Marty doth protest too much. Near the end of his new autobiography he declares he is not a celebrity. He also vows that he never wanted to be famous.
But in fact his celebrity is at that level where his surname doesn’t need to be mentioned before people will know who you’re talking about. Marty is enough. More than 30 years after his first match commentary for RTÉ, Morrissey is part of the furniture of national life. He might even indeed be a national treasure.
“Did I want to be well known?” he writes. “Absolutely not. I only strived to be as good a commentator as I could be.” Ah here, Marty. “I couldn’t care less if I was never seen on TV, I just wanted to go to the games.” Ah ffs, Marty. Pull the other one.
The thing is, if he only ever strived to be a good commentator, he has very little to say about the craft of match commentating in his book. He has a great deal to say about the job but virtually nothing about the skills and the art of the trade.
This isn’t wholly surprising. The evidence is there every weekend of the GAA’s championship season. Marty is a professional but he is not a craftsman and certainly not an artist at the microphone. A summer doesn’t go by without this viewer for one lamenting the generic quality of his vocabulary, the shallow levels of discernment and the rampant proliferation of superlatives to describe routine pieces of play. Words of praise from him have become almost meaningless because they are thrown around like the proverbial confetti at a wedding.
The word “passion” is rarely far from his lips; it is splattered all over the book too. For decades it has apparently been sacrosanct among GAA commentators local and national, with a few honourable exceptions, that they display “passion” above all else in their work.
It long ago became patronising and tedious.
But as long as there’s “passion”, the rest will take care of itself. The rest can be as rough and ready as a farmers’ mart; as long as you’re shouting and roaring into the microphone, it’s good enough for a country job.
Personally, I would much prefer if they dialled down the “passion” and scaled up the precision. More precision in their linguistic skills, in their judgments, in the colour and tone of their commentaries.
Marty refers in passing to the twin godheads of GAA commentary, Michael O’Hehir and Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh. But that’s about it. Every Gaelic games commentator references the two masters. But if he’d been really obsessed with the commentator’s craft from a young age he’d have been studying everyone from Harry Carpenter to Peter O’Sullevan, Hugh Johns, David Coleman, Barry Davies, John Motson, Dan Maskell, Murray Walker, Brian Moore, Peter Alliss, Bill McLaren, Sid Waddell, Richie Benaud, Peter Jones and many more. That’s quite the roll call and it is by no means complete.
The gold standard was there next door in Britain. It’s almost as if it never dawned on Marty that we might have been exposed to that standard as an audience, and might therefore aspire to hearing better from our own commentators as a result. “Passion” is not enough and never has been.
Mind you, it doesn’t seem to matter much with the public. Marty Morrissey is one of the most popular broadcasters ever to have represented RTÉ. People are inordinately fond of him. He is blessed with a natural warmth and likeability. There seems not to be any streak of darkness in him at all. He is all sunny side up.
He has a good word for everyone and seemingly not a bad word about anybody. He is non-threatening and remarkably affable. He will stop for a thousand selfies if he has to. He will have a friendly word with every stranger that comes his way. He is the archetypal people’s person.
In his book, in his life, he seems to have an endless amount of great friends. As with the GAA players he commentates upon, just about everyone he has come across professionally and personally is wonderful, brilliant, terrific. He keeps protesting that he’s just an ordinary buck from west Clare but it is hard to avoid the impression that he is an incorrigible showbiz luvvie too. Or maybe it’s a case of him straddling both worlds; one day he’s a salt-of-the-earth gah head, the next he’s hamming it up with the rent-a-phoneys on celebrity alley.
Not being a consummate broadcasting craftsman à la someone like George Hamilton, Marty long ago became a personality instead. The former is highly respected, the latter widely liked. And it is no small feat to be so fondly regarded, given that his line of work is guaranteed to generate criticism and abuse.
By putting himself out there so much, he has put himself in the firing line for all manner of hurtful hostility. Indeed there is something almost innocent about his unceasingly pleasant disposition, despite the slagging he endures from friends and strangers. His optimism and bonhomie seem bombproof. He has always been able to take a joke at his expense, and just as well too, for he has been on the receiving end of some merciless lampooning from the establishment funnymen.
At some stage along the way he became public property. It must at times be exhausting. It seems to have got to the point where he can go nowhere in Ireland without being recognised. Fame in this goldfish bowl cannot be a bed of roses.
“There are negatives in every job and sometimes it is difficult to get private time,” he writes. “These days, it feels like I represent RTÉ every moment of my waking life.”
And yet, he wants more exposure, not less. For years he has sought work in light entertainment as well as sport. He has done numerous radio and TV gigs in the mainstream schedules. He hustled hard for those gigs. He wants more of them. They have brought him an audience that transcends the sporting sphere.
At the annual ploughing championships, for example, he is an enormously popular draw with the plain people of Ireland. They are all permanently invited to the legendary and never-ending Marty Party. Given his essential innocence, it is the kind of party where nuns and old ladies would find the proceedings suitably decorous and chaste. In fact, it is not so much a party at all, as a state of mind, a state of Martyness, if you will.
Morrissey is the matrix where GAA and local showbiz become intertwined. He is a very Irish kind of cultural phenomenon. It would take a bit of explaining to visitors.
You might start by saying he’s a sort of a cross between a curate and a cabaret singer and a rural corner-forward and a poll-topping county councillor. But they wouldn’t understand much of that either.
Listen, we could be here all night. Marty is Marty. He’s as Irish as a bucket of turf but he has a bit of American chutzpah about him too. He loves his gah, he’s fond of his showbiz, there’s a welcome on the mat for him wherever he goes. And there’s not many who can have that said about them, even in this land of the céad míle fáilte.