Conor McAnally’s father, the actor Ray McAnally, favoured the adage: “inspiration is nothing without perspiration”. His son lives by his words, boasting a successful career spanning over five decades to date with 200 hours of live TV, 600 hours of live music, high-adrenaline adventure sports and a murder mystery novel.
The eldest of four, McAnally was raised in Artane and Sutton, attending St Joseph’s in Fairview before graduating in journalism from the then School of Journalism in Rathmines in 1970.
“I started my career as a junior reporter, working in crime, health and investigative reporting for Independent newspapers, winning the journalist of the year award in 1972 for breaking a story on the IRA training volunteers camps,” he says.
Moving to RTÉ in 1975, he worked in news before presenting the “esoteric” Politics Programme and youth-focused Youngline. He was the first to introduce U2 to a live audience and worked on brand new concepts when the youth TV genre was in its infancy. After a six-month production course, he became a director/producer but after seven years he wanted to go it alone.
After going freelance in 1982, McAnally produced more than 150 shows with RTÉ in his first year, despite freelancing “not being a thing yet”. In 1984 he formed Green Apple Productions with Vincent Hanley, and together they created MT-USA, Europe’s first terrestrial music TV show. “Vincent was really media savvy and he wanted to go to the US, so after exploring options in the UK we decided to present from New York.
“MTV at the time was using all their content for free, and the industry was getting savvy to it, so I thought why not talk to the record companies first. We had the first terrestrial music television deal in Europe and one by one, they all came on board.”
Suffice to say, the logistics of putting a new show together in the 1980s was complex and time consuming. “We would scout locations, organise an American shoot crew and film on Tuesdays. The American tapes were flown out on Wednesday and converted in London because we didn’t have the technology in Ireland, before being flown to Dublin to be edited on Thursday.
“The show aired between 3pm to 6pm on Sundays between 1984 and 1987 and was a groundbreaking success. Before we came along there were nothing but public service announcements, but by the time we were at our peak, we had prime time advertising rates.”
After Hanley died in 1987, McAnally didn’t want to continue the show without him. His marriage broke up and he decided to explore options in the United Kingdom, where he freelanced as a producer and director. After producing the Disney Club at ITV, he ran multi-award-winning Blaze television and worked as executive producing for the Ant & Dec show on BBC and Ant and Dec Unzipped at Channel 4, while launching SM:TV Live and CD:UK on ITV.
“It was a very ropey start, pretty awful in fact, but we managed to do it and the lads really took off. They are great entertainers and best friends, so they just work,” he says of Ant and Dec.
In 2004, McAnally and his second wife moved to Austin, Texas, where she was from. “I was commuting back and forth to the UK doing live shows, and I brought CD:UK to the US. We did 12 months of it on the Hollywood strip to the tune of $17 million. It wasn’t recommissioned after that though.” The production company, Blaze, was sold to US media company Shout Factory, which McAnally ran until 2009.
McAnally then suffered a catastrophic skydiving accident. Despite being an experienced jumper with more than 750 jumps under his belt, he got into difficulty and by trying to protect his bad leg, which had been injured in a motorcycle accident previously, he managed to destroy his good leg. “I had 22 surgeries which left my leg shorter. In response to the accident, McAnally decided to downsize and settle in Austin full time rather than commuting to Los Angeles.
In 2010, he created ConorMac Productions, which is based in Bastrop, Texas, specialising in multi-camera directing and producing music. “I develop and produce TV, digital and live events, working in music festivals, heritage rock and country music, covering events for 10 hours rather than two hours.”
“I’ve worked with Kris Kristofferson, Greg Altman, and Hall & Oates and work at South by Southwest, an annual music festival, conference and interactive media event in Austin, abbreviated as SXSW. It’s a fantastic event, with incredible speakers and performers.”
He also purchased a lodge in Portumna for holidays in Galway. “We love it there and spent much of Covid-19 in Ireland.”
McAnally says the pandemic and subsequent lockdown enabled him to write his first novel. “Bullets in the Water is a murder novel about a newspaper delivery boy who gets shot dead in a small town. When a New York journalist has to cover the story, a massive conspiracy about the local water is uncovered.
“It’s written but I’m just working on the edit here. When it comes to writing, my dad always said: ‘The most important application is your arse on the chair.’ I spent six months writing it during the pandemic last year. I’m working on my second novel already, which takes a completely different direction.
“I’m going to be working at South by Southwest again in March so we may stay in Ireland until then.”
Of life in Austin, he says America is very polarised. “Austin is a liberal holdout in Texas, and it’s great, but recently it’s like living with a low-grade headache, so it was good to get out for a while. In the US, it’s difficult to have conversations with people anymore, which is very sad.
“I emigrated from Ireland but now it’s great to be back and have a base here, while able to see my children and grandchildren, which is wonderful.”