O’Herlihy, Bill (1938–2015), broadcaster, journalist and public relations consultant, was born 26 September 1938 in South Terrace, Cork, the eldest of four sons and two daughters of David O’Herlihy, a clerical officer in St Finbarr’s Hospital, Cork, who later headed the administration of the local orthopaedic hospital, and his wife Mary (née Horgan). He had a middle-class upbringing at Glasheen on the edge of Cork city, and was enduringly influenced by his parents’ catholic faith, being a teetotaller until his early thirties and a daily mass goer from his early forties. Attending the local national school and then St Finbarr’s College, Farranferris, he played hurling, Gaelic football and soccer into his mid-teens, with hurling always remaining his favourite sport.
Assured of employment at the Cork Examiner newspaper group, where his grandfather William O’Herlihy had been the news editor, he quit school once a suitable position arose in 1954, despite being only two months away from sitting his leaving certificate. After a year mostly spent proofreading, he served four years as a sub-editor for the Evening Echo before becoming a news reporter; this wide brief also involved writing features, sports reports and a social column. By the mid-1960s he was increasingly covering Cork soccer, both for his employers and as a stringer for various Irish and British newspapers; he was also acting editor of the Cork Examiner’s weekly edition.
From the early 1960s he was giving Cork sports reports for Radio Éireann and found that he loved the immediacy of broadcasting. In May 1965 he did an interview for the Telefís Éireann (TÉ) news features show, Newsbeat, following which TÉ (RTÉ from 1966) began using him to fill a southern regional gap in Newsbeat’s coverage. He juggled two jobs before leaving the Examiner in 1966 upon being denied leave of absence when RTÉ offered him a one-year contract. Broadcasting three reports weekly for Newsbeat, he had no formal training or guidance and operated independently from Cork. The content was generally light, though sometimes critical enough to annoy local authorities.
In mid-1968 he committed to joining RTÉ’s hard-edged current affairs show Seven days, only realising subsequently that this would entail moving to Dublin. It was a bitter pill for someone who described himself as a tribal Corkman. Thrown into a hothouse work environment characterised by youth, political radicalism, limited oversight and much higher journalistic standards, the relatively unworldly (and conservative) O’Herlihy had to learn fast under the tutelage of the Seven days editor Muiris Mac Conghail. He proved himself as a dogged field reporter, covering events such as the 1970 ‘arms crisis’ and the start of the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland.
In October 1969 his exposé on illegal moneylending in inner-city Dublin was broadcast to great acclaim, but his commentary brought trouble by accusing the Garda Síochána of ignoring the problem. The Fianna Fáil government resolved on humbling Seven days – long a thorn in its side – by establishing a tribunal of inquiry to investigate the making of the moneylending programme. Following five and a half days of hostile interrogation in the witness box during January and February 1970, he was humiliated that August when the tribunal’s report judged the programme to be inauthentic. Widely regarded as an exercise in political overkill, the report nonetheless contributed to a neutering of RTÉ’s current affairs output; it also discredited O’Herlihy by highlighting how he had asked leading questions in his interviews, exaggerated the threat of violence, taken comments out of their original context and cited an implausible instance of penal moneylending.
There were three years left in his contract, so he continued reporting for Seven days but knew his time in current affairs was up. When management insisted on transferring him in March 1972, he found a safe berth that summer in the sports department where he successfully projected his enthusiastic, witty and good-natured personality in presenting sports bulletins, sports magazine shows and live soccer and GAA matches on RTÉ television and radio. He liked sports and was glad to still have a job, as he was by then paying a mortgage on a house in Foxrock, Co. Dublin, which he had bought after his marriage in 1970 to Hilary Patterson; previously an Electricity Supply Board (ESB) employee, she was a member of the Church of Ireland from Castleknock, Co. Dublin. Their two daughters, Sally and Jill, were raised as catholics, with Sally becoming a member of the Irish swimming team.
Bored by RTÉ’s formulaic sports broadcasts, he left in November 1973 following an approach from two Dublin advertising agencies that wished to relinquish their public relations work without antagonising their clients. He became managing director – with the promise of full ownership after two years – of a new agency, Public Relations of Ireland (PRI). It proved a tough adjustment, partly because he missed broadcasting. His morale improved from autumn 1974, as he combined his progress within Ireland’s budding PR sector with ad hoc RTÉ sports presenting, enabling PRI to trade off his media profile. There was little time for availing himself of his membership of Foxrock Golf Club.
Doing PR for Ardmore Studios brought him to Hollywood and the Cannes Film Festival, while his British Airways work yielded plenty of free first-class flights, but the day job was generally something of a grind. In contrast the thrill of live broadcasting rejuvenated him, despite regular technical failures requiring him to extemporise lengthily. His part-time status made him a marginal figure until summer 1976 when, with the big stars either on holidays or in Montreal covering the Olympic games, he became the Dublin-studio anchor for RTÉ’s Olympics programmes. Thereafter, he established himself as RTÉ’s principal anchor for the main international soccer and athletics events. In the early 1980s he presented RTÉ’s sports flagship Sport stadium, which offered live coverage of assorted sports throughout Saturday afternoon.
From a strong Fine Gael family – his grandfather John Horgan had been a Fine Gael mayor of Cork – he was among a cohort of backroom strategists that came together from the late 1970s to advise the Fine Gael leader Garret FitzGerald (qv). Their influence enabled a previously amateurish party to run sophisticated, well-organised campaigns across the three general elections held during 1981–2. The November 1982 election was fought mainly across the airwaves, which played to O’Herlihy’s strengths. He coached FitzGerald for television while devising clever and effective slogans, as well as hard-hitting American style political broadcasts. From 1982 he was part of a government committee that met weekly to brief FitzGerald on public opinion and advise on policy presentation.
In 1981 O’Herlihy partnered with fellow Fine Gael media handler Pat Heneghan, and together they developed PRI into a market leader. The Irish economy was mired in recession, however, and O’Herlihy had to re-mortgage his house when a six figure VAT liability emerged at some point in the 1980s. Generally, he had ten to twenty employees in an office in Lower Mount Street, Dublin, later moving to Eastmoreland Lane in Ballsbridge, Dublin. In 1984 a heart attack required triple bypass surgery, but he resumed his workaholic lifestyle within fifteen months, being much respected within PR for his dedication and professionalism. (He underwent a similarly successful operation to treat his colon cancer in 2007.)
A paid Fine Gael adviser, he secured contracts from government departments headed by Fine Gael ministers during the Fine Gael–Labour coalition governments of 1981–2 and 1982–7, and if this work was not particularly lucrative, it impressed private sector clients in need of a lobbyist. (He spread his bets by always hiring some staff with links to Fianna Fáil and the Labour party.) O’Herlihy had no say over government policy, though the journalists he gossiped with might have thought otherwise; certainly, the media increasingly dwelt upon the outsized influence supposedly wielded by FitzGerald’s unelected publicity gurus. In 1985 resentful backbenchers pressured FitzGerald into banishing his so-called ‘national handlers’, who, despite being quietly rehabilitated in due course, never regained their former influence or swagger. O’Herlihy was discarded completely in 1987 following the defeat of his main political patron, Peter Barry, in the Fine Gael leadership contest.
Subsequently, he provided occasional PR advice to Fine Gael and did well in terms of getting government work when the party was in power, most conspicuously by advising Michael Lowry as his stint in the ministry for transport, energy and communications (1994–6) unravelled amid political controversy and financial scandal. He also worked for the mid-1990s Minister for Tourism and Trade, Enda Kenny, remaining on good terms with him as he became Fine Gael leader in 2002 and taoiseach from 2011. In 2013 the Kenny-led government made him chairman of the Irish Film Board, an unpaid position.
O’Herlihy found fame as a sports anchor, a limiting but pivotal role that suited him in that it required both an ego and a capacity for strategically suppressing it. When he started presenting RTÉ’s soccer coverage in the 1970s, most Irish viewers preferred watching the star pundits appearing on the lavishly produced British broadcasts. In response, he urged RTÉ’s unheralded analysts to speak their mind, helping to put them, and those watching, at ease with his homely, yet unflappably professional manner. It helped that he spoke in a soft provincial accent, was bereft of self-importance and acquired an avuncular gravitas with the paunch and greying hair. Normally content with bringing out his experts’ knowledge, he could turn inquisitor when required, probing and provoking in deceptively genial fashion. He wanted panellists with strong, ideally clashing opinions but who argued from conviction rather than playing to the gallery.
In time, he formed a winning combination with the journeyman footballer-turned-journalist Eamon Dunphy, who stirred contention from 1978, and the former Ireland player-manager and Leeds United great John Giles, who injected judiciousness and analytical rigour from 1986. Playing it resolutely straight, O’Herlihy goaded Dunphy into making impassioned outbursts, often bearing the brunt of them by purposely asking ill-informed questions – he never forgot that a large proportion of viewers knew little or nothing about sport. If O’Herlihy’s everyman persona obliged him to register bemusement or dismay at Dunphy’s harangues, he regarded him highly, pushing for his return whenever Dunphy’s periodic quarrels with RTÉ kept him off air.
Although RTÉ’s soccer panel attracted praise for having more substance and bite than the bland punditry prevailing on British television, the ratings breakthrough occurred only with the Irish team’s progress to the quarterfinals of the 1990 world cup. O’Herlihy unaffectedly expressed the growing public euphoria, most memorably by sporting an oversized novelty hat on-air after Ireland defeated Romania in the second round. Yet he also encouraged Giles and Dunphy in their outrage-provoking disdain for the crude tactics adopted by the Irish team. RTÉ’s gruelling, 41-match world cup schedule allowed a familiarity, if not to say an irreverence, to develop between O’Herlihy, Giles and Dunphy that had viewers watching mainly to enjoy, learn from and be infuriated by their repartee and unsparing assessments. They monopolised an Irish world cup viewership that peaked at some ninety per cent of the Irish population, as O’Herlihy’s Cork accent and habit of ending discussions with the phrases ‘Okey doke’ or ‘We’ll leave it there so’ made him a gift for bar-stool impersonators.
He presented RTÉ’s increasingly expansive coverage of soccer and athletics from 1990, as well as its rugby coverage in the early to mid-1990s. Major sporting occasions involving Irish teams or athletes allowed him to reprise his virtuoso 1990 world cup turn mediating a shared national experience – he could do giddy exuberance or ashen solemnity as the circumstances warranted. Atypically, RTÉ’s acclaimed soccer coverage was driven not by the producers but by O’Herlihy and his analysts. He oversaw the pre-presentation process, having the final say over what footage would be used in the pre- and post-match analysis. Eerily calm on-air, he radiated nervous energy off it, his producers finding him to be a supportive yet demanding taskmaster.
His ability emerged most evidently during his Olympics broadcasts where he had to develop on-screen relationships with assorted experts spanning a profusion of sports, most of which he knew little about. Drugs scandals and the underachievement attendant on the lack of state support for many sports in Ireland allowed him to show his teeth more. During the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, however, he failed to query the unexpected, subsequently drug-tainted, success of the Irish swimmer Michelle Smith, having been warned off doing so by his superiors.
In autumn 1990 he had parted company with Heneghan after a disagreement over the future direction of their agency. Prior to that PRI had suffered a series of defections due to O’Herlihy’s aversion to rewarding staff with shares, per the industry norm. Accordingly, the renamed Bill O’Herlihy Communications (BOHC) became a training ground for footloose PR neophytes, usually arriving from the media or politics, who would attract new clients, before soon leaving with them. Buttressed by a core of longstanding accounts serviced personally by O’Herlihy, BOHC ticked over, diversifying into sports organisations. The underlying trend was one of relative decline but absolute gain within a thriving PR sector.
Occasionally, his government lobbying on behalf of clients involved expediting questionable causes, such as the lifting of the sanctions imposed on Iraq and the introduction of fixed-odds betting terminals into Irish bookie shops. In 2006 he testified at the planning tribunal about a conversation he had in 1992 with an employee of one of his clients, a property development company, who allegedly stated that county councillors were being bribed to approve a planning permission. Although he had mentioned this earlier in a private interview with the tribunal, he was unhappy at being obliged to repeat it in public. Nothing, however, could threaten his status as one of Ireland’s most beloved public figures, and he attracted none of the begrudgery normally associated with being a well-paid RTÉ presenter.
Certainly, he earned his salary, particularly for anchoring a soccer panel that dominated the Irish viewing figures, delivering bumper advertising revenues for RTÉ. From the late 1990s the addition of illustrious former footballer Liam Brady improved the dynamic further, as he needed little prompting from O’Herlihy to take issue with Dunphy. This marquee quartet of O’Herlihy, Dunphy, Giles and Brady (supplemented by other analysts) lifted RTÉ’s soccer coverage to new heights of popularity with the spats and incendiary, at times stubbornly wrongheaded, analysis often proving far more watchable than the matches. It was all subtly orchestrated by O’Herlihy who excelled at stoking a contentious debate, which he would let run, intervening only either to sustain it or to keep matters just within bounds. His charm and expertise held everything together through various squalls, including two serious rifts between Giles and Dunphy (in the early 1990s and during 2002–3) and a threatened live walk-out by an enraged Dunphy in 2005. It was no reflection on O’Herlihy that the panel eventually came to seem cantankerous and out of touch, even as the ratings held up.
The 2008 financial crash postponed his retirement by wiping some €3 million off his investments and private pension, while also hurting his PR business. This probably explains his controversial lobbying from 2008 on behalf of tobacco manufacturers – which generated tensions within the Fine Gael–Labour government in 2013 – and also the publication in 2012 of his readable, albeit circumspect, autobiography, We’ll leave it there so. Retiring from broadcasting at the end of the 2014 world cup, he finished having anchored the coverage of ten world cups (consecutively from 1978) and ten Olympic games (from 1972, missing only the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics due to ill health). He had been lining up his daughter Jill to take over BOHC, but after she left in 2014, he merged it with another PR company in January 2015, continuing as senior director.
Dying suddenly on 25 May 2015 in his sleep of a heart attack in his home in Foxrock, Co. Dublin, he was buried in Shanganagh cemetery, Co. Dublin. His will disposed of €1.34 million.