The hurlers on the ditch

The GAA and Radio Éireann 1926-2010: The story of the commentators who broadcast Gaelic Games, by Patrick P. Guthrie (Gemini International).

J. Anthony Gaughan

This collection of profiles of those who broadcast Gaelic games on radio and TV will be warmly welcomed by GAA followers.  Among the list of 23 are such household names as Míchéal O’Hehir and Míchéal Ó Muircheartaigh.  Aficionados of Gaelic games will be most interested in the lesser known commentators.

Patrick D. Mehigan (‘Carbery’) was a Corkman from Clonakilty, an All-Ireland hurler, noted athlete and well-known journalist. On August 29, 1926 he was the first to broadcast a field game in Ireland, indeed in Europe. It was the All-Ireland hurling semi-final between Galway and Kilkenny.  He continued to broadcast important hurling and football matches until 1933.  His broadcasting career ended under a cloud.  He was commissioned to broadcast the Railway Cup finals on St Patrick’s Day.  He spent some time ‘wetting the shamrock’ and on facing the microphone was ‘maith go leór’.  (Nowadays the euphemism is ‘he was emotional’!)  A horrified Pádraig O’Keeffe, secretary of the GAA, dismissed him from the microphone at half-time and persuaded a startled Eamon de Barra to continue the broadcast.  Subsequently in 1937 an unsuccessful attempt by the GAA to have Mehigan re-instated caused an impasse between the Association and Radio Éireann which lasted for seven months.

Eamon de Barra was born in Co Limerick, raised in Cork, a life-long republican and a distinguished civil servant.  His broadcasting career was from 1933 to 1937. Apart from his unexpected introduction to broadcasting, he had another remarkable experience at the microphone. During his broadcast of the All-Ireland football final of 1933 a party of the IRA appeared. At the point of a gun Eamon was pushed aside and a voice demanded the release of political prisoners from Mountjoy jail. Following this incident armed detectives since then are on duty wherever a live broadcast of a major sporting, political or religious event takes place.

Among Patrick Guthrie’s list of commentators there are 11 journalists, six primary school teachers, two civil servants and one priest, Canon Michael Hamilton. His appointment to broadcast the All-Ireland football final in 1937 helped to end the impasse between the GAA and Radio Éireann in that year. Hamilton was a tireless promoter of Gaelic games in his native Clare at college and county level. An indefatigable champion of the ban on ‘foreign games’, he was one of the most influential members of the Munster and Central Councils. Almost single-handedly, he was responsible for having the All-Ireland football final played in New York in 1947. Unfortunately for Hamilton there was some confusion towards the end of his broadcast in 1937. It concerned a point which was disallowed by the referee. This was not adverted to by Hamilton who announced that Cavan had defeated Kerry when in fact the match had ended in a draw. The furore which followed prompted the practice since to have a disallowed score signalled by an umpire crossing the green and white flags in the goal mouth.

Seán Ó Ceallacháin and his son Seán Óg broadcast and reported on Gaelic games for many years.  Seán Ó Ceallacháin was a broadcaster from 1930 to 1962 and Seán Óg featured on the air-waves from 1946 to 2011. At the other end of the scale was Irish-American John (‘Lefty’) Devine.  His sole broadcast was that of the National Football League final between New York and Meath in Gaelic Park on 30 September 1951

Apart from the profiles, the author provides a wealth of information on related matters.  In a prologue he describes the development of sports broadcasting at the Dublin station from 1926 onwards. He details the radio commentaries on Gaelic games from 1926 to 1985. The book is lavishly illustrated, although many of the pictures do not have an informative caption. This, however, in no way distracts from this admirable and serious contribution to an appreciation of an integral part of our social history.