Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

 
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Interviews - SPORTING LEGENDS OF IRELAND

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AWARDS

Jacob's Award 1992.

PPI Sports’ Broadcaster of Year 2002

Kerry Person of Year 1997

Grand Marshal of Dublin’s
St. Patrick’s Day Festival Parade 2007

Honorary President of Asian GAA.

Honorary Fellowship
Institute of Technology, Tralee 2009.

Honorary Doctorate of Laws
National University of Ireland Galway 1999

Honorary Doctorate of Laws
Higher Education and Training Awards Council 2006.

Sports Ambassador
Institute of Technology Sligo 2010

MICHEÁL Ó MUIRCHEARTAIGH
GAA COMMENTATOR

In 1939, one of the most spine-tingling events in the history of Croke Park took place when nearly 40,000 hurling fans crowded into the stadium to watch Cork and Kilkenny battle it out for the McCarthy Cup. As the second half got underway, an extraordinarily loud thunder clap stunned the audience, to be swiftly followed by an epic lightning storm. The gallant players continued on, with Kilkenny emerging as winners by a point. But for anyone wondering what the thunder might have signified, they only had to look at the next mornings’ newspapers. That same day, the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared that the war with Hitler’s Germany had begun.

Amongst those huddled over a wireless, listening to the match commentary was 9-year-old Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh. He had listened to his first final the previous year and had become instantly hooked on the sport.

Six years later, the 15-year-old farmer’s son moved from the Christian Brothers School in Dingle to Coláiste Iosagáin, an Irish language preparatory school in the Múscraí Gaeltacht of south west Co Cork.

The Ó Muircheartaigh’s, or Moriartys, have been based in Kerry for as far back as time recalls and trace their ancestry to Domhnall, King of Munster. In 1598, Owen Ó Muircheartaigh, head of his clan, was hanged on the gibbet at his own front door by Elizabethan soldiers. The Moriarty lands were simultaneously forfeited to the English Crown.[i]

Such stories had a powerful resonance in the childhood home of young Micheál. His grandfather’s grandfather had once farmed lands around Anascaul on the Dingle Peninsula but was evicted during the 1830s. By 1852, Daniel Moriarty was farming 53 acres along the craggy coast of Dún Síon, east of Dingle, where Ignatius Moriarty, Micheál’s grandfather, was born that same year.

Ignatius was the only member of the Irish-speaking household not to emigrate to America. His brother Tim, for instance, made a small fortune as a gold prospector in Montana.[ii] America was also to be the destination for six of Ignatius’s eight children. ‘All bar my father and the youngest son went across’, says Micheál. ‘The vast majority who emigrated in those days never returned and the main reason for that was simply that that the length of time they got for their annual holidays would have been exhausted by the two-way travel by boat’.’[iii]

Micheál’s father Timothy was born in 1890. ‘He stayed in Kerry because he was inheriting the farm at Dún Síon’.[iv] The farm, where Micheál was born in the summer of 1930, was good land and made for a fine living.

However, young Micheál’s ambition was not to farm but to teach. In 1948, he entered the teachers training college of St Patrick’s in Drumcondra, Dublin, one of the most influential third-level colleges in Ireland for Gaelic games.

He graduated in 1950 and spent the next thirty years working fulltime as a teacher with the Christian Brothers in both Primary and Secondary schools.

He simultaneously began playing football for the Geraldines in Dublin. ‘There was hardly a Dublin-born person on the team at that time’, he says. ‘It was nearly all Kerry and Cork people who were living in Dublin’.[v]

Listening to the Croke Park matches on a wireless in Dingle was, as with many of his generation, one of the highlights of Micheál’s childhood. From St Patrick’s, he attended his first match at Croker in 1948, standing in the Cusack Stand to watch Cavan's Gaelic footballers beat Mayo on a very windy day.

‘It was the strongest wind I ever remember. At half time, Mayo hadn’t scored and Cavan had 3 goals and 2 points. They changed ends and, with the wind, Mayo challenged strongly. The end was very dramatic. Mayo were awarded a 14 yards free at an angle to the right. They were one point in arrears as Padraic Carney kicked, but Cavan’s Mick Higgins advanced and fielded the ball. Cavan were winners on a 4-5 to 4-4 scoreline.’

The fact that Micheál can still recall such relative minutiae 62 years after the event took place would surprise nobody who knows him. No man has a more encyclopaedic knowledge of the sport than Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh. He appears to know who won every championship, and the accompanying scores, since the GAA was founded 126 years ago. ‘Well, I keep an eye on things, he says bashfully.

He also knows the background of every GAA event from the disastrous ‘American Invasion Tour’ of 1888 (when 40% of the touring players jumped ship to remain permanently in the USA) to Tex Austin’s seven-day International Rodeo at Croke Park in 1924.

All this knowledge would prove supremely useful when he began his career as a commentator in early March 1949. His commentary audition took place during the first hurling match the Kerryman had ever seen. His passion impressed those listening so much that Radio Éireann asked him to provide an all-Irish commentary for the 1949 Railway Cup football final on St. Patrick’s Day.

Before long, Micheál was doing all the Irish and English match commentaries on the radio, as well as the Irish language commentary for the televised minor matches. When Micheál idol, legendary RTE commentator Micheál O'Hehir retired in the mid-1980s, he was the natural heir to succeed as the stations’ premier radio commentator.[vi]

GAA commentators are well-known for their wit, and Micheál is arguably the quickest of them all, rattling out the one-liners quick as blinks.

For instance, ‘Pat Fox has it on his hurl and is motoring well now ... but here comes Joe Rabbitte hot on his tail … I've seen it all now, a Rabbitte chasing a Fox around Croke Park!’

Or, ‘Teddy McCarthy to John McCarthy, no relation, John McCarthy back to Teddy McCarthy, still no relation.’

And while watching former Cork captain Seán Óg Ó hAilpín race up the pitch, he managed to tell listeners, ‘his father's from Fermanagh, his mother's from Fiji, neither one of them a hurling stronghold.’

At the age of 80, this agile and immensely likeable man has seen an immense amount of change.[vii] In times gone by, he often sat up late talking with one of the Dublin footballers who was on the pitch when the British troops opened fire on Bloody Sunday. But he was among those who welcomed rugby and soccer into Croke Park and viewed it as a sign of modern Ireland’s maturity. ‘Many were overcome by the occasion’, he observes. He is also much impressed by the manner in which the Gaelic spirit has now gone east and he is Honorary President of the Asian Gaelic Games. ‘I think it’s all about looking ahead rather than looking back’, he says. ‘It’s about how we can keep it all going for the next generation to enjoy’.

FOOTNOTE

[i] Legend holds Owen to blame for betraying the renegade Earl of Desmond to the English during the Elizabethan Wars.

[ii] By his wife Kate, Ignatius had eight children, six sons and two daughters. One of Ignatius’s brother was Patrick Moriarty who came to the U.S. thru Boston and on to New York where he married Anna Barry and they had their first child, Ellen, in 1890. Another brother Tim made a fortune prospecting for gold in Montana and the deeds of his stake are still in the family. In 1856, the Boston Pilot published a rather poignant advertisement by Betty Moriarty of ‘Doonsheane’, seeking information on the whereabouts of her daughter Catherine.

[iii] One brother ran a pub on Fifth Avenue, ideally situated as it straddled a subway station. ‘The American could come in one door, have a quick drink and then go out the other door and into the subway and off on their way to work’, explains Mícheál.

[iv] ‘His youngest brother Joe also stayed because he was the first of the family to go to secondary school’. The 1901 census for the townland of Doonsheane, Dingle, the head of the Moriarty family is listed as Ignatius, aged 49 with a son Patrick, aged 17. He was married to Kate(42). Other sons listed were John 13, Timothy 11, Cornelius 7, Michael 5, Daniel 7 months. Joe (Ignatius Joseph), who was born I 1903, went on to become a teacher in Moynane (or Newtownsandes), North Kerry.

[v] ‘There was also a club called Westerneers which was for people from Sligo and Mayo and so on. If you were living in Dublin, you couldn’t really play club football for your own county, although a lot of them from Dublin did play for their county. But I think Dublin football was much stronger in those times. When Dublin won the All Ireland in 1942, both the captain and his two midfield partners were from Dingle. That wouldn’t happen today! After that they started a policy where only people who were born in Dublin would be eligible to pay for them. That was a good decision because it was better for the development of Dublin football’.

‘Rural people always have the humour’, he says. ‘Even though Dublin people are every good at humour, the country people meet each other more often and they understand each other better. That gives rise to humour.’

[vi] While O’Hehir was his ultimate idol, Micheál also enjoyed meetings with racing commentator Peter O’Sullivan, another Kerryman. Once at Punchestown, he was guest commentator alongside Mr. O’Sullivan for the last race of the day, a relatively low-key affair for the locals. Mr. O’Sullivan had the names of all the horses and jockeys, with their colours, written out in his own handiwork. He then produced a box of thumb tacks and fastened the page to his desk. ‘It was all as if he were about to do the commentary on the Epsom Derby final’.

‘Very early in my career, I had things written down on pieces of paper and someone came in the door and the names went out the window’, explained O’Sullivan, thumbing in another tack. ‘You could do it on a computer, I suppose, but what happens if there’s a power failure?!’

[vii] He also has some remarkable direct links to the history of the sport. Take Douglas Hyde Cusack, for instance, who was first President of the GAA. Hyde used to walk with an ebony stick finely engraved with shamrocks and hearts. ‘Everyone carried a stick in those times’, he says, pondering a full-sized photographic portrait of GAA founder Michael Cusack clenching a knobbly blackthorn stick in his right hand. ‘It was a tradition. It was a very acceptable present in those times’. In 1994, Mícheál managed to secure it from An Seabhac, Pádraig Ó Siochfhradha for Dingle Library. You feel this was one of his proudest moments. ‘It was made of ebony’, he recalls. ‘It really was a good stick’.

While in South Africa, he once went to visit a nun, the daughter of a Kerry footballer who had been seduced by the habit at the age of 12. Four years later, she was shipped out to South Africa ‘and there was no coming home in those days’, until the Pope reformed the laws.

When Carlow won the Leinster title in 1944 they were, he said, ‘as proud of that as any county who has won the All Ireland three, four or thirty times. But the time will come when Carlow will do what Tyrone and Armagh did in very recent times and win an All-Ireland for the first time. That hope always lives on’.


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Click here to see a full list of persons interviewed for the Vanishing Ireland project.