Bill O’Herlihy: a generosity of spirit and love of life

Time in his company was enriching, he was a walking, talking cure for cynicism

A tribute to veteran broadcaster Bill O'Herlihy, who has died aged 76. Video: RTÉ

 

Bill O’Herlihy would most probably have smiled to see himself top of Ireland’s Twitter trending list all day as tributes poured in after news of his passing, the depth of the sadness a sign of the warmth of the affection in which he was held.

He was on Twitter himself, but an average of three tweets a month since he signed up in 2011 was an indication that he favoured more traditional forms of communication. And communication was, after all, his life’s work in a journalism, broadcasting and business career that spanned five decades.

He regarded Michael Parkinson as the maestro, believing him to be the perfect interviewer because he had that rare gift of being a great listener. “His job was to get the information from his guests in the most audience-friendly way,” he said, “it wasn’t about him.”

O’Herlihy could have been talking about himself, really. It was never about him. And so gifted was he at the art of listening, and so genuinely interested in hearing other people’s stories, interviewing him could be quite a task. After half an hour you’d realise that in fact you had just been interviewed, your entire family tree extracted, and your opinion on every major issue of the day procured. And you’d have to say, “Ah Bill, I have nothing about you,” and he’d say, “Go on so.”

So, you’d finally get him to talk about himself, his career in news and sports journalism, his on-air run-ins with everyone from Ian Paisley to Erskine Childers, fronting RTÉ’s coverage of all those unforgettable sporting dramas, refereeing those Dunphy v Brady v Giles bouts, his serious health scare that resulted in a triple bypass and his involvement in business and politics. And that wasn’t even the half of it.

You’d tell him he should write a book. “But I don’t think anybody would be interested, if the truth be told,” he’d say, not regarding his own life story as remotely compelling. He was wrong, of course, as the autobiography, We’ll Leave It There So, which he later wrote with Ewan MacKenna proved.

Self-deprecating modesty

Some treat sport too seriously, others not seriously enough, because they don’t get the impact it can have on people’s lives – O’Herlihy got the balance just right. He had endless fun with it, but gave it the thoughtfulness and weight it deserved too, and saw his role on RTÉ as encouraging debate.

And how we hollered when he’d chuck hand grenades at the panel such as, “I read today that Ronaldo is the greatest player in the history of football: discuss”, and he’d lean back in his chair as they took the bait. Fireworks. “Okey doke,” he’d say, grinning.

When asked a few years ago, “How’s life, Bill?”, he smiled and said, “Life is great, thank God. When I look back, I have been extremely fulfilled. I have a lovely wife, Hilary, married since 1970, I have two gorgeous girls [Jill and Sally], I have the best career in the world, so the Lord has been good to me, I can tell you that. Very good to me.”

A gentleman who lived life to the full and cherished every step of the journey. We’ll miss him. May he rest in peace.