Brendan O Sullivan

Micheal O Muircheartaigh

by Brendan O'Sullivan

Micheal O'Muircheartaigh  celebrates his 80th birthday this month. He has been part of our lives for more years than most of us care to remember; yet, listening to him weekend after summer weekend the enthusiasm and vigour in his voice are those of a much younger man.

Micheal was born in Dun Sion near Dingle on August 20 1930. Kerry were about to win their 9th All-Ireland title in the shadow of the death of  Dick Fitzgerald, perhaps the greatest Kerry footballer of all. Micheal had an almost idyllic rural childhood, living and working on the family farm, walking to school through the fields, sometimes commandeering a donkey to shorten the journey. But there were dark days too as his mother died unexpectedly at the young age of 48.

He left Dingle to continue his education in Ballyvourney, Co Cork, where his love of the Irish language deepened and he changed his name to the Irish version now well known. Then it was on to St Pats  in Drumcondra where he trained as a primary teacher. Later, evening studies earned him a degree  which qualified  him as a secondary teacher as well.

While in St Pats he made his broadcasting breakthrough. Answering an advertisement, along with many others, he did a trial and was rewarded with the  commentary on the Railway Cup football final of 1949 between Munster and Leinster as gaeilge. He was 18 years old. Micheal O'Hehir had broadcast his first match 11 years earlier at the same age of 18. It is remarkable that these 2 men have dominated GAA commentating for 72 years , almost 3 quarters of a century.

For 30 years Micheal's teaching and broadcasting careers were to exist side by side. He was initially an as gaeilge commentator for minor finals, Patrick's Day Railway Cup matches and the Oireachtas Hurling finals. As more matches were broadcast he was called on to commentate in English as well and the man with the distinctive West Kerry accent  and interesting turn of phrase gradually seeped into the consciousness of the listening public until eventually he was a household name. He ended his teaching career in the early 1980s and moved into a fulltime media career.

What makes Micheal unique?  A voice made for radio, the Gaeltacht lilt, the ability to accurately describe what is happening in front of him, the excitement in the tone, the underlying sense of  fun and humour, never far from the surface especially when a dog or a streaker invades  the pitch. A storyteller in the tradition of the seanchai Eamonn Kelly,  a poet in the tradition of Brendan Kennelly. The images can be memorable -his picture of generations of Leitrim people looking down with pride from the verandah of heaven when their county won the Connacht  championship in 1994. A wise man as one should be at 80. Never take yourself too seriously is one of his mottoes. A man who never worries yet is meticulous in preparation for his work. Never short of an answer. The ability to defuse a conflict. When Kerry football tore itself asunder some years ago over unwise comments made by Paidi O'Se in South Africa Micheal had a phrase for it all -"winter talk".

The subtle humour in the commentaries. "Sean Og O'Hailpin-his father's from Fermanagh, his mother's from Fiji, neither a hurling stronghold". Pat Fox and Joe Rabbitte in opposition-"I've seen it all now-a rabbit chasing a fox around Croke Park" .His famous interview with Prince Edward of England who, remarkably along with a Kerryman, was co-owner of a greyhound which had qualified for the Derby final. No obsequious attitude towards British royalty for Micheal but the same respect which he shows to all.

It is no wonder that thousands turn down the television commentary and turn on Micheal's radio version, even though the radio can be a few seconds ahead of the tv.It is no wonder that countless spectators at games are listening to Micheal while simultaneously watching the action.
Greyhound racing is his second sport. In his autobiography he tells of regular trips to Harolds Cross and Shelbourne Park in his younger days and coming home with an empty wallet. Some of the dogs he has owned have been successful; others less so.

Micheal is a cosmopolitan man. Widely  travelled and now with some of his children living in different parts of the world. The opposite of the stereotypical narrowminded  Gaa fanatic, he always favoured the ending of the ban and the opening of Croke Park to other sports. Yet along with the tolerance and appreciation of other sports and cultures, there is the deep pride in his own sport, his own culture, his own language, his own place. Micheal is a regular visitor to Kerry,  often to support charitable causes and preside over sporting functions.

We salute Micheal as he turns 80, and hope that his broadcasting career has many years to go. The afternoons and evenings of the GAA season will be emptier when his voice is absent from the airwaves . Ni bheidh a leitheid ann aris. Go mairfidh tu cead  Micheal agus nios mo.

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