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Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh celebrates 90th birthday

As Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh turns 90 today, Uachtarán CLG John Horan has paid tribute to the legendary broadcaster and extended the best wishes of the GAA to him on this auspicious occasion.

Uachtarán Horan said: “To be known simply by your first name is one of the greatest accolades that you can have bestowed on you in Irish life.

“And so it has been for Micheál. No more explanation needed.

“Just like the great Micheál Ó Hehir before him and who the GAA were so fortunate to also have involved in promoting our games with a distinctive voice from behind the microphone, Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh is as synonymous with Gaelic games as Croke Park, Semple Stadium, St Tiernach’s Park or Dr Hyde Park.

“For those who couldn’t be there at a game – there was still the chance to feel like you were there.

“To surf the wave of excitement and drama and to be carried away and feel as much a part of the action as if you were sitting pitch side in person.

“That was Micheál’s gift.

“It was delivered in an inimitable style that enabled you connect with players and not just be in awe of them as sportspeople, but getting a sense of who they were through the personal knowledge and anecdotes that were imparted so expertly along the way.

“His respect for the games and the players was paramount.

Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh before the 2010 All Ireland SFC Final between Cork and Down.
Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh before the 2010 All Ireland SFC Final between Cork and Down.

“It was matched by his professionalism and attention to detail. He had a commitment to being the eyes and ears of the person at home; either in a kitchen, a fireside or a car somewhere in Ireland – or indeed in far flung outposts where the Irish Diaspora would step on board a vision and follow with the wind that was Micheál’s unique commentary.

“That he could switch between Bearla and Gaeilge without missing a beat or losing a listener was another example of a master communicator at work.

“He was a national institution long before he called his last game and we in the GAA are delighted to send him our best wishes and celebrate in this magnificent milestone.

“Ní bheidh a leitheid arís ann.”

From Dún Síon near Dingle in Kerry, Micheál was a young teacher in Dublin when he answered a casting call for potential match commentators with RTÉ.

Commenting live on a colleges game for his audition, Micheál knew one of the players in action and used his local knowledge of the player to help illuminate the commentary.

It helped him stand out from the other hopefuls and this use of local knowledge and ability to almost poetically and lyrically weave it into the passages of play he described would, in time, become his signature mark.

For many years Micheál had the role of previewing the All-Ireland finals as Gaeilge on RTE Radio 1 for 10 minutes at 3.15pm before the Croke Park based Micheál Ó Hehir would then take over for throw-in at 3.30.

Based at the time in the RTÉ HQ in the GPO on O’Connell St, this would then leave Ó Muircheartaigh with a dash by bicycle up to Croke Park to make it just as the ball was being thrown in.

With Ó Hehir later the main TV commentator, Micheál got his opportunity on radio and quickly built a great reputation for the richness of his commentary and ability to carry the electricity of the game and the live crowd through the airwaves.

Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh talking to Dublin midfielder Brian Fenton.
Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh talking to Dublin midfielder Brian Fenton.

It was a skill that had been perfected by Ó Hehir and Ó Muircheartaigh carried on the practice seamlessly.

Ó Muircheartaigh would have a style all of his own however and make him as highly regarded as the games and players he talked about.

Seán Óg Ó hAilpín: his father’s from Fermanagh, his mother’s from Fiji. Neither a hurling stronghold.

…and Brian Dooher is down injured. And while he is, I’ll tell ye a little story: I was in Times Square in New York last week, and I was missing the Championship back home. So I approached a newsstand and I said, “I suppose ye wouldn’t have The Kerryman, would ye?” To which, the Egyptian behind the counter turned to me and he said, “Do you want the North Kerry edition, or the South Kerry edition?” He had both – so I bought both. And Dooher is back on his feet…

Anthony Lynch, the Cork corner-back, will be the last person to let you down – his people are undertakers.

Colin Corkery on the 45 lets go with the right boot. Its over the bar. This man shouldn’t be playing football. He’s made an almost Lazarus-like recovery from a heart condition. Lazarus was a great man but he couldn’t kick points like Colin Corkery.

The stopwatch has stopped. It’s up to God and the referee now. The referee is Pat Horan. God is God.

Teddy McCarthy to Mick McCarthy, no relation, Mick McCarthy back to Teddy McCarthy, still no relation.

I saw a few Sligo people at Mass in Gardiner Street this morning and the omens seem to be good for them. The priest was wearing the same colours as the Sligo jersey! 40 yards out on the Hogan Stand side of the field, Ciarán Whelan goes on a rampage… it’s a goal! So much for religion.

He grabs the sliothar, he’s on the 50! He’s on the 40! He’s on the 30… he’s on the ground!

Pat Fox out to the forty and grabs the sliothar. I bought a dog from his father last week. Fox turns and sprints for goal… the dog ran a great race last Tuesday in Limerick… Fox, to the 21, fires a shot – it goes to the left and wide… and the dog lost as well.

In the first half they played with the wind. In the second half they played with the ball.

1-5 to 0-8… well, from Lapland to the Antarctic, that’s level scores in any man’s language.

Pat Fox has it on his hurl and is motoring well now, but here comes Joe Rabbitte hot on his tail… I’ve seen it all now, a Rabbitte chasing a Fox around Croke Park!

Teddy looks at the ball, the ball looks at Teddy…

Mike Houlihan for Limerick. He had his jaw broken by a kick from a bullock two months ago. He’s back now. ‘Twas some bullock that broke Mike Houlihan’s jaw!

Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh remains a hugely respected figure.
Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh remains a hugely respected figure.

Of course, Ó Muircheartaigh didn’t just talk the talk - he could walk the walk too. The great Kerry team of the 70s and 80s used him as their trainer of their Dublin based players in an era that saw them win eight All-Irelands under Mick O’Dwyer from 1975-1986.

But it was high up in the crow’s nest radio boxes of Croke Park Thurles, Páirc Uí Chaoimh and beyond that he made his name – usually with one of his sons or daughters alongside as his stat and score keeping assistants.

His last All-Ireland finals were the Cork football and Tipperary hurling successes of 2010, but he has remained active and a regular visitor at matches all over the country in the intervening years with his passion for the games and his fondness for meeting people and swapping stories undiminished.

History was made at Croke Park in August 1926 when the Kilkenny-Galway All-Ireland senior hurling semi-final was broadcast on radio from Croke Park. Broadcasts of sporting events had been pioneered in the US in previous years, but Croke Park was the first time in Europe that sport had got a full commentary.

The title of Voice of the GAA was originally the preserve of Micheál Ó Hehir who began commentating as an 18 year-old in 1938 when he took charge of the microphone for the Galway-Monaghan All-Ireland football semi-final on August 14 of that year.

His passion and enthusiasm was to prove infectious and made him regarded as the most famous voice in Ireland – a status that went to new levels when he transferred to take charge of games being shown on TV.

Also regarded as one of the best horse racing commentators in the world, Ó Hehir was from Dublin and as well as being Head of Sport in RTE he was sought after by the BBC and US networks to commentate on major facing events. He was also racing correspondent with the Irish Independent for 17 years.

After being given a five-minute audition commentating at a GAA match he was so impressive he was asked to do the entire second half and so began a truly legendary broadcasting career.

Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh pictured with the Sam Maguire Cup.
Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh pictured with the Sam Maguire Cup.

As the GAA enjoyed unprecedented success from the 1930s onwards and grew and grew in participation numbers and interest levels, Ó Hehir was the passionate and knowledgeable voice of it all. His career ran from 1938 until 1985 when he was forced to retire due to ill-health. He had covered 99 All-Ireland senior finals in this time.

Such was the status afforded his voice that he was asked to do non-sporting events such as the visit of US President JFK to Ireland in 1963 and later gave a five hour broadcast on the funeral of JFK from the US.

But it’s as the voice to the heroics of Christy Ring, Mick Mackey, John Doyle, Nicky Rackard and Eddie Keher and the describer of the exploits of Seán Purcell, Seán O’Neill, Mick O’Connell, Jack O’Shea and Brian Mullins that secures his place in GAA history.

For the 1947 All-Ireland football final between Cavan and Kerry played in the New York Polo Grounds, Ó Hehir famously spent the closing minutes calling the drama on the field and pleading with authorities to keep the connection back to Ireland open so that they could finish the broadcast of the match that was running over time. His pleas were heard and a famous Cavan victory was broadcast in full back home.

It’s possible that, because it was Michal Ó Hehir asking, that the result was positive.

He passed away in November of 1996 aged 76. The GAA’s broadcast and media centre on Level 7 of the Hogan Stand at Croke Park is named in his honour.

On the entry tunnel is a quote from his famous plea to keep the line open at the 1947 Polo Grounds.

Bringing the games back home to people was what he wanted.

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