Tuesday 19 November 2019

Sean O'Rourke: My great friend Colm was an inspiration to everyone he met

Presenter Sean O'Rourke describes the late Colm Murray as a person 'who lit up the room'
Presenter Sean O'Rourke describes the late Colm Murray as a person 'who lit up the room'

Sean O'Rourke

Colm Murray was one of those guys who would light up a room. I know it sounds like a cliche, but he could actually inspire people on a one-to-one level or in a crowd situation.

I have two small examples. We were once playing golf in the depths of winter, just a friendly four-ball. There was only a fiver riding on it, and we were a couple of holes down setting into the back nine.

Colm got me, shook me and said: "Come on O'Rourke, we're going to win this damn thing – we're going to take the money off these guys!"

It was a real gee-up, and we won! He threw himself into the cause.

The other one was one Friday morning I was in the office and I was due to do a charity auction. At about half-nine I had a phone call to say my father-in-law had died, so obviously I couldn't do the event.

About five minutes later I saw Colm coming through the door, and I said: "The very man, I need you to do this and here's why."

"No problem," he said. "I'll do that." And the thing was a roaring success – so much so that for the next one it was him they wanted, not me. He had a great capacity to wind people up with enthusiasm.

I don't think it was particularly well known, but Colm was a very effective union official with the National Union of Journalists. He was the chief official in RTE – the father of the chapel – and he would have a few rows with Rory O'Connor, a kindred spirit in senior management, over various things like rosters and productivity and new work programmes.

They had a capacity to connect with each other and they'd find solutions. Colm wouldn't float his idea until he knew the other side were desperate for a solution and then he'd come in with it.

He would have known that if he made a proposal too early, they'd have blown it out of the water. He had a great sense of timing.

He was great fun, people warmed to him. He was sharp, but not cruel. He'd say: "Jaysus, what got into your man? What was he thinking when he did or said or thought about or proposed that?"

He really hit it off with Albert Reynolds. Colm had this fascination with politicians, which I think he got from his parents, and the big party rallies and cars coming through and cavalcades.

His parents ran this shop in Moate, and Albert was building the dance hall in the town when Colm was serving in the shop as a kid. Albert would come in and buy loads of stuff, sweets for the kids and that kind of thing.

I think Colm backed Michael D to win the presidential election – and won a few bob. He was quite confident from a long way out.

He would tell stories for Ireland. He was a brilliant mimic and could do a great Liam Cosgrave, who was a friend of his through racing.

He had a brilliant mimic of Cossie talking about how he picked his cabinet, things that Cossie would have confided to him about why, for instance, he would have picked Richie Ryan as finance minister.

The passing parade of humanity was really what fascinated Colm as much as anything else. You wouldn't pass him in a corridor without having some bit of craic about politics or sport.

Even as a broadcaster, when he'd be live from Galway or Cheltenham, he had a ferocious kind of enthusiasm and love of his subject. He knew a good horse when he saw one.

But he had a great capacity to laugh at himself. He would take to golf with great enthusiasm, but he would say he had no way of knowing if the ball would end up in front or behind him after he'd taken a swing.

But people didn't mind, because the company was worth it, even if he was playing rubbish golf.

Colm started out as a teacher, but I don't think he would have been tough enough – maybe he would have been, but I couldn't imagine him punishing anybody.

He was very learned, and would have classical illusions thrown into things, and he spoke French effortlessly. He was a natural performer, and that's why broadcasting worked for him.

He'd cut things fine and could never be accused of turning up too early for anything. One year John O'Shea asked me to do the commentary at the Goal Mile Run on Christmas Day in Belfield, and the deal was that Michael Lyster was to do the first hour, I was to do the second and Colm was to do the third.

And Colm showed up about an hour late – I think I had about two hours done. But you couldn't hold a grudge against him.

It is sad and ironic that he died during Galway Races week, but that brings you back round to where he discovered that he had this illness.

He was about to go to Cheltenham and he didn't go in 2010 because he needed these tests, he was just tired and he started to get a bit of a limp and he started to get these tremors in his arms.

But the one thing he talked about – and I did this long interview with him in the Aviva – he was terrified about what it would turn out to be.

This was what he did not want to hear, and it really knocked him back. I just think of his inspirational qualities, to see the way he got this really bad news and said: "Right, I'm going to make the most of it, I'm going to fight the fight. I'm going to take it as far as I can."

And he probably lived a good deal longer than most people would have expected him to.

He quoted Willie Mullins, saying "you gotta deal with this, get back in there, get back on the horse" – and he did that.

He came into RTE, initially with a walking stick, then with a frame and then he ended up in a chair and it was very highly automated. He just kept coming until it became impossible.

When it reached a stage where he couldn't put his voice down on the pictures, he kept cutting the pictures of the racing, but he stopped towards the end of 2011.

People would go to visit Colm and say: "How am I going to find a way to lift his spirits?" But you'd come away and he'd have lifted your spirits – he'd send you away on a high.

He'd be sitting there chatting in the chair and he'd be gossiping and he'd be passing a remark about somebody.

It would possibly be a bit barbed – I won't name one or two people who would have been on the receiving end of it!

It was just amazing the way he dealt with his illness, and the love of his family. He endured this illness and was cared for in his own home. His family had to make adjustments to it, but his wife, Ann, was heroic looking after him.

I visited him a few times, and if I knew he was coming to work I'd always try to see him in the office.

I last saw him in early June, and at that stage he couldn't manage anything more than a smile, yet you sensed that he enjoyed the company.

People would visit him in groups, in twos and threes, and conversation would flow around him and he'd pick up on it and would follow it. He would manage a smile. It was tough.

It took a lot of courage from Colm to do the documentary for TV, and it was hugely intrusive as well. But I think he saw – a bit like the radio interview he did with me – the benefits of highlighting this disease and hoping there would be more resources and research money provided for it. It was selfless.

Even though I wasn't in RTE yesterday, I have a sense of what it would have been like when news of Colm's death came through.

His sister, Cathy, who worked for 'Morning Ireland', died suddenly six or seven weeks ago and people were devastated by that. It would have been the same for Colm.

He liked the stage and was sought after as a ringmaster for events, and one of my favourite memories of Colm is from a pre-Galway Races brunch a few years ago in NUIG.

He was encouraging people to follow his list of sure things. And then he cautioned hilariously: "But my final word in this great Aula Maxima where so many distinguished scholars have passed through the hallowed portals is: Caveat Punter."

He just brought the house down.

Sean O'Rourke is presenter and programme editor of RTE's News at One

Irish Independent

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