Saturday 22 October 2016

Obituary: Liam Ó Murchú, Broadcaster

February 10, 1929 - June 28, 2015

Published 05/07/2015 | 02:30

Stellar career: Liam o Murchu's only possible misstep was running for election in 1982
Stellar career: Liam o Murchu's only possible misstep was running for election in 1982

The Ireland of 40 and 50 years ago was often a harsh, cold, stridently humourless environment. This was reflected in how the Irish language was taught and promoted: there was a sense of "national and cultural duty" about the whole thing, but not a great helping of enjoyment or fun.

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Liam Ó Murchú, who died this week, was a notable and honourable exception to all this.

The Cork native was a writer, broadcaster, administrator and even, briefly, a politician - but most of us will remember him best for the bilingual chat-show Trom agus Éadrom.

The title translates as Heavy and Light, to encapsulate the programme's mixture of content. Trom agus Éadrom ran the gamut from thoughtful to playful and all points in between, as Liam endeavoured to work Gaeilge into a primetime variety show.

But that title - Heavy and Light - also stands well enough for the man himself: his career, his Weltanschauung, and, most importantly, his attitude to the native tongue.

He was serious about Irish, but never po-faced; passionate without being dogmatic; an ardent advocate with a sense of humour and mischief; an eloquent speaker of Irish who wasn't bothered if guests on his show spoke in English if it suited them.

As Liam described it in a 1976 interview with the RTÉ Guide, his mission was "to demonstrate to the plain people of Ireland that the Irish language is not the exclusive property of perfect speakers".

So he, and the programme, slipped easily between both languages - sometimes in mid-sentence - with guests and viewers encouraged to use whatever Irish they possessed.

The format proved popular and enduring - as did the catchphrase, "bualadh bos" - with Trom agus Éadrom running for a full decade, from 1975 to 1985.

Clips on YouTube show Ó Murchú at his best in front of the studio audience: chatty, genial, gregarious, with that soft Cork accent and an ever-present twinkle in the eye.

He won a Jacob's Award for the show, though of course, this wasn't Liam's only contribution to Irish broadcasting. On screen, he also presented the September two-shot of Up for the Final - forerunner of today's All-Ireland-based Up for the Match - as well as Lifelines, Labhair Gaeilge and Voices from the Hidden People, among other programmes.

Behind the scenes, he scaled significant heights at RTÉ. Having joined the national broadcaster in 1964 in the role of editor of Irish language programmes, he subsequently went on to become assistant controller of programmes and assistant to the director general.

Liam was born on February 10, 1929, in Blarney Street, right in the heart of Cork City. After an early education at the local CBS, he won a scholarship to attend secondary school in the legendary hurling nursery, North Monastery, affectionately known in the 'Real Capital' as The Mon.

After school, Liam studied literature at University College Cork but left after just one year to become a clerical officer in the civil service. (Many years later, in 2002, UCC would pay tribute to its one-time student by awarding him an honorary degree.)

He was later appointed law adviser to the then minister for health, Seán MacEntee, and afterwards filled the same role with Charles Haughey - which would lead to perhaps the only misstep Liam took in a stellar career.

In 1982 he was persuaded to stand for election to the Dáil as a Fianna Fáil candidate. Cork North-Central was his home constituency, but he polled far less than expected, only taking roughly 4.5pc of the vote.

Liam left the state broadcaster in 1988 to set up his own production company, although he would return a number of times to present programmes. He also increasingly turned his hand to writing.

He had written and published a three-act drama, Na Connerys, in 1974, based on a folk-song about two brothers who were sent into exile. He also wrote several books which were published here, in the US and the UK.

These included: A Little Trom and a Little Éadrom (1982), a blend of autobiography and essays on the Gaeltacht and Irish language; and Black Cat in the Window: A Family Album with Much Love and Squalor (1999), another childhood memoir partly inspired by William Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience.

The following year he published Hindsights: Ten Meetings of Minds, an account of his encounters with 10 notable Irish people, ranging from Noel Browne and Seán Ó Riada to Siobhán McKenna, Eamonn Casey and Cyril Cusack. He also wrote an article once a month for the much-loved weekly magazine Ireland's Own.

Following his death on Sunday, President Michael D Higgins paid tribute, saying: "I was greatly saddened to hear of his passing. Throughout his career Liam worked tirelessly to promote the Irish language both in front of and behind the camera.

"What set him apart was his belief that the language belonged to everyone and he displayed this inclusive approach as presenter of Trom agus Éadrom.

"He will be remembered by his former colleagues in the media and broadcast sector as a consummate professional who was full of warmth and vitality. Sabina and I express our deepest sympathies."

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said: "Such was his commitment to public service that Liam sought public office in the early 1980s where he was the Fianna Fáil general election candidate at a very volatile time for the country.

"Though he was unsuccessful in that election, he remained committed to public service, making an enormous contribution to Irish culture, heritage and the Irish language."

Martin described his fellow Corkman as "an extremely kind, generous and good-humoured character. Liam played a pivotal role in promoting the language and will be remembered by thousands of people across the country".

Having lived in Glenageary in South Dublin, Liam died last Sunday, aged 86, at a nursing home in Co Meath.

He was predeceased by his wife, Margaret, and is survived by his eight children - Veronica, Noelle, Des, Enda, Brian, Colmán, Éadaoin and Úna - his 18 grandchildren, two great grandchildren and extended family.

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