Brendan O’Reilly, Olympic high jumper, journalist, actor, singer-songwriter, dies in Dublin on April 1, 2001.
O’Reilly is born on May 14, 1929, in Granard, County Longford, one of six children of James P. O’Reilly, shopkeeper and musician, and Catherine O’Reilly (née Donegan). The family moves to Dublin when he is nine years old. He is educated at the Christian Brothers school in James’s Street, where he excels at Gaelic football and develops an interest in drama and music. Toward the end of his schooldays he begins to participate in athletics, particularly the high jump, and is coached by Jack Sweeney, a leading athletics coach.
Always a man of many talents and interests, after leaving school O’Reilly combines working in the insurance business with an athletics career with Donore Harriers and evening drama classes. He wins several Irish titles, including the high jump, javelin, and decathlon, and sets a national record in the high jump. In 1954 he wins the British AAA Championships high jump title, beating the Commonwealth champion into second place, and setting a championship record of 6 ft. 5 in. (1.96 m). As a result, he secures a United States athletics scholarship to the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where he takes a degree in liberal arts, majoring in speech and drama. While at Michigan he improves his Irish record to 6 ft. 7 in. (2.007 m). His athletic career, however, is dogged with bad luck. He is selected to compete in the high jump at the European Athletics Championships in Bern, Switzerland, in 1954 but fractures an ankle in practice and fails to advance beyond the qualifying round. Although he competes at international level for ten years (1952–62), he is unlucky to never take part in the Olympic Games. A victim of sporting politics in 1952, as an NCAA athlete he is not entitled to compete. He is selected for the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne but is unable to attend when, at the last minute, his club cannot provide the finance for him to attend. Earlier that year he wins the Big Ten Conference high jump title.
On leaving Michigan O’Reilly moves to New York City, where he embarks on an acting career with the Irish Players, but he returns to Dublin in 1959, where, after brief spells working as a teacher and for an advertising agency, he applies to Ireland’s new television station for a position. He is looking for an acting job but ends up being offered a position as a presenter, joining Teilifís Éireann in 1961 as an announcer/interviewer. His relaxed and unobtrusive style appeals to viewers and his light entertainment show, The Life of O’Reilly, is the most popular programme on Irish television in the day, eclipsing even a fledgling The Late Late Show. It is as a sports presenter and commentator, however, that O’Reilly is primarily remembered, as he becomes the face of sport on RTÉ Television for many years. He attends five Olympic Games as a broadcaster, from Mexico in 1968 to Los Angeles in 1984, commentating on athletics and gymnastics. The first presenter of RTÉ’s flagship Saturday afternoon sports programme Sports Stadium in 1984, he continues to present it over its fourteen-year life, co-presenting the final programme in December 1997. He also is the regular presenter of RTÉ’s Wimbledon Championships tennis coverage for many years, the sports results on news broadcasts on TV and radio, and Sunday Sport on RTÉ Radio, as well as commentating on individual sports such as ice-skating.
Although sports presenting is a natural progression for an athlete with his talents, O’Reilly’s real love is the arts. He continues to act, playing the part of Detective Inspector Michael Roarke in the classic children’s film Flight of the Doves (1971) with Ron Moody and Willie Rushton. He is also an accomplished singer and songwriter, and writes and performs his own one-man show, Across the Spectrum, comprising his own poems and songs in 1992. As well as a book of poems, The Great Explosion (1977), he releases a number of albums and tops the charts with his own song, “The Ballad of Michael Collins,” in 1981. He has a great admiration for Michael Collins and this leads to his becoming the first non-political figure to give the oration at the annual Collins commemoration at Béal na Bláth, County Cork, in 1981. He also writes the song “Let the Nations Play” (1985), inspired by the boycotts of the Olympic games of 1980 and 1984, and the song is adopted as an anthem of the international Olympic movement.
Tall and slim in build, O’Relly is affable, modest, and self-deprecating in character. His relaxed style is no mere public affectation. He often exasperates colleagues by turning up just in time for broadcasts, and his ability to ad-lib is important in a live television environment. He once describes himself as “a champion high-jumper who could enunciate properly and keep my hair neatly combed” (The Irish Times, April 7, 2001). Despite the disappointments in his sporting career, he maintains that his other interests more than compensated. In relation to the Olympics he is quoted as saying, “If you asked me whether I’d have preferred to win a medal or have written the song, I’d honestly say I would have preferred to have written the song” (Longford Leader, April 6, 2001).
O’Reilly lives in Ranelagh, Dublin, and is married twice. He meets his first wife Linda Herbst (née Kuhl) in New York in the late 1950s. His second marriage is to Johanna Lowry. He has four children. After a lenghty illness, he dies on April 1, 2001, in St. Vincent’s Hospital, Fairview, Dublin. He is buried at Mount Venus cemetery, Rathfarnham.
(From: “O’Reilly, Brendan” by Jim Shanahan, Dictionary of Irish Biography, http://www.dib.ie, October 2009)