When someone gives you a chance at the start of your career that’s something you never forget. Last year as editor of Verge magazine I was relying on a lot of people to give me chances. I was as inexperienced as they come, a complete novice I had to learn my craft from scratch. Acquiring interviews for our miniature magazine was my greatest challenge and greatest worry. So as you can imagine as editor of our humble publication I was always eternally grateful to any well-known face that allowed me to pester them with questions either in person or on the telephone. After 12 issues of interviewing some of Ireland’s and Europe’s best known faces, for the final issue I decided to return to my root’s and chase after one of the country’s and Cork’s most famous broadcaster’s, Bill O’ Herlihy. After all it was worth a try, it was worth a chance. Luckily for me, Bill said yes.
While on the surface I may not appear to be the most knowledgeable of sport’s experts and am the last person you would want on any 5 aside team, living with a father and brother who eat, sleep and breathe sport has meant that I have picked up my fair share of facts throughout the years. So as you can imagine the enormity of interviewing Bill O’ Herlihy was quite momentous for me. From Champions League matches which haunted my Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s every September to May as a child, to that jovial Cork accent and smile that glittered from television screens for every World Cup and Olympics I had ever experienced, I knew this interview with Bill was special.
Like every interview I had ever carried out before this, I researched Bill’s career which lasted an astonishing 50 years and scribbled down a list of questions to ask the stalwart Glasheen man. The day finally came when I would interview Bill. Not telling many people for fear it would fall through, I dialled the number of his Dublin office with a gasping breath and not so steady hand. One ring, two rings, three rings, fours rings, five….his receptionist answered and sent me through to Bill. Here we go, it would actually happen and before I had time to reflect and gather my notes it was actually happening. His distinct Cork accent tickled the telephone lines and although he was seated in his own Dublin office and I was situated at my desk in my clinical student accommodation in Cork, it felt as if we were chatting side-by-side in the room.
My greatest anxiety before conducting any interview is that the interviewee will give short, stunted answers or shower me with abuse, this couldn’t have been further from the reality with Bill. Answering my questions about his early days in the Cork Examiner and 7 Days show controversy (questions he had no doubt answered thousands of times before) with such astuteness and charisma the interview was an absolute pleasure to hold. What was even more special about the interview was that Bill gave such detailed and meandering answers and while with another person I might have cut them off for fear of adding to my already mighty mobile costs, with Bill I couldn’t help but listen with such intentness.
What I most admired in my thirty minute conversation with Bill was his true passion for sport and journalism. Having to abandon current affairs journalism in the 1970’s due to government controversy it would have been easy for Bill to give up altogether and say enough was enough. But like the true journalist that he is he made a b-line for the sport’s department and became one of the world’s greatest broadcasters. When you look at the stilted Match of the Day panels on BBC and regular run-of-the-mill presenters on Sky Sports, Bill and his three amigos- Eamon Dunphy, John Giles and Liam Brady made the analysis of sport a truly entertaining experience. After all that’s what sport is meant to be, entertaining. Sport is better than any court-room drama or scripted soap; it’s real life. Bill O’ Herlihy is one of the people outside my family who made me realise that even though you may not be the most talented team player you still have the right to enjoy sport, learn more about it and be an integral member of the team.
Bill’s real worries about the future of sport’s broadcasting in Ireland capture his ardour for the industry. Even in his retirement Bill was immersed in the goings-on of the industry “I saw a story in one of the papers today that the Six Nations could go to pay- for-TV. RTE can’t compete financially with BT or Sky Sports. Having it on free- to-air TV is essential for the development of sport”. These deep-rooted concerns that Bill held for the future of home-grown sport’s broadcasting highlight how journalism was much more than a job for him, it was a way of life. Sure you couldn’t stay in any area of work for such a lengthy period if it was just a method of paying the bills, it would have to be a real love, an enduring love.
Hanging up on our conversation and having the article written and in print almost two months ago, it’s only now upon his death that I can appreciate how fortunate I was to speak with Bill. Less than a year into my journalistic adventure I was given the opportunity to converse with Ireland’s greatest broadcaster. And I have Bill and Bill alone to thank for this opportunity, for this chance. You see life is all about chances and Bill realised this. If he hadn’t taken the risk to leave school at 16 and joined The Evening Echo, he may not have had the chance to be employed by RTE. If he hadn’t entered sport’s journalism, he may have missed out on the colourful career which he crafted.
Bill never forgot his roots. He never claimed to be but an ordinary Corkman yet in reality he was an extraordinary countryman; and as Taoiseach Enda Kenny penned it yesterday Bill was indeed “a national treasure” and a credit to Cork and the leafy surroundings of Glasheen, only a stone’s throw away from the UCC campus. So it’s with the lines from Rudyard Kipling’s most famous poem, “If”, a work which has become synonymous with the world of sport that I finish my tribute to Bill and which I feel describes his persona perfectly.
“If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
Rest In Peace Bill, a true legend of the game of life.