Michaél Ó Muircheartaigh: A tribute in text and sound
(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.
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.