Friday 21 July 2017

Being Marty Morrissey - RTE's Gaelic games commentator has learned 'to be willing to take the good with the bad'

Marty Morrissey at Croke Park. Picture by David Conachy.
Marty Morrissey at Croke Park. Picture by David Conachy.

Dermot Crowe

To begin, I should declare a small interest. Marty Morrissey and I are from neighbouring west Clare parishes, though ones that have often been at loggerheads, mainly over football. In a previous career, he taught me biology in school, the poor man, where he explained the intricacies of the human reproductive system and revealed all one needed to know, and more, about Fucus vesiculosus, the fancy name for seaweed.

I had him as my football coach for a spell and he had a natural way with players that you couldn’t but warm to. One day he rejigged our forward line before a schools match in such a way that it seemed to fool us rather than the backs we were meant to be confounding. No matter: the message I took from it was that he was ahead of his time, willing to take a risk.

And these associations are partly the reason he has agreed to sit down now and break bread.

By coincidence it is 25 years since he uttered the line which became tattooed to him, that a cow wouldn’t be milked in Clare for almost a week, after his county defeated Kerry in the 1992 Munster football final.

We might start there, when he was still working with RTE in Cork, having taken over from Mary Wilson on the newsdesk in 1990. “It feels like five years,” he says.

He was compèring at an awards night in Waterford recently and he received a ceramic gift with those words inscribed on it. The line, hokey and innocent as it was, still echoes across an extraordinary day.

“Like, you know,” he explains, “I played with a lot of the lads. With Noel Roche on the Clare minors… Aidan ‘Horse’ Moloney was my neighbour… Dermot Coughlan. You could see the development of the team at the time, that they were coming. But nobody outside the county thought we’d beat Kerry. I didn’t think we’d beat Kerry either. I thought we’d have a good crack at it. But having Pat Spillane (as analyst) beside me was an added bonus. He inspired me! Because I wanted to sew it into him as much as I could. I sat on the wall in 1979 and saw Kerry score 9-21 to our 1-9. Do you know that that year — this is what I hang on to when I meet Kerry fans — the biggest score against Kerry in 1979 was Clare’s 1-9? Nobody scored more against Kerry.

“But yeah, it still follows me around after 25 years. It was something I heard at home. I think it was something my neighbours said… ‘There will be no cow milked in Mullagh or Quilty tonight’, you know, that sort of thing. And it was the first time, I am almost sure, that The Sunday Game repeated a highlights package, there was such a demand to show it again, which was unusual, but it was such an historic event for Clare to win a Munster title.”

He is asked if he felt he went over the top, like Spillane kept alluding to? “Yes,” he freely admits. “I was coming from a place where we had no success in our county. I was tearful and emotional because all of them were close friends of mine. People I had played championship with or championship against. I suppose, in hindsight, it was OK for the moment because of the historical significance. I wouldn’t do it now.”

 

* * * * *

 

IN 2013 Morrissey was appointed Gaelic games correspondent for RTE but was still allowed to continue match commentaries. During the championship, along with Darragh Maloney and Ger Canning, he crosses over from television into radio and since 2012 has been covering the All-Ireland hurling final on radio, which has received a positive reaction. “You are talking all the time on the radio,” as he puts it. “You are not talking all the time on the TV.”

Currently he is standing in for Ryan Tubridy on his morning radio show, and he has also been a regular stand-in on the popular Saturday morning show, CountryWide. He would love to host an entertainment show from the regions on television, to broaden his field a little, although sport remains the central axis.

Commentary was where it began, a chance intervention planting the seed. In 1984 his home club Kilmurry Ibrickane decided it wanted a video recording of their appearance in the county under 21 final. He was asked to do the commentary. At the time he was teaching in the Convent of Mercy in Spanish Point, a few miles from home, and appearing in goal for his senior football team.

“Patrick Galvin, who had the post office in Quilty at the time — it was October 1984 — says, ‘We’re going to do a video. I want you to do the commentary’. I had never done commentary.”

The custom then was to show the video back in the village on the Monday night. The demand grew. “In this case we showed it in the Quilty Tavern, a big crowd turned up and Mary Kate Galvin said to me, ‘You should apply to RTE’. She was Patrick’s wife, the postmistress. And I said, ‘Go away, not a hope’. I haven’t listened to it for years and I wouldn’t because I know it’s crap. Because I thought I was Michael O’Hehir.”

Paschal Brooks looked after the filming and production, and the month after his debut the pair were commissioned to do the Munster club hurling final — Sixmilebridge against Patrickswell. “This was Semple Stadium in Thurles. So we are going from the back of a tractor and trailer in Doonbeg to Semple Stadium. I think it was there I thought, ‘You know, I might keep at this’.”

He decided to try RTE, picked up a phone book and spotted Fred Cogley’s name (“there was no Google then”), only to discover that Tim O’Connor was head of sport. He contacted O’Connor’s office and received a courteous letter saying there were no opportunities available. Maybe try radio, it suggested.

He continued with local commentaries at weekends, then left teaching to take up a job with Cork Multi-Channel in 1988 as a presenter.

“It wasn’t that I wasn’t happy teaching,” he says. “I loved teaching. But my only thing about the teaching was I was kind of settled in west Clare from a very early age. So I applied for the job [in Cork] and, lo and behold, I got the job. I took a career beak from Spanish Point and I was still doing videos for Paschal. It was now 1989. Christ, I thought, do you know what? I am going to go up and meet these [RTE[ people.”

He did. They had lunch. In February they asked him to commentate on a National Football League game, Dublin versus Roscommon in Croke Park. It was broadcast later that night on their highlights programme. And that was the start of it.

That year he did 13 matches; his big break came in the autumn with his first live commentary, the All-Ireland semi-final between Antrim and Offaly. Though it was the curtain-raiser, Antrim’s surprise win made it the story of the day.

In the same year he joined Clare FM as news editor and the next year saw him start in Cork with RTE. It wasn’t until 1994, though, that he joined the RTE sports department in Dublin. By then he was a recognised voice on the broadcasting circuit. For an outsider with no broadcasting or family link to RTE, his stubbornness in the face of repeated rejections was impressive.

“The more they said no to me, the more I wanted it.”

 

* * * * *

 

MARTY MORRISSEY, as well as commentating,  is frequently commentated upon. As he has become better known this weird fascination with him has generated a kind of brand which he has helped foster.  This, he knows, has little to do with the way he describes a TJ Reid flick or a Diarmuid Connolly point from 50 metres. It relies on him being a good sport, which he is, with a helpful level of self-deprecation, which he has. He isn’t fearful it might undermine his credibility. To the contrary, he revels in it. Maybe that’s some of the early American influence (he spent his first 10 years as a child in New York); the natural performer, the showman, with an innate feel for cabaret. The ladies’ man tag, the babe-magnet: they’re all grist to the mill.

On the GAA club circuit he is a huge draw, immensely popular for myriad functions, where he has an excellent empathy with an audience. It is usually an evening of riotous laughter. He knows how to work a crowd, and they love it.

Beneath this superficial layer, there was once a player, county standard in both codes. His playing and coaching career, before he became a national public figure, might surprise people. He was a goalkeeper on the Clare minor football panel for three years, and served on the senior panel for a time but never made the team. He had a year with the county minor hurling panel too, even more noteworthy given his west Clare roots. When the family returned from New York in the 1970s he attended St Flannan’s, where he began to hurl, although he had familiarised himself with the game through the Irish community in the Bronx.

He was a light and snappy wing-forward and in the early 1980s he got a call-up from the Clare senior hurling management, some of whom knew him from St Flannan’s, which led to him playing a challenge match against Galway. In what’s surely one of the great celebrity death-matches of hurling, his opponent was none other than Sylvie Linnane, one of the most fearsome corner-backs of his day.

“They put me in corner-forward, you know the size I am, whereas I would have always played wing,” Morrissey explains. “The one thing I had was a bit of speed. But they put me corner — on Sylvie Linnane.”

Did he say anything to you?

“Yes… ‘Don’t think about moving’.”

His rising interest in broadcasting began to take precedence. He packed in playing senior football for Kilmurry Ibrickane in 1992, a year before they won the senior championship, their first since 1966. In his 10 years playing they won nothing. After he stopped the silverware started to flow. They have won Munster club titles and reached an All-Ireland club final.

“I had a very good championship, was it ’91 or ’92, and thought I would definitely make it on to the Clare senior team — but I didn’t and I lost a bit of heart out of it, if I am to be honest. I didn’t have the motivation to stay at it. You know the way the guys train today. I don’t know if I had it.

“And the moment I started teaching I got involved in coaching. And I enjoyed coaching players and trying to bring the best out of them. I loved coaching Spanish Point (he led them to a Munster colleges title in 1983) and our club underage teams — we won under 16 and minor titles. I was county minor and under 21 football manager at 22 and 23, which when I look back was madness, but they gave it to me. So I had all that wealth of experience at a very young age.

“I could have gone down the road of management. But all I wanted to do was commentate on matches. I didn’t do it for fame. I didn’t want to be a television presenter. Now my priorities have changed: I will put my hand up, because I am used to it now and there is a bit of ego involved, you would have to admit. But at that time, hand on heart, all I wanted to be was Michael O’Hehir or Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh or whoever.”

 

* * * * *

 

HIS childhood was dichotomous, a game of two halves. Born in Mallow, the home town of his mother Peggy, he moved to New York while a baby and stayed until he was almost 11. In the lead-in to last year’s All-Ireland hurling final commentary on radio, he drew on that empathy with the Irish abroad. It was not an original idea but he spoke with an emotion and conviction that won many admirers.

“I was brought up in an apartment in New York for the first 10 years of my life. My father loved the GAA but not like me. I had a passion for Gaelic football and hurling, and I got it from going to Gaelic Park in New York every Sunday and meeting the Irish emigrants.

“My father was a travel agent at that stage. The way they did business was they’d meet at the back of the goals or in the clubhouse and they’d conduct business. ‘Johnny wants to go home to Ireland, can you pick up his tickets?’ This was before the internet. It was a different era. So then they came to Bainbridge Avenue where my father had his office — the Irish would stay together. I thought of all that.

“And I thought of my father hanging out an apartment window. Our apartment number was 4D Bainbridge Avenue, fourth floor, obviously — you’d go out on to the fire escape. Take out the radio. Turn it up, and at seven, eight o’clock on a Sunday morning you’d listen to Michael O’Hehir. And you’d move the aerial in different directions trying to get the signal.

“So I put it out on Twitter, a message to see who might be listening around the world. A question: ‘Will you be listening to the All-Ireland hurling final tomorrow?’ I remember the first guy that came to me. ‘Hi Marty, I will be listening to you from my kitchen in Raheny tomorrow’. Which is not exactly what I wanted, do you know what I mean? So I said, OK, try again. So I tried again. Where in the world will you be? They were from all over the world. So I took details of those from different parts of the world. And I had notes on them and who they were.

“And I did the job, and oblivious to what was happening on social media, the opening was gaining momentum. So much so I ended up with Ryan Tubridy the following Friday night on The Late Late Show talking about it. But it was me reaching out to the diaspora. I’d been one of them as a kid.”

You could have filled that with standard stuff? “Correct. And there are five changes on the Tipperary team. Yeah I could have done that. I wouldn’t do that other than for an All-Ireland final, you do that on a special day.”

His father, Martin, who died in 2004, had been a teacher. He was born near Quilty, the son of a farmer. “Paddy Morrissey loved the land. He was like yer man, Richard Harris, in The Field. Though he didn’t kill anybody, thanks be to God! My father didn’t have the passion for the land. He was an only child. My mother is an only child. I am an only child. I have no aunts or uncles. I have no first cousins. The nearest I have are second cousins.”

In New York, he attended St Ann’s school in the Bronx run by Dominican nuns. “I can remember pucking the ball with my dad in the goalmouth (at Gaelic Park). And the goals having a wire net, so the ball would bounce back out the field. In St Ann’s there was basketball, we showed our allegiance to the American flag every morning on the basketball court. I’d be confused because, as far as I was concerned, I was Irish — though I believed I had an American accent. I still play basketball but it wasn’t the same, it didn’t resonate the same way with me.”

And then they came back to Ireland. His father bought a pub in Quilty which had a shop in the same building. The change was dramatic. From the hustle and bustle of New York, the noise and congestion, to the stillness and emptiness and long winter nights of the west of Ireland. “My bedroom was over the shop, and I’d look out and there would be a dim light, and in the distance every few seconds the light from the lighthouse on the Aran Islands over the Atlantic Ocean would come on. It was just different.”

Sport helped break the ice when he first tried to assimilate into life in St Flannan’s. It wasn’t easy. “I made lasting friends but found the first few years difficult. But it was sport that broke down the barriers for me. I often thought afterwards, if you are not into sport in that school, imagine what it would be like.”

 

* * * * *

 

Morrissey is probably the most lampooned Clare GAA figure after Davy Fitzgerald and Ger Loughnane, getting the full treatment from Mario Rosenstock on The Late Late Show which had the audience in stitches, and also from Oliver Callan, who has a good command of the Morrissey voice. In response, he says imitation is the best form of flattery. He didn’t see the Rosenstock depiction (pink shirt, ludicrously white teeth, fake tan) until later. Mimicry of that nature doesn’t offend him.

“It never crossed the line. It’s always good fun. Like something I’d slag somebody about myself. And I’ve even gone on Mario’s TV programme. Now I know the two of them (Rosenstock and Callan). So I say that doesn’t bother me in the slightest. I enjoy the fun.”

But he has also been the butt of flippant and ignorant comments on his image and appearance. He had to ask that a fake Twitter account bearing his name be taken down. “I heard it was a 22-year-old from Tyrone and I asked him to stop doing it. And he stopped. It was great craic but he crossed the line a couple of times. But it showed he was decent (to stop).”

He understands that some of this goes with the territory, being a public figure. “When you put yourself out in the public domain you’ve got to be willing to take the good with the bad. It is hurtful and it can be difficult having to deal with it. Social media can be very negative. Now I’ve been lucky — genuinely, I don’t get it. There are colleagues of mine who were on social media and who are now off it. Now on Twitter anything goes and they can hide behind anonymity, which is desperately unfair as well. So I would encourage people not to do this.

“I discovered a long time ago a philosophy that I can only be myself. I would love you to like me but I can’t do anything about it if you don’t. And all you can do is do your best. You can’t please all of them, that’s what I am trying to say.”

 

* * * * *

 

Commentary, if you take it as a kind of art form, isn’t something he studied formally; he just picked it up and followed his nose, found his own voice. “In terms of doing the commentary, no, there are no courses. The only course is life experience. They need to be confident enough in you that you can fly the plane. Jim Sherwin used to always say it is like flying a plane on your own. To a certain extent it is. The last thing you want to do is crash on air. It does take flying time and it does take experience. We all get a bit of criticism from time to time; you don’t like to hear it to be honest. Sometimes criticism is good, once it’s fair criticism. You take it on board. I would like to think I have evolved. The commentary in 2016-17 I’m sure is a lot different to 2005 or 1995. It’s a different style and I would like to think I have improved and I would like to think it is a lot better than when I started.”

Moments like his “holy Moses!” reaction to Clare’s equalising point with the final puck of the 2013 All-Ireland final are, he says, spontaneous. His relationship with the even more feverish Dónal Óg Cusack in those melodramatic late moments, as they both lose themselves to the rising current, has worked extremely well. They make each final sound like a new treasure find. And often they are.

“You can’t come up with something (in advance), you just can’t,” he says, “it comes across as false and if you’re false, you’re shagged really. It has to come from the heart. Or from the soul; I think hurling is about the soul so much. If you reach too far you sound false.”

There have been innumerable interviews, countless selfies, commentary of Katie Taylor’s gold medal win in London, and a run after Cindy Crawford at the Olympics in Athens in 2004. He was there on working duty when she appeared through a lift surrounded by an entourage of security personnel. “So off we went chasing after her and I shouted, ‘Cindy, I’m Marty Morrissey from RTE television!’, which I knew didn’t register with her at all. Surprise surprise! I kept calling her. She was going into the swimming. ‘Are you enjoying the swimming?’ And she says, ‘Oh, I love Ireland. Byyyeeeeeee.’” He laughs loudly. “I often said afterwards it was the worst chat-up line ever. And it didn’t work.”

Certainly not laughing was one Brian Cody in September 2009 after Kilkenny had completed their fourth All-Ireland win in a row. Morrissey says there was no indication it was all going to kick off as they chatted before they went on air for the post-match interview. But he was met with a withering response when he began questioning the legitimacy of the penalty decision in Kilkenny’s favour.

“I said, ‘Do you think it was a penalty, Brian?’ And then the volcano erupted. And the exchange happened. I can’t remember it verbatim. I felt I had to kind of stand up for myself a small bit. Because he did take me by surprise. If he was the losing manager you would expect it. But to me, looking at it, ‘twas either a free out, a free in, a throw ball, but the last option to me at the time was that it was a penalty. I didn’t think it was a penalty. But that was the referee’s decision. I was a sideline reporter and I had to ask that question because it was a turning point in the game. It was the talking point. And he just lost the rag a small bit. And then he left and the cameras were off and I said, ‘I don’t know what that was about, Brian’.

“And he said, ‘I think it was an unfair question’. I said, ‘Honestly Brian, I don’t think it was. It’s the talking point of the All-Ireland’. But he kind of took umbrage that I wasn’t giving Kilkenny the accolades for winning four in a row, which I had done. I admired them and I have ever since. So I left it for a couple of weeks. I was flying out of the country the next morning somewhere. The papers were full of it, I didn’t see any of it, but I was getting loads of texts, including some Kilkenny stars who said, ‘Now you know what he’s like! Welcome to the club!’ So anyway a couple of weeks later I felt we needed to sort this out so I rang him. And we had a great chat on the phone. And he disagreed that I should ask the question. And I said, ‘Brian, if we were there again I would ask the same question — that is my job. If it happened the other way around, if Tipp had scored the penalty, I would have asked the same question. Otherwise I would have failed as a sideline reporter’. The years went by and I was on holidays in Dubai and there was a missed call from Brian. I said, ‘What on earth does he want, he does not call me very often?’ I suppose it was the ultimate make-up, he asked me to do MC at the James Stephens Strictly Come Dancing. So I went down to Kilkenny and did MC at the event, and we’ve been the best of friends ever since. But it was certainly a moment on television.”

Another famous interview, with Páidí ó Sé in early 2003, was a more slapstick affair. The Kerry team were on vacation in South Africa when a storm erupted over comments made by ó Sé to Kevin Kimmage for this newspaper, where the Kerry manager described county followers as “the worst kind of animals”. By chance, Morrissey happened to be there on holiday in the same location and ó Sé spotted an opportunity to redress the damage.

He was asked to call to Páidí’s hotel.

“Am I in trouble at home?” Páidí asked him.

“Well, you are in a spot of bother alright. But you will deal with it Páidí. I understand it. I know you.”

“What are you doing here?”

“I’m on holidays.”

“I want you to do an interview with me.”

“And I said, ‘I’m on holidays, I am not doing any interview. I’ve only just arrived’.”

“No, I want you to do it. I am asking you as a favour. We need to kill this.”

The arrangements were made.

“I then said to Páidí, ‘You have to be prepared for this now, you have got to be mentally tuned in, you’re only getting one crack at it. Now remember it’s you that wants to do this, not me’.”

“He said, ‘Give me your phone. I need to check with The Boss’.

“I gave him my phone. So he went off and came back and said, ‘No good, didn’t get The Boss’.”

He tried again a few minutes later and this time was successful.

“The Boss says I should do the interview with you.”

“And I said, ‘Well, fair play to Máire (Páidí’s wife)’.”

“Máire! Don’t mind Máire. She’s not the boss. There’s only one boss in Ireland.’

“I said, ‘Who’s that?’”

“Charles J Haughey.”

“He’d rung Charlie. He’d asked Charlie for permission.”

He goes on: “We got two chairs down by the pier and away we went. I had sunglasses and he said, ‘Gimme those sunglasses’ — and he put them up on his head.”

And so it began, with the following memorable exchange:

Marty: ‘There are people in Kerry you know, Páidí, who think you should resign. Will you be resigning as Kerry manager?’

Páidí: ‘No more than (looks around) that boat out there — look! — will I resign’ (pointing to a white boat on the pier).

 

* * * * *

 

WOULD you go back to live in west Clare, Morrissey is asked. He pauses. It is a question for which there is no satisfactory answer. He tries to make it every weekend to see his mother. “The winter nights can be lonely there. I am conscious there is a lot of loneliness in Ireland. I think they do need a facility in rural Ireland where people can meet. It doesn’t matter if you’re 10 or 90.”

He is involved in a local development initiative which hopes to stimulate local tourism and tap into the Wild Atlantic Way. He thinks of people living alone, needing something. He thinks of the times his father’s dancefloor heaved in the 1970s when he was in his teens, pulling pints, the set dancers and the Tulla Céilí Band or the Kilfenora, and the Clare set or the Caledonian. “All you could see were heads moving up and down.”

And when he thinks of rural life and the loneliness he loops back into television and RTE and its future prospects with the Irish audience. “Irish people, I think, love watching Irish people on television. And I don’t think that will ever change. I can’t see that changing. I would like to think that RTE will remain the heartbeat of Irish society.”

Finally, before we go, he’s asked what matters to him. “Apart from the obvious, good health, I think honesty, friendship, loyalty. I am Scorpio. We are loyal. Loyalty is important. If you’re a friend, you’re a friend. Don’t be a hypocrite. Because I will return it in spades.”

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