(This piece was first written and published in 2010.)
IN THIS era of wall-to-wall sport coverage, where every hack commentator turns to the US or wherever for a gimmick to set them apart in a crowded market, one man (and one voice) has set himself apart – Michaél Ó Muircheartaigh.
A Kerry man who has been one of the key voices of Irish GAA sports on RTE radio since 1949, he has, mercifully, never been one to let his own opinions intrude in the key job of a radio commentator – vividly describing a match for those who can’t get to see it.
While British soccer commentators are seemingly in thrall to imparting their own op-ed opinions on what is going on – step forward Alan Green, no cares what you think, you boor – Ó Muircheartaigh, 80, has established himself as a real time storyteller and, if I may be excused a cliché, a painter with words.
Some of his classic quotes are here.
His rapid fire, high octane delivery and encyclopaedic knowledge of the games perfectly captures the spirit and energy of gaelic football and hurling. His frequent interruptions in Irish into English commentary, his shout outs to ex-pat Gaels listening in across the world and brilliant turns of phrase have marked him out as being, literally, one of a kind.
The key has been that he has always been himself. He’s never had to assume a gimmick. The fanatical passion for the games, the poetic Kerry accent, a great way with a story and a bit of craic, have elevated his commentaries from the run of the mill to being dramatic, evocative records of a game cherished by its members and supporters.
Without getting misty eyed and sentimental about being an ‘exile’, the stress of being away from home has been lightened by tuning into Radió Éireann of a Sunday and hearing the man in his pomp. On Sundays over the years, I have been in cars in Europe and pubs all over the show, manfully tuning the fading radio commentaries just to hear what’s going on at Croker, Clones or Pairc Ui Chaoimh.
He knows the players and the managers, the mentors and county board presidents and has a story about them all, if he needs. He knows wee, old sick women listening in the Bronx and Brisbane, working men in Kilburn, Kerry and Kildare, Congressmen in Washington, politicians in Brussels and greyhound fanatics in Dundalk – one and all have the same status for Michaél.Much rot has been written about how the modern GAA has been a feet-on-the-ground force for normality in an Ireland developing rapidly thanks to globalisation.
Misty eyed nationalists in New York Yankees hats, Nike trainers and GAP jeans, looking around the modern Croke Park – one the biggest and most advanced sports stadia in Europe – have regaled us about how the GAA is a touchstone to how we were in a simpler, gentler age and how we have to cherish the romantic past, blind to the inevitability of progress. Well, take down the adverts for Middle Eastern airlines and multi-national soft drinks companies and maybe I’ll cede that one.
But Michaél really has remained that touchstone with the better parts of our past.
The passion for what were unfashionable games for many years, the great lyricism of his delivery and ability to conjure vivid pictures of a game while recalling the glorious past have set him apart. It is telling that the two great commentators of our times were himself and Michael O’Hehir, the authentic voices of GAA broadcasting.
Perhaps the codification and rules of our games, which have made them fast paced and combative, have helped in producing legendary commentators, but Michaél has been more than merely the sum of what was put in front of him to describe.
He is a lover of people and life, of stories, storytelling and craic and vividly celebrating the enthusiasm and fervour of the men and women who are are the GAA. He’s one of the few in this world who no-one has a bad word on.
To listen to him shouting a great, fast paced commentary over a big crowd, his voice competing with the spectators, words charging like a racehorse over the radio, you get a vivid, tangible sense of the drama and spectacle of a big GAA occasion. Hats, flags, scarves and headbands and Michaél Ó Muircheartaigh are GAA days for me.
The listener knows in technicolour what Armagh fans on the hill in Clones are seeing or what those in Semple Stadium, Thurles, are feeling in the final moments of a Tipperary v Cork Munster hurling final or just how amazing it is to see Henry Shefflin or DJ Carey hook a sliothar over a bar from miles out. His voice compels us to love these great, unique Irish games. Nationalism without the punch.
As you have gathered, this is not an objective piece of journalism, but nor is it hagiography, we really will never see his like again.
Michaél does his last All Ireland Final on Sunday when Down take on Cork, fittingly two of the ‘aristocrats’ of modern gaelic football – but t’is a pity t’wasn’t the men of the Kingdom, his home county of Kerry.
Didn’t get through so many books in September and October given the return to teaching, writing two journal articles (and a bastard research grant application) which took an enormous amount of reading, and taking on a James Ellroy monster doorstop of a tome.
One of those 1990s/ 2000s serious evaluations of football as having something in common with the (high) arts. A pleasing journalistic affair full of brilliant interviews with the key people in the Dutch footballing renaissance of the late 1960s.
It’s rich in detail about the roles of Rinus Michels, Vic Buckingham, Johann Cruyff and Luis Van Gaal in the rebirth and sustenance of the modern era of Dutch football. With hindsight, the stuff on Cruyff also tells us much about his role the recent renaissance of Barcelona.
However, all the ascribing of inherently Dutch national characteristics in modern art and architecture as influencing its football culture all seems a bit Private Eye Pseuds Corner. At one point he notes that, because the Dutch need to hold back the water that threatens the low lying nation with dikes, they are spatial neurotics, and thus this obsession with space makes them revolutionary thinkers about football positions and led to Total Football (pp47-50).
That is pseudo-intellectual pish, but this book is well worth a read for its interviews with some remarkably prescient and important figures in the development of modern football. Read more…
PODCAST: Dr Stuart Borthwick discusses his love for the political murals of Northern Ireland and his book, The Writing on the Wall
Stuart Borthwick has produced The Writing on the Wall, a beautiful book of photographs of Northern Irish wall murals which tell the turbulent history of the country from 1900 to the present day.
It takes the story from the foundation of the Ulster Volunteers in 1912 and the 1916 Easter Rising, each key historical events for unionists and republicans respectively, through the Troubles, to the current Peace Process which began in the 1990s.
The book, published by Bluecoat Press, is being launched on Wednesday, October 21 at the Bluecoat Arts Centre as part of both the Liverpool Irish Festival and the Writing on the Wall Festival, of which Stuart is a trustee.
Among other things, Stuart tells the fascinating story of how he, a man who moved to Liverpool from the south of England in 1989, eventually came to find himself sitting in Armagh waiting for the sun to rise so he could photograph the most beautiful artwork he’s ever seen.
PODCAST: Dr Diane Urquhart and Dr Deaglán Ó Donghaile on their great lost Irish books in Liverpool Central Library
A couple of good friends, Dr Diane Urquhart of the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool, and Dr Deaglán Ó Donghaile of Liverpool John Moores University, are giving talks this week on their great lost Irish books in Liverpool Central Library.
The event, handily titled ‘Lost Irish Books at Liverpool Central Library’, is on Friday, (October 16th) in the recently redeveloped Victorian Central Library, and is part of the Marginal Irish Modernisms strand at this year’s Festival, curated by Dr Gerry Smyth of LJMU.
Deaglán will be discussing The Secret History of the Fenian Conspiracy (1877) by John Rutherford, and Diane will address Autobiography of a Liverpool Slummy (1934) by Pat O’Mara. Professor Shaun Richards completes the line-up of top academics and is discussing Patriots: A Play in Three Acts (1912) by Lennox Robinson.
Diane and Deaglán gave me a few minutes to discuss their chosen books and why these texts remain relevant for the modern world.
Further details of the full programme at the Liverpool Irish Festival are available here.
The Liverpool Irish Festival starts this week and will see a celebration of Irish culture and arts.
As part of my role as board member for the festival, I interviewed Dr Frank Shovlin, head of department at the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Irish Studies, about his lecture on W.B. Yeats and his links to Liverpool.
Frank has a forensic eye for detail which has allowed him to become one of the foremost scholars of Irish literary culture and James Joyce and John McGahern in particular. We are immensely lucky to have him living and working in our city.
“He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful.”
The opening line of Don DeLillo’s 1997 novel Underworld signals a panoramic investigation of the beginning of the end of the American century, that period from 1950-2000 where the USA transformed global economics and politics and exported an optimism and faith in the future through popular culture and sports. It also juxtaposes the paranoia and uncertainty of America during and after the Cold War, the lurch to the right and the horror of the late 60s onwards.
It is also one of the greatest opening lines of any book I have read.
The opening chapter, ‘The Triumph of Death’, originally published as the novella Pafko at the Wall, is a bravura 60 page exhibition of descriptive narrative which is almost unequalled in any literary novel I have read. It vividly introduces the great themes of the novel: American optimism, popular cultural mythology, mass production, cultural and material waste, and collective popular memory framed within a description of a baseball match in 1951. Read more…
Books read in August and September
HOLIDAY reading was off the scale with great weather in Brittany allowing for prolonged periods of lounging in the sun.
Rod Kedward, La Vie en Bleu, (Penguin, 2006).
This brilliant history of 20th Century France by an eminent professor was primarily read for an article I am writing on Brittany and Breton nationalism. Typically, as a man of a certain age, I ended up engrossed in the Second World War history of France. Although the Breton nationalism section is quite short, there is a brilliant evocation of the development of regionalism in France and how new French identities have been forged in the post colonial era. (On loan from Steve Corkhill.) Read more…