Weeshie's Week

Memories of Michael O Hehir

December 20th, 2012
by Brendan O Sullivan

Last July, I visited Cusack Park, Mullingar, to attend the Kerry- Westmeath  qualifier match. Outside the ground, set into the surrounding wall, was a bust of Micheal O'Hehir: underneath was inscribed the words: "Bail o Dhia oraibh go leir, a chairde Ghaeil". Memories flooded back.
That was the phrase which this legendary commentator always used when greeting his listeners and it was in Cusack Park, Mullingar that his broadcasting career began in 1938. Radio Eireann at that time was a station in search of a commentator. Micheal, aged 18 and a Leaving Cert student, had been given a trial some weeks beforehand. He was successful and his first live match was the All-Ireland football semi-final between Galway and Monaghan in Mullingar on August 14, 1938. He travelled by train, the commentary box was only large enough to hold his father and himself, he had no idea of how well the commentary had gone until he arrived home to Dublin and a neighbour whose opinion he respected gave him the thumbs-up. A few days later, he received a cheque for £3.

It was the beginning of a lifelong career as a commentator and journalist. One week later, he commentated on the second semi-final between Kerry and Laois, his first match in Croke Park. On 25 September 1938, he described the football final between Kerry and Galway which ended in a draw. The following year, 1939, he commentated on his first hurling final, the famous "thunder and lightning" final between Kilkenny and Cork on the day Britain and France declared war on Germany. From the late 30s to the mid 80s, O'Hehir was to broadcast every All-Ireland final on either radio or television, a total of 99 finals.

Micheal O'Hehir became the voice of the GAA. There is still a magic associated with his voice for those of us who grew up with the wireless in the pre-television era. His match commentaries were part of Sunday afternoons. There was no 4 hour sports programme then, Radio Eireann would go to the venue minutes before the start, Micheal would begin with "Bail o Dhia oraibh go leir, a chairde Ghaeil agus failte roimh go Pairc an Chrocaigh", or wherever the match was being played. He just had time to name the teams and the commentary would begin. There were phrases he used which we still associate with him: in hurling, "he bends, he lifts, he strikes": in either code, "there's a schemozzle in the parallelogram". I can remember listening to the 1956 and 1957 football finals in my home less than a mile from Croke Park. I had been brought to the 1955 final between Kerry and Dublin so I knew what I was missing. I could hear the actual roars from the crowd and on the radio, the voice of Micheal O'Hehir describing the action.

In 1962 RTE was set up and from then on, all semi-finals and finals were televised. I remember that last pre-RTE summer of 1961 when we depended on the wireless commentary. On holidays on my uncle's farm in Kildare I listened to the Kerry-Down semi-final. I was certain that Kerry would reverse the result of the previous year's final but it was not to be; it was another comfortable win for Down. On the first Sunday in September, the day before the dreaded return to school, I remember listening to the Hurling final between Tipperary and Dublin, convinced that Tipperary would win easily; they won, but only by one point.

Micheal O'Hehir was more than a GAA commentator. Perhaps his most famous broadcast for RTE was the funeral of President Kennedy in 1963 when, by coincidence, he was in the US at the time of the assassination. He was also a horse racing commentator and his finest hour was identifying Foinavon when that 100/1 outsider emerged through mayhem after a pile-up at the 1967 Grand National. Twenty years previously, he had described the action in the Polo Grounds, New York, when Kerry and Cavan contested the only All-Ireland Final ever to be played outside of Ireland.
His broadcasting career came to a sudden and sad end in August 1985 when he became ill two weeks before the All-Ireland Hurling Final. It would have been his 100th final.

Micheal was admired in all GAA households. When I looked through my father's programme collection after he died, I found one from that game in Mullingar on 14 August 1938 when Micheal did his first commentary. And the programmes from those All-Ireland finals from the late thirties. The last book that my father read in his final weeks was Micheal O'Hehir's autobiography "My Life and Times". Poignantly, he never completed it, just as Micheal never completed 100 finals.

Micheal lived in retirement for 11 years. His last major public appearance was in 1987 when he was introduced to the crowd at the hurling final. In a wheelchair, assisted by his son Peter, he was brought to the centre of Croke Park where he was greeted by a prolonged standing ovation from the entire attendance of over 80,000. The affection in which Micheal was held by the GAA community was obvious on that emotional occasion. From Cusack Park to Croke Park, from the thirties to the eighties, he described the games to that community. He is part of GAA history.

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