always flatteringly, as the "national handlers". The group also included Frank Flannery, Pat Heneghan of PJ Carroll, and the solicitor Enda Marren.

Barry supporter

O’Herlihy’s connection with the party might have continued after FitzGerald’s resignation, but Fine Gael chose Alan Dukes as its new leader over his friend

Peter Barry

– the genial and potentially much more popular figure, and a Corkman to boot. O’Herlihy had actually prepared an acceptance speech for delivery by Barry if he had won the vote.

He co-operated with Flannery later in a current affairs programme, but this did not achieve its potential. He had by then reverted to his commitment to public relations: he said in a 1992 interview that while TV had allowed him to indulge his ego, public relations would come first if he had to choose.

His broadcast career continued, nonetheless, until 2014, when his retirement was greeted with universal, and warm, accolades. It had successfully overcome not only the normal hazards of a media career but two bouts of serious ill-health - a heart attack in 1984, and subsequently cancer.

He is survived by his widow, Hilary, their two daughters, Jill and Sally, and brothers Jack, David and Peter.