Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh talks to Mags Gargan about life, sport and Irish identity
Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh is as busy now in retirement as he ever was during his time as Ireland’s most loved sports broadcaster, and at the age of 83 he shows no signs of slowing down.
Mícheál is based in Co. Meath with his wife Helen, and still spends most of his time travelling not only all over the country to watch GAA games or greyhound racing, but all over the world, and was just back a few weeks from the Asian Gaelic Games in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia when The Irish Catholic caught up with him.
“I retired in 2010 but I am as busy as ever sportswise and go to as many matches now as any span of time before, so there is no change there really,” he says. “Normally when you retire you don’t go near the scene anymore, but I go back to the same scene Sunday after Sunday, all over Ireland and the world. It’s the best way to have it and I always look forward to the actual games – it was an added bonus to have the honour of commentating on the games.”
Born in Dún Síon, near Dingle, Co. Kerry, Mícheál worked as a teacher before becoming a full-time broadcaster with RTÉ. His first broadcast was on a Railway Cup match in 1949 between Munster and Leinster as Gaeilge, after answering an advertisement at just 18 years of age. Then over the course of six decades, he became famous for his uniquely entertaining turn of phrase and often bilingual commentaries.
“I grew up speaking bilingually,” he says, “and I think the language of every country should be preserved. There is a certain richness in all languages, but especially so in the Irish language, and it is spoken more frequently now. I think more Irish speakers are using it daily in Dublin, than any Gaeltacht in the country. Many of the Dublin footballers and hurlers speak Irish and the Gaelscoileanna movement has spread to every county. I am very happy with the progress the language is making as a spoken language.”
Speaking to Mícheál it is obvious he has a deep pride in the Irish language, culture, sport and his home county of Kerry, and perhaps because of this he became more than just a sports commentator over the years. His voice was an integral part of the soundtrack of Irish life, weekend after weekend coming through with enthusiasm and humour, and bringing the action from the pitch into people’s homes with the expertise of a seannachaí (storyteller).
Now he dedicates a lot of his time to promoting the many good causes he has taken to heart, including the Irish Hospice Foundation.
“I am patron of the hospice in Tralee and I think the hospice movement is one of the best developments in recent times,” he says. “They are great for relatives and people get very personal attention. It is very important that people are interested in them, and that’s why I think it a fantastic movement.”
He was also an ambassador for the Gathering, promoting all the treasures that Ireland has to offer and that he loves himself – “the language, the music, the dance, the games” and he says we don’t make enough of our heritage.
However, his passion for sport goes beyond Gaelic Games, with a big interest in greyhound racing and golf.
“I like all sport really, but I have always kept a greyhound and been interested in horses. I frequently go to Cheltenhem and Aintree, but the only thing is racing is by day so horses are not as easy to get to as greyhounds. I also follow rugby, soccer, any group representing Ireland really,” he says.
“We should all have a certain interest in national sports. Athletes, swimmers and boxers, they have all been fantastic over the last number of years and we have world fame in sport thanks to Katie Taylor.”
“The principal reason I wanted to go to the London Olympics was to see Katie Taylor fight and it was the first time that women’s boxing was included in the Olympics and that was principally on account of her, because she really impressed the Olympic Council,” he says.
Anyone who has seen Mícheál broadcasting could not have missed his Pioneer Pin. He has been a member of the Pioneer Association since he took his Confirmation pledge in primary school, and in the past he has expressed concern at the culture of drinking in the GAA.
“I think there should be more State organisations having a direct connection to sport by way of sponsorship,” he says. “It was nice to the see Cavan County Council in corporation with health bodies getting involved with the International Rules Series between Australia and Ireland in October.”
“There was a youth conference with speakers like Joe Brolly and Joanne O Riordian giving inspiring talks and people speaking about mental health. It was a great feature to an international sporting event and I think young people are always prepared to listen to things put to them, so I would like to see more of this kind of thing,” he says.
“I would be anxious to see health bodies more involved in sport. The best sponsorship I ever saw was the senior Limerick hurlers who for three years had the Mid-Western Health Board “Drug Free, Cul” logo on their jerseys to support a drugs awareness initiative. All the children for Limerick home matches were given free admission and players were available after every game, win or lose, to talk to them.”
Mícheál is a father of eight, and a sprightly grandfather of many more, and his passion for sport has spread through all his family, with many of them travelling to Croke Park to watch games together.
These days the family is spread all over the world, with Mícheál’s children based in Singapore, Brussels, Germany and Geneva. However, they try to make the effort to come home at Christmas, which is always spent down in Kerry.
“Christmas can be dismissed after a day or two in annonmous big cities, but in Kerry it lasts for a full 12 days,” he says. “The spirit of Christmas is fantastic. People are oozing with goodwill, and it is a pity it can’t be harnessed.
“One of the reasons we go to midnight Mass, which is actually at 10.30pm on Christmas Eve, is that there is always something special about the goodwill everyone has, and the choir puts in as John B Keane said ‘you’re best, your almighty best’.”
Mícheál says there is something special about people gathering together at Mass, “and not thinking of yourself but of the whole community”, and this is something which really comes to the fore at this time of year.
“Faith is really the principals you believe in, and nobody would dispute that what all Churches preach is goodness. It is not easy to always follow this, but it would be better if more people paid heed to them,” he says.
“For me prayer is a different thing. Some people have their knees worn off themselves praying, but anything you do for another person is a prayer for me. It is the acts that prayer inspires – that is where I see the good.”
Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh has a chapter in The Gathering – Reflections on Ireland, a new book from The Irish Hospice Foundation (IHF), available for €20 from bookshops countrywide as well as from the IHF website at www.hospicefoundation.ie
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