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'He wrote me a lovely letter when I was in hospital. It's with my illness scrap book'

George Hamilton remembers his old colleague Bill O’Herlihy on the fifth anniversary of his death.

“WE’RE GOING LO-IVE now to our commentary team of Ronnie Whelan and GEORGE HAMILTON!”

pjimage (10) George Hamilton an Bill O'Herlihy were great friends as well as colleagues.

That was all he needed to get charged up. Words he had heard several times before but they had always had the same impact. There was a wave of energy coming from the RTÉ studios in Donnybrook, sweeping all the way out to Giants Stadium in America, Genoa in Italy and Stuttgart in Germany.

It was time to switch on.

Holding the microphone to his lips, with the live coverage coming into his ear piece, Hamilton knew he had to match the enthusiasm of the presenter in Ireland.

Together, Bill O’Herlihy and George Hamilton were allies in bringing momentous sporting moments to Irish audiences. But they were never in the same place. Hamilton’s role was to add colour to the occasion from the commentary box while Billo tried to keep order on the occupants of the chicken coop back in the RTÉ studio.

Or as Hamilton puts it more eloquently, act as a conductor for analysts Eamon Dunphy, John Giles and Liam Brady.

“He brought them all together and they played the most wonderful tune,” says Hamilton in summary.

By the end, Hamilton and O’Herlihy had soldiered through 10 World Cups and nine Olympic Games together, all the while standing at opposite ends of the bar that held up RTÉ’s coverage.

“Time flies and it seems like only yesterday that he was presenting on the air and he was handing over to me and I was responding,” Hamilton reminisces in conversation with The42.

“It was just part of my experience as being the commentator [who] was being handed over to by Bill.

When I was at my post he was at his post. I would like to think that I knew him well but by the same token, our work as colleagues had us apart.”

Five years have passed since Bill O’Herlihy’s sudden death on 25 May. One year on from his retirement after the 2014 World Cup, the broadcasting icon passed away in his sleep having attended IFTAs at the Mansion House earlier that night.

It was RTÉ’s former Head of Sport Ryle Nugent who contacted Hamilton with the shocking news. Receiving a call from Nugent was not uncommon, particularly since he was rarely in the RTÉ office and needed a connection to keep him abreast of what was happening back at headquarters.

But this was a Monday morning, effectively the start of the weekend for those in RTÉ’s sports department. 

“I do remember being in the kitchen and taking the call, terrible shock,” Hamilton recalls hearing about his friend’s sudden death.

Source: RTÉ - IRELAND’S NATIONAL PUBLIC SERVICE MEDIA/YouTube

Hamilton was away in Rio for O’Herlihy’s final day in RTÉ. Of course it was World Cup final day and the pair were needed in their respective posts for RTÉ’s broadcast of the decider between Germany and Argentina.

O’Herlihy’s retirement was a huge occasion at the station. Cameras and photographers were waiting for him when he arrived at the building to begin the day for his final sign-off. A highlights video of that day is available on Youtube, and shows colleagues gathering to applaud him into his golden years.

“It was no surprise when it came time for him to hang up the microphone that there was this great interest in his farewell,” says Hamilton, explaining why RTÉ went to such lengths to say goodbye to the Cork man.

He was closely identified with one of the greatest feel good stories in Ireland and that was the Jack Charlton football team and where that ultimately led to.

“He bought into the whole thing superbly and led the whole thing. He was like everybody’s favourite uncle. He was part of the family, he was the guy who was there when there was a party.

“He became a part of that whole experience, be it Champions League, Ireland at the World Cup, European Championship or indeed the Olympics.”

In that video of O’Herlihy’s retirement day, journalist Máire Treasa Ní Cheallaigh asked him about his favourite memory from his time in RTÉ. Unsurprisingly, the Italia ’90 World Cup was the standout moment for him, and Ireland’s famous penalty shootout victory over Romania.

He gave a special mention to Hamilton’s iconic ‘a nation holds its breath’ quote which immediately preceded Dave O’Leary’s decisive spot-kick. It’s gratifying for Hamilton to know that he left an imprint on O’Herlihy’s career.

“I feel as much good fortune of being associated with that as I’m sure Bill did,” he says. “We were all in it together. The whole thing was a party piece brought together by a team of people. There was Jimmy Magee, there was the boys in studio, and we all played our part in our different ways.

We were all a team. Bill’s function was front of house back at base. Our function was to be there and the late great Con Houlihan had a line about Italia ’90 and what it was like and he said ‘I don’t know, I was there.’ Bill was a huge part of bringing everybody else there.”

Geographical limitations prevented O’Herlihy and Hamilton from socialising much after work. However, the occasions when they covered events in Dublin allowed them to decamp to the Berkeley Court hotel for a catch-up.

a-view-of-the-studio-with-from-l-r-bill-oherlihy-johnny-giles-liam-brady-and-eamon-dunphy O'Herlihy in studio with Giles, Brady and Dunphy. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

They didn’t see much of each other after O’Herlihy retired but they were always close friends. And when Hamilton suffered a health scare with a heart problem years ago, O’Herlihy sent him a letter to impart some advice from his own experience with ill-health.

That letter is still in Hamilton’s possession as a reminder of his friend’s lovely gesture.

“It’s with my illness scrap book,” Hamilton explains. “He wrote me a lovely letter. I remember it was a bypass he had in 1984. 

“I was quite astonished when I got the letter. It came when I was in hospital and I was in for two-and-a-half weeks. He quoted his surgeon and he said, ‘you’ve had this surgery and you can become a cardiac cripple or you can go back to leading your normal life and it’s up to you.’

“That’s what he said to me. There’s two ways of approaching this and I think you know which path I took and I think you’ll be fine taking that path too.”

O’Herlihy and Hamilton’s story stretches from the 1978 World Cup to the 2014 edition of the same tournament. O’Herlihy was instrumental to Hamilton becoming part of the RTÉ furniture.

It was through O’Herlihy’s choice to stay at home and contribute to the Dublin-based portion of RTÉ’s coverage of that ’78 World Cup that Hamilton was drafted in to travel to Argentina where the home nation emerged as champions for the first time.

From then on, it was Billo and Hamilton working together as the pillars of RTÉ’s sports coverage. Two broadcasting giants holding up opposite ends of the broadcasting bar. Friends to the end.

After O’Herlihy’s passing in 2015, Hamilton said that his colleague was “part of the fabric of what RTÉ did in television sport”.

That still resonates in 2020, five years after he slipped away quietly in his sleep.

“He had the perfect personality,” Hamilton concludes. “He was very gregarious, outgoing and easy to get along with. There was no side to him at all, he was interested in people and he got on with people.

He was always great company. You never felt entering Bill’s company that there was going to be any angst at all. You’d be welcomed in whoever he was with and you’d be part of it.”

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