Memories of the past, ideas for the future

Lights, Camera and Relax!

Bill O'Herlihy has been presenting major sporting events on RTÉ for 40 years. This summer he will host his tenth Olympic Games as well as the UEFA European Football Championship 2012. But before becoming a sporting fixture, he was a current affairs reporter, working on 'Newsbeat' and '7 Days'. Since 1973 he's also run O'Herlihy Communications, one of Dublin's oldest PR companies and winner of 15 awards. Here he remembers being sent on assignment to climb Croagh Patrick in July 1970.

“We had a meeting in ‘7 Days’ about various activities and just at the end of the meeting I casually said: ‘Of course next Sunday is Croagh Patrick.’ Muiris MacConghail was the editor and he said: ‘Oh I know, and you’re covering it.’ I had never gone on the holy mountain and I remember driving into Westport, looking at the height of it and saying ‘What in the name of God have I got myself into?’ Hilary (now his wife), who is a Protestant, came on the climb as well.

“The climb was a farce. The director, was, to put it mildly, unfit. When he saw the height of the mountain he said: ‘I’m not climbing that.’ He hired a donkey from somebody and the equipment was put into panniers but after about 20 yards the donkey refused to go any further. We had a situation where the director said he wasn’t climbing the mountain and the donkey said he wasn’t climbing the mountain.

“We all had to carry the equipment or otherwise we couldn’t cover it. There would have been me, the cameraman and the soundman. Hilary probably carried some too. It was one hell of a climb with equipment. We walked through the night. But there was no other way of covering it. You couldn’t possibly tell Muiris that the donkey wouldn’t climb.

“There were an awful lot of things I found cynical, like all the commercialism at the bottom. There were people coming out of pubs jarred, going up the mountain. But once you actually went on the climb, even people who would have started cynically, their attitudes changed. Some of the people were genuinely very religious and had done it for a long time. Then there was Mass and Confession at the top of the hill. I found it very inspirational in many respects.

“There were fantastic people involved [in ‘7 Days’]. David Thornley was, in my judgement, the best ever current affairs programme presenter. He was outstanding. He went on to become a Labour Party TD. You had John O’Donoghue, Ted Nealon, Paddy Gallagher, Brian Cleeve and ultimately, but not originally, Brian Farrell. They were the studio presenters. Myself, Rodney Rice and Denis Mitchell were what Muiris MacConghail called field reporters. We were the guys who went climbing Croagh Patrick. We did the film reports.

“It was a great time to be involved in current affairs. In many respects, it was the most exciting period of my life. It actually stood to me as well because my first big job in sport, by sheer chance, was presenting the Olympic Games in 1972. [With the] attack on the Israeli team in Munich it was effectively a current affairs programme as much as a sports programme. It set me up in the sports department.

“My broadcasting career started in 1965 when I did a programme on the sinking of the Lusitania for Frank Hall, who was editor and presenter of ‘Newsbeat’. It was the 50th anniversary of it being torpedoed off Kinsale in 1915. A huge number of people lost their lives on the liner but there was a survivor in Cappoquin hospital. I was asked would I do an interview but I had no interest in television, none whatever. I didn’t feel I had the appearance, I didn’t feel I had the voice, I didn’t feel I had the presence and I wanted to be the editor of ‘The Cork Examiner’ (where he worked at the time). That was my ambition and I think I would have been too.

“I had done some sports radio. Very much on the basis of being the one-eyed man in the valley of the blind, I was asked to do television. I said I didn’t want to do it. It took them three days to persuade me. Eventually I said I’d do it on condition that if it wasn’t good enough that they wouldn’t use it. Frank Hall not only used it, he liked it and said I was to do all the work out of Cork after that.

“I worked for RTÉ while I was in ‘The Cork Examiner’ with their permission. Then I was offered a one-year contract [by RTÉ] which I accepted. I did a programme on the political implications of the death of the Lord Mayor of Cork, Sean Casey, who was a Labour Party TD. I was asked to do it for ‘7 Days’ and Joe McCarthy, who was the cameraman with whom I worked out of Cork, said ‘That’s a test for ‘7 Days’’ and it was. They offered me a job then. Then I was transferred to Dublin, raging, because I thought I was going to be based in Cork. If I’d realised I wouldn’t have joined the programme at all. It was too late then. I was about to get married.

“I was always interested in sport and as things went on I got more and more comfortable in it. But then I decided to leave. I left in the fall of ’72 because I wasn’t certain I wanted to spend the rest of my life in television within the structure of RTÉ. O’Kennedy, Brindley and Young Advertising decided to start a public relations company and they head-hunted me. They said if I was interested they’d bankroll the thing for two years and then give it to me. So here I am today.

“I never regretted that, although I found it very hard to adjust out of television. After about eight months I remember looking out the window one morning and I said to Hilary: ‘I don’t know what the hell I’m doing in PR. I’m dead sorry I ever left RTÉ’. It wasn’t that I was unhappy but what I didn’t realise was that I’d become a television animal. I was given the opportunity of coming back if I wanted it, but not immediately.

“[The PR company] is my full-time job but I’ve been lucky because [PR] and sports broadcasting aren’t incompatible, whereas you couldn’t do this and current affairs. It’s the perfect combination of careers. [This summer] will be my tenth Olympics. It should have been my eleventh but I got a heart attack in 1984 and I saw John Treacy win his gold medal from my hospital bed.

“I love live television and I find it relaxing. You might be up to your goolies [in the PR company] in an industrial dispute or some major corporate problem and you go in and do sports broadcasting on a match, like the Champions League or an international, and by the time I’d come out I’d be completely relaxed. I’d go in tense and come out relaxed. My cardiologist couldn’t understand that.

“You see I’m very lucky. I work with three guys and we’re like a repertory company. We all know what roles we have to play. For a start, nothing is as important as it is in current affairs. Secondly, it’s supposed to be fun and thirdly, if I’m in trouble, I know I’ll be bailed out by the lads. It’s very comfortable. I make my own contribution to it but I’m working with three guys who are wonderful analysts and broadcasters, so it’s easy from that point of view. That’s why it’s relaxing. We’re a very happy programme. We really enjoy ourselves and working together. It’s friendly, it’s good fun.”

Bill O'Herlihy was in conversation with Jan Battles.

Watch Bill O’Herlihy’s '7 Days' report on Croagh Patrick from 1970 on our Clip of the Day page.