"And what a marvellous reception Noel (Lane) has got from the people that are here. They're nearly all Galway, Cork didn't travel. They were waiting for the final. Now it looks a long way off."
1985 All-Ireland hurling semi-final,
Michael O'Hehir's last commentary
You don't have a career as long as Michael O'Hehir's without ruffling some feathers. In 1980, Ireland's most renowned sports commentator, whose birth centenary will be on June 2, managed to rile the august members of Kerry County Board.
The matter concerned the All-Ireland final of the same year, in which Kerry defeated Roscommon in a low-scoring, foul-ridden game to win the title for the third year in a row. Nearing half-time Pat Spillane went down off the ball. His Roscommon marker protested his innocence and the referee, Seamus Murray, didn't appear convinced about Spillane's condition. He attempted to lift him back to his feet. The player would not rise. And while this was going on, with the teams level in a tense match, O'Hehir had his say: "The trouble with Pat is that Pat has been known to play it a little bit when he gets a knock and it could be a case of the boy and the wolf once again."
O'Hehir was known for meticulous research and familiarity with the players but the Kerry board felt he had over-stepped the mark and wronged their man. In November, The Kerryman newspaper carried a report of a meeting where the veteran commentator was taken to task. Officers claimed the referee had tried to lift Spillane "like you would a dead dog" and demanded an apology. It was also stated that Spillane's difficulty during this period was caused by the dislocation of a contact lens.
Gerald McKenna, the board's Central Council representative, noted that O'Hehir expressed "a very personal opinion where he could very well be wrong and where his remarks could have connotations that could be detrimental to the character of the player". McKenna advised that "he should be more careful. Some of the remarks of Michael O'Hehir as regards his views of our players in recent games certainly call for comment. The remarks about Pat Spillane should be condemned."
Even for a universally admired broadcasting behemoth like O'Hehir, it was impossible to please all of the people all of the time. What was beyond dispute was his unrivalled place at the heart of the GAA and Irish life in general for almost 50 years, a phenomenon, from his first commentary as an 18-year-old novice in Mullingar at the 1938 All-Ireland football semi-final between Galway and Monaghan to his last performance, the 1985 All-Ireland hurling semi-final between Galway and Cork.
He wasn't to know that would be his last hurrah of course. Only weeks away from a landmark 100th All-Ireland final, he suffered the stroke that finished his career and left him debilitated for the remaining 11 years of his life. He became almost wholly dependent on the care of his family. Mainly confined to a wheelchair, the greater indignity was his speech, his greatest weapon, being left impaired - a dreadful affliction for a man who forged a legend from its gift.
His son Peter says that O'Hehir did not give up easily on getting back to work. "He certainly, at least in the initial stages, had the hope that everything would come back and it would all be fine," he explains. "Then the realisation set in that that was not happening. That was the frustration of it, living with that for so long. Although he did go to matches and enjoyed it up to a point. He always enjoyed meeting people. But obviously it wasn't the same."
On Friday, August 9, just five days after he had commentated for RTE television on Galway's surprise win over Cork, he suffered the life-changing stroke while at home in Dublin's Griffith Avenue. On Monday, August 12, the Irish Independent reported that he had been too weak to watch the previous day's All-Ireland semi-final between Kerry and Monaghan from his hospital bed. On the first Sunday in September he was due to cover Offaly v Galway in the hurling decider, which would have been his 100th All-Ireland final.
For Peter, the moment of acceptance that the 100th final would never happen came two years later. During the 1987 All-Ireland football final he was introduced to the 68,000 crowd by Mícheál ó Muircheartaigh, Peter wheeled him on to the field to a rousing and emotional reception after the GAA had invited him there as a special guest. The final marked the 40th anniversary of one of O'Hehir's finest moments in broadcasting when he covered the All-Ireland final between Cavan and Kerry in the Polo Grounds.
"He wasn't a man who was easy to read," says his son, "but I felt myself at that time that that was an admission, like him saying to people, this is the way I am."
For many, although news of his condition was not a secret, the sight of an enfeebled O'Hehir was not easy to take in. "I suppose for a lot of people who had grown up with the voice and who were with him along the journey for so long it must have been a shock to them," says Peter.
"His speech came back a bit and he would have a conversation, but a word wouldn't come and he would get frustrated with that. For someone who had made a life of talking, and talking at speed, that was an issue. Physically he went through the physio and whatever and he never got control of what we called the 'bad leg' back. He got around on a stick for a while with supervision. He wasn't flying around the place or anything like it. But for a while that was possible. He wouldn't be going out on his own anywhere."
* * * * *
O'Hehir continued to make public appearances after the stroke almost until the time of his death in November, 1996. After time in the Mater Hospital he was moved to the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dun Laoghaire, where he worked on recovering some of his physical and vocal abilities. Once discharged he spent extended periods living with his daughter, Mary, in west Cork. In his final years, work on a book on his life consumed much of his time, a collaboration with his close friends Mick Dunne and Maurice Quinn. He attended a gala dinner in his honour along with a variety of famous names from the sporting world just over two weeks before his death.
During the 11 years after his final commentary he would intermittently appear in public for presentations and even on television. In May 1994 he received a specially commissioned portrait in recognition of his services to Irish broadcasting at a function at Killarney racecourse, attended by the Taoiseach of the time, Albert Reynolds. In 1991, Cratloe named its playing field after him, in the home county of his parents. His father Jim trained the Clare hurling team that won the All-Ireland in 1914. Two years later, Clondegad GAA club, in the parish of his father's birth, did the same when their new pitch took his name.
In 1990, while spending much of his time in west Cork, he was honoured at the Annual Clóna Sports Star Awards for his distinguished services to sport. They took the liberty of describing him as "the adopted son of west Cork". There was an appearance on Up for the Match in RTE before the 1995 All-Ireland hurling final, with Clare aiming to win a first senior title in 81 years the next day. But he had difficulty at times expressing what he wanted to say and the frustration that evening was visible on camera.
"Mary would have brought him to Munster Championship matches and Munster football finals in Killarney," says Peter of the final years of his life. "I would have brought him when he was in Dublin, normally I was the driver for Croke Park. He was there for the (hurling) final in '95 and had a good cry at the end of it and unfortunately he was gone when they (Clare) won it in '97.
"He lived with it (the effects of the stroke). A lot of the time he would be fine. Other times I don't know whether it was anxiety or just the mechanics of the brain if a word didn't come that he would just get kind of thick with himself. There was a lot of frustration. The idea of the book sunk in with him after a while. That probably kept him going in many ways.
"The function the GAA organised for him after the book's publication in the Burlington in 1996 was on November 9 and he died less than three weeks later, you'd wonder did he keep himself going to get that done. Maybe so."
In 1988, his daughter Mary came home with her husband and family from Africa where they had first moved to in 1974. They settled in west Cork. Soon they had a famous lodger. "It was a bit much for mammy to have to be looking after him," she explains, "she had her own problems, she had a leg amputated. So he came down as an experiment, for a bit of a break. And then he began to spend more time here and less time in Dublin.
"He settled in. My father always liked to sit in the sun, and the house was in the village, so he would sit out on the road, taking the sun. He would greet passers-by and you'd have everyone stopping to talk to him and all that."
In 1977 he had travelled to spend time with her in Kenya and got roped in to do a commentary at the racetrack in Nairobi. She was in Holland, the country of her late husband, when her father suffered the stroke.
"If I am being honest he was very frustrated," she says of his condition in the years that followed. "In the beginning he was fine. He reckoned he could make progress, and then there came a time when he realised he was not getting any better.
"I don't think retirement was on his radar. And the big thing was the 100th All-Ireland. I'd say even two years after the stroke he would still have nearly felt that it was possible.
"The book was launched, we had that wonderful night in the Burlington and he wasn't well, and after that it was as if he just went. At that time he was in Dublin, in Beaumont nursing home. It was there that he died. I think he felt the job was done."
* * * * *
At the funeral of O'Hehir, the GAA Patron, Archbishop Dermot Clifford, spoke of a towering influence in pre-television Ireland and the special bond that developed between O'Hehir and listeners through the medium of radio. "The curtain has come down on an age of innocence and simplicity," stated Clifford. "In the 1930s and 1940s people helped one another. That meant that if there was one radio in a village all the people gathered in that house. There was time for everybody and time for everything. The pace of life was slower and night and day were distinct, there was little electricity. The seasons dictated life and work. Sunday was a time for prayer in the morning and leisure games in the afternoon. There was no Sunday trading and no farmers worked."
Clifford memorably said that O'Hehir was one of two distinctive voices of Ireland along with the singer John McCormack.
O'Hehir's voice still reverberates in the GAA consciousness and has a kind of mystic quality with the passing of time. Next year will mark the 25th anniversary of his death. All the seminal GAA moments during his long reign seemed to exist in his words primarily. Players equated O'Hehir calling out their name as a sign that they had made the big time and lived the dream. Ten years before he unwittingly raised Kerry's pique over the Spillane incident he was describing the wonderful solo goal from Din Joe Crowley in Kerry's All-Ireland final win over Meath. There is nothing especially memorable in the literal description, but judging the words in isolation is like watching someone dance with the music turned down. The voice and the action merged into a perfect and inseparable harmony. Almost a half century before Eoin Murchan's audacious solo goal against Kerry, Din Joe's effort is made more glorious by O'Hehir's commentary, as if no other voice were thinkable.
Being such an indispensable voice in Ireland when people relied hugely on the commentator's word before television, created a huge trust and dependency and an enormous profile and status. Peter found a letter among his father's belongings when cleaning up a room in the house following his death. It was after one of the All-Ireland finals he covered; he isn't sure which one.
"Seemingly in commentary he had mentioned that the President didn't arrive on time. I won't say he was expressing his concern but he was noting it and the bould Paddy (Hillery) sent him a letter a few days later to explain that he had been held up on the road and the weather wasn't great. It was as if he thought, I did something to upset O'Hehir, I'd better put the record straight."
In racing he was no less revered, being in popular demand with TV networks in the UK and America. Jim Carney accompanied O'Hehir, as broadcasting assistant, to Paris for the 1976 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp. "Standing in the parade ring before the first race, I noticed that many people were making a big fuss of the famous English trainer Captain Ryan Price, who had been a World War II hero for his role in the Normandy D-Day landings. A little later the entry of the distinguished American racing man John D Schapiro, owner of Laurel Park, was also greeted in a showy way. Michael O'Hehir then walked into the parade ring and I was wondering would he be noticed. There was a buzz around him straight away. I was gobsmacked to see that it was led by two men: Ryan Price and John Schapiro. They went up to Michael, exchanged handshakes with him, hugged him, and by then a crowd had gathered around him. I could see how 'big' he was in the world of horse racing. It was a fantastic sight."
Carney, who followed O'Hehir into commentary, first heard his voice on radio in the late 1950s, mainly on Gaelic games. "I became a racing fan in the mid-1960s and it was thrilling to hear Michael O'Hehir and Peter O'Sullevan on the Grand National commentary. To think that Michael commentated on so much horse racing in his long career, usually on Saturdays, and then he switched effortlessly to Gaelic games on Sundays. It was astonishing that he could do that for so long. Did he ever get colds or flus? Did he ever lose his voice and have to take a day off? Did his voice weaken as he got older? Not in memory. It must have taken extraordinary willpower, dedication and stamina."
When Telefís Éireann was launched in 1961 O'Hehir was made head of sport until he left in 1972 to take over as manager of Leopardstown racecourse. He had attracted rave notice for his handling of the John F Kennedy funeral in the US which he covered at relatively short notice, by chance having been in the country at the time of the assassination. It led to offers from American television companies which he turned down.
His decision to leave the position of head of sport in RTE is said to have been partly down to frustration during attempts to provide a Saturday TV sports programme and a Sunday radio sports show. In RTE there was a natural tension forming between some of the new figures starting to make names for themselves and the older brigade. But few broadcasters could command the respect that O'Hehir enjoyed among the population at large. The Leopardstown job didn't last beyond a year and he remained an invaluable asset to RTÉ. His departure in 1985 left a void that was virtually impossible to fill.
* * * * *
O'Hehir did not have a reputation for courting controversy, which is not to say that he managed to avoid it. At a tribute to O'Hehir the year he died, Lar Foley, the notoriously uncompromising former Dublin hurler and manager who also played for their footballers, spoke approvingly of the commentator's avoidance of "scandal" and how he protected players' identities when they got into trouble. That practice did not lend itself as comfortably to television as it did to radio.
But he was part of an extraordinarily upsetting day in October 1983, when covering the National Football League tie between Meath and Dublin in Navan. In The GAA & Radio Éireann 1926-2010 the author Pat Guthrie recalled the moment the commentary box containing O'Hehir was attacked by "a gang of hooligans".
An armed detective on duty in the commentary box produced his revolver and "frightened off the unruly 'yahoos'," as Guthrie described the aggressors. Guthrie said he found O'Hehir "upset and traumatised" when he visited his home later the same evening. The attack by a group of Dublin followers was said to have been provoked by biased commentary.
The Irish Independent reported that the commentary box was hit with a flurry of bricks, stones and drink cans and about 30 fans surrounded the glass panelled kiosk. One brick broke the glass leaving O'Hehir with a lucky escape from injury. Unarmed Gardaí arrived and the mob dispersed. "They were ranting and raving and I can tell you I was more than a little frightened," O'Hehir told the newspaper.
Three Dublin players were sent off in the All-Ireland final between Dublin and Galway, Dublin finishing with 12. Manager Kevin Heffernan also received a later suspension. "These followers wearing Dublin colours accused me in various foul expressions of being anti-Dublin," claimed O'Hehir.
"They are not genuine GAA supporters and they have behaved disgracefully," said Dan Cotter, the Dublin County Board chairman. The board issued a statement condemning the attack on O'Hehir.
Peter remembers the day. "My memory was that he tried to play it down and get over it but it did definitely shake him. That was probably the thing that shook him most from a day to day work point of view. If they were not happy about it now they'd tweet about it."
After the stroke, O'Hehir was replaced by Ger Canning on television, and on radio by Ó Muircheartaigh. Guthrie in his book recalled O'Hehir's last match in Croke Park, the day Galway shocked Cork to reach the 1985 hurling final, a day made memorable by the horrendous weather conditions and the meagre crowd of 8,200.
The night before O'Hehir spent three hours at the Aisling Hotel where the Galway team was staying. He hadn't seen their half-back line of Pete Finnerty, Tony Keady and Tony Kilkenny in action during the year and he wanted "to see how they walked, what colour helmets they would be wearing, if their socks would be up or down." He said that it was his good fortune that the next day the Galway half-back line laid the foundation for a famous win. That made for a more commanding commentary. But the remarkable diligence O'Hehir had shown made it possible.
On November 24, 1996, he died aged 76. "He was in a nursing home in Beaumont," recalls Peter O'Hehir, "and I saw him on the Saturday evening and I was racing in Clonmel on the Sunday and (my brother) Tony was there too. We got a phone call in the afternoon to say he had taken a turn, that we should come back and we were back a short time when he passed away."
The last seconds of match action commentary by O'Hehir has Johnny Crowley in possession for Cork, coming out with the ball when the referee sounds the final whistle. It was a disappointing day for Crowley but he can count it a privilege and a consolation that he has that unique distinction, and always will.
In his own words...
"A high lobbing, dropping ball in towards the goalmouth, a shot . . . a goal! A goal! A goal for Offaly! There was a goal in the game. A goal, oh what a goal!"
(Seamus Darby, 1982 All-Ireland football final v Kerry)
"Mickey Sullivan goes racing through. Alan Larkin is in front of him. He's gone past Alan Larkin. Paddy Reilly is after him. Georgie Wilson is after him. Everybody is after him. He's well and truly looked after now."
(Kerry's Mickey 'Ned' O'Sullivan is floored and later hospitalised, 1975 All-Ireland football final v Dublin)
"And if there's anybody along the way there listening in, just give us five minutes more."
(Appealing for the lines to remain open after the booking time had expired before the end of the 1947 All-Ireland football final between Cavan and Kerry in New York's Polo Grounds)
"And Limerick are the champions! And just look! Just look at it!"
(Final whistle in the 1973 All-Ireland hurling final as Limerick followers invade the pitch following victory over Kilkenny to celebrate a first win since 1940)
"To Din Joe Crowley. DJ going through with it now. A typical DJ run. He's on the 14-yard line. He takes a shot. And that's it . . . a great goal, a great goal by Din Joe Crowley."
(Kerry goal v Meath, 1970 All-Ireland football final)
"Oh what an opportunist goal. As quick as a wink into the net."
(Tom Walsh goal puts Kilkenny in front in the 1967 All-Ireland hurling final, leading to the first championship win over Tipp since the 1922 final, played in 1923)
"The crowd appealing for Iggy. And there he is! He's coming! He's coming! He's there!"
(1980 All-Ireland hurling final, when the injured Iggy Clarke comes up to lift the MacCarthy Cup, Galway's first win in 57 years)
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