Wednesday 19 September 2018

Terry Prone: Affable and sharp as a tack - he was the avuncular presence in our living rooms

RTE undated handout photo of Bill O'Herlihy presenting 'Munich '72' in 1972
RTE undated handout photo of Bill O'Herlihy presenting 'Munich '72' in 1972
Bill O'Herlihy presenting Munich 72

Even people without the remotest interest in sport did an instinctive "Ah, no!" when they heard of Bill O'Herlihy's death, because they had grown up with him, grown up with the avuncular presence on the television in the sitting room.

The screens on which they watched him changed from small and bulbous, showing black and white pictures, to flat and vast, showing colour in high definition, but Bill stayed the same.

The hair grew greyer and a bit thinner, but he was otherwise immutable: always comfortably in charge, always in good humour, always clear, distinct and distinctive.

Bill O'Herlihy presenting Munich 72

Bill O'Herlihy in 1972 presenting the Munich Olympics

He had started as a general reporter and could lash out a tough question in those early days with the best of them, microphone held accusingly in front of him like a weapon.

But he came into his own in the top chair at a table peopled by expert commentators, some of them so combative that the presenter's job verged on crowd control.

He was calm in pressured situations and, over the years, he faced dozens of them, ranging from contributors the worse for alcohol to failed technology.

What distinguished him on television was his willingness to showcase other people, to make sure everybody on his panel got to contribute.

He never sought to be seen as the best boy in the class, which in many situations he clearly was.

If he had one abiding trait, one quintessential trait, it was likeability, and that very likeability led competitors, in the early days of his PR company, to suggest bitterly that business went to Bill just because he was famous and affable. The reality was that business went to him because he was famous, affable and sharp as a tack.

His political beliefs never changed, nor did he ever try to conceal them.

He was Fine Gael to his back teeth.


Back in the days when Garret FitzGerald led Fine Gael, before the big TV debates with Charlie Haughey, Garret would arrive for a pre-programme interrogation by me, accompanied by Frank Flannery, Peter Sutherland and Bill.

He was quiet, respectful of FitzGerald and when he made a suggestion, it was a wise suggestion.

Most people in the public eye for a long time develop an armoured covering allowing them to hide their fears. Bill never grew that carapace.

When successful heart surgery left him depressed and timorous, he said so in public.

He never pretended to have been brave and buoyant, and he always gave credit to the heart surgeon who stopped him becoming what he called "a cardiac cripple".

It was good we had him for so long, and sad that from now on, everything will be a replay.

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