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'So, life has been good to me' - Bill O'Herlihy in his own words

An extract from a 2012 interview with the legendary broadcaster about the Olympics, Michael Lowry, his health and more.

Bill O'Herlihy at the launch of his book.
Bill O'Herlihy at the launch of his book.
Image: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

This interview was originally published on 3 November 2012, ahead of the launch of his autobiography The Bill O’Herlihy Autobiography: We’ll Leave It There So.

BILL O’HERLIHY THINKS he’s been very lucky in life.

Lucky to be born into a family that had a great influence on him, lucky to have been in the right place at the right time career-wise and lucky to have been looked after by God, despite a number of health scares down through the years.

The theme of luck ran right through a in-depth interview TheJournal.ie conducted with the legendary RTÉ Sport presenter, but there’s no doubt that there has been more to the career of the man known simply as ‘Billo’ than just luck.

The 73-year-old was speaking prior to the launch of his new book The Bill O’Herlihy Autobiography: We’ll Leave It There So, written with sportswriter Ewan MacKenna.

It is a book that he was initially reluctant to write and an experience he says he found “stressful” but the Cork man was convinced by a couple of familiar faces from Irish television: ”Eamon Dunphy has been regularly asking me or suggesting to me that I should do it. Vincent Browne was another one.”

A meeting with the head of publishers Paperweight led to him being “talked into it”, eventually deciding to tell his story and what a story it has been. O’Herlihy says he was “lucky to be born into a house full of life” with his two sisters and three brothers.

“We had a normal, middle-class upbringing, we weren’t wealthy or anything like that, far from it. [But] we weren’t poor.”

‘Journalism in the genes’

He suspects his interest in journalism was “in the genes” citing his grandfather who was the editor of the Cork Examiner at one time and two granduncles who worked for the Irish Press and in the House of Commons, names that would be useful when the editor of the then Cork Examiner, Tom Crosbie, told him at 15: “Any O’Herlihy is good enough for the Examiner”.

While working for the paper he covered everything from the courts to the social columns to sport and it was that work which would lead him to television, though this was not an immediate ambition.

“I wanted to be the editor of the Examiner, that was my ambition in life,” he says before he was convinced to go and work on Newsbeat in the relatively new medium of television, filing reports from Cork and providing a new focus on rural Ireland.

Later he was transferred to the current affairs division and worked on the ground-breaking and controversial 7 Days programme where a piece on moneylenders resulted in an inquiry not into moneylenders and their potentially illegal activity but the conduct of the programme itself.

Bill reporting on a day in the life of the Limerick politician Stevie Coughlan for 7 Days:

YouTube:

“When [Fianna Fáil] established RTÉ they saw it as an arm of government and they didn’t see it as an arm that would be investigating what the government was doing and they were extremely annoyed about it. And there was a constant tension between the two sides,” he says.

The inquiry would see the programme criticised, later cancelled and O’Herlihy out of the current affairs division. At his request he went to sport and never looked back. He said: “I was very lucky to be part of three different changes the local coverage, the current affairs coverage, and then the sports coverage.”

He would briefly leave sport to found his own PR company, O’Herlihy Communications which continues to this day, but returned to sport in what he dubbed a “touch of the George Lee” referring to the former economics editor of RTÉ who left to run for the Dáil on the Fine Gael platform before later quitting politics in 2009.

‘I had a lot of time for Michael Lowry’

Politics is something the broadcaster is only too happy to discuss and it’s not surprising given his background in it.

Such was his involvement at one point it could have led all the way to Áras an Uachtárain when he was asked to run for Fine Gael in the 1990 presidential election by Garret FitzGerald’s wife, but he dismisses this as “bullshit”, saying: “I don’t know how real that was” .

O’Herlihy says he never felt drawn to running for elected office: “You see I’m a very private kind of a person in a way. You know, I couldn’t bear the prospect of fighting an election every couple of years, knocking on doors and going to all these chicken dinners and all that.

“It just didn’t interest me as a way of life. I was much more interested in being behind the scenes,” he says.

Behind the scenes he did work with the likes of Enda Kenny, who launched his book, and Michael Lowry, the controversial former Fine Gael minister.

O’Herlihy with Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Eamon Dunphy and John Giles at his book launch in Dublin. (Pic: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland)

Lowry was the subject of adverse findings by the Moriarty Tribunal over the awarding of a mobile phone licence to Denis O’Brien’s company in the 1990s but O’Herlihy insists he never saw anything untoward while working with the Tipperary TD.

“I had an awful lot of time for Michael Lowry I thought he was great fun to work with,” he says. “The funny thing is I never saw anything. Now, I know nothing about his dealings outside the Department but I remember asking him a question.

“I said to him: ‘Will you have an influence now on who gets the licence?’ And he said: ‘Are you joking me, that goes to Brussels.’ And he said if there is any sign of political interference ‘I’ll be sacked’ which was ironic in the circumstances.

O’Herlihy says he was told the best bid won the mobile phone licence and cites instances when Lowry was asked to do “things that he felt were unethical and he wouldn’t do them”.

On Lance Armstrong and Katie Taylor

As comfortable talking about sport as politics, O’Herlihy says the best World Cup that he covered was Italia 90 and says the Olympics in London were “terrific” but he is dismissive of much of what goes on at the Summer Games.

Bill in the aftermath of Ireland’s famous penalty shoot-out win over Romania at Italia 90:

YouTube:

“I mean the Olympics are tainted, there’s no question of… you know it’s very hard to know who’s on drugs and who’s not on drugs,” he says and he is similarly critical of the doping scandals that have tainted cycling.

“Lance Armstrong must have been the greatest cheater of all time,” he says adding that he takes a very “jaundiced view” of many Olympics sports although when it comes to Irish boxing he is no doubt that golden girl Katie Taylor “is clean as a whistle”.

“Her whole culture I think, drugs would be anathema to her,” he says. “I think everything about Katie Taylor is wholesome. Her attitude to life, her attitude to her religion, her attitude towards sport. It would be inconceivable in my mind.”

Speaking about his retirement, he said his plans are open-ended, cautioning that approaching his mid-70s he is not in “the full flush of my youth”.

But there will be a golf handicap of 21 that he will want to get down to his previous best of 10 and a house in Spain that has been underused.

Any regrets? None at all it would seem and then there’s that word ‘luck’ again: “I’m one of the luckiest persons, I’ve been in the right place at the right time so often, you know.

“I have been very lucky in the sense that I feel I’ve been looked after by the Lord in terms of my heart complaint and my cancer. I think that things have gone very well in my favour so I’ve no regrets at all and I have lovely wife and two lovely girls.

“So, life has been good to me.”

Audio: ‘There’s something about Bill O’Herlihy’ – Taoiseach hails ‘Billo’

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About the author:

Hugh O'Connell

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