Micheál gave much to the GAA, sometimes too much
W e very much hope that, like Gay Byrne's, Micheál ó Muircheartaigh's retirement from RTE will be not so much a final farewell as a long goodbye.
After a 60-year love affair, a sudden and total shutdown would be too much of a shock to the system -- for the listeners as well as the man himself.
In fact, only last week, and before ó Muircheartaigh made his announcement, a reader from Wexford working in Sudan wrote to this column about the consolations of hearing Micheál's commentaries via the internet.
There are not many Irishmen of whom it can be said that they will be missed around the world. There are not many radio commentators, in any sport, of whom it can be said that they could beat the power of television. But the stories are legion of GAA fans watching the match on TV with the volume down and the radio turned up, listening to him describe the game they were watching.
ó Muircheartaigh turned 80 in August so he staved off the dreaded day for as long as he humanly could. But RTE are finally confronted with the task of replacing the irreplaceable.
Now, it would be dishonest of this writer to pretend that we never had reservations about him. One could argue that he was a bit too much of a GAA propagandist, for someone who was paid to do his job by RTE. He never really had much to say about all the controversies that arose during his long career. Many of them were divisive, a few transcended the GAA to become part of a national debate about where we were going as a society. They were important, but Micheál didn't want to know -- at least not in public: he sailed above them, as if they weren't happening. Maybe, in the long run, he was right to do so. He remained a trusted, unifying force.
But we had the perception that he was a Croke Park yes man and it was reinforced by a controversy that erupted on the 1999 international rules tour of Australia. When an Irish player racially insulted an opponent during a match, a few GAA journalists refused to wear the proverbial green jersey on that occasion; they established the facts of the story and reported them.
The controversy dragged on when the Irish team management decided not to discipline the player. At this point, ó Muircheartaigh was roped in to support this decision. At a meeting in a hotel lobby in Melbourne, Micheál made an impassioned plea to the assembled reporters to drop the story. The silence after he spoke was deafening. Resentment hung in the air. He came perilously close, despite his venerable status, to being told where to go, in no uncertain terms.
But, as the fella said, that was then, this is now. The epiphany for me came some 20 months later during a championship match between Mayo and Westmeath at Hyde Park in July 2001. The media centre that day was the back of a lorry. I happened to be sitting beside ó Muircheartaigh as he commentated live on a brilliant match that went to extra-time.
It was a shock to see how much effort he gave, and how much it seemed to take out of him. At times he seemed to be struggling for breath before filling his lungs again and launching into the next deluge of words. He was in control of his performance, but the game was in control of him too. It was as if by surrendering to the drama, he could float along on its currents and tides. He gave of himself completely to that game, as he did in every game.
He was, and is, a true original, blessed with the sort of natural talent that in other owners -- sportsmen for example -- becomes an excuse for laziness and complacency. Other commentators with half his ability hold something back, spare themselves; ó Muircheartaigh never spared himself at all.
And it is this, perhaps, that goes to the heart of his universal appeal: this immense generosity of spirit. It is a great broadcasting gift to have, but really it is bigger than that: ó Muircheartaigh possesses that rare thing they call a gift for people. He likes people, and they like him. He seems permanently optimistic about people. He retains a faith in their
goodness. Ger Loughnane can throw him out of the Clare dressing room and Micheál will understand. Offer it up. Pass no remarks.
He is the benign pastor of the GAA flock, travelling the highways and byways by day and by night to minister his blessings, radiate his warmth, tell his stories. In return he meets new faces, makes new connections, hears new stories -- a one-man folklore commission. Seed and breed, parish and townland, left foot or right, he asks the questions because he wants to know.
Of late he has taken his mission to foreign fields: not just the traditional hinterlands of America and the UK, but Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East too, bringing it all back home to those who live away. And bringing his unique sort of Irishness to those who couldn't find Ireland on a map. If he could, he'd meet the world.
A gift for people, sure, but it's even bigger than that too: it's a gift, one supposes, for life itself.