Talented sports writer transformed GAA coverage

Sat, Mar 9, 2013, 00:00

Paddy Downey:The death last Monday of Paddy Downey breaks perhaps the final link with the generation that pioneered modern newspaper coverage of Gaelic games in the 1960s. Widely respected for the quality of his writing and his scrupulous fairness, he was also personally popular because of his charm, courtesy and conviviality.

His passing also marks the final departure of the journalists who established the annual All Stars awards scheme for football and hurling in 1971.

Within The Irish Times he was an important figure as the person who, encouraged by amongst others Douglas Gageby and his great friend Donal Foley, brought about radically improved coverage of the GAA at a time when the newspaper was moving more into the mainstream of Irish life and building circulation.

He also had a wide interest in other areas, including arts and politics, and was regarded as an authority on the works of Patrick Kavanagh, whose poem In Memory of My Mother was read at his funeral.

A supporter of Dr Noel Browne, Paddy Downey was canvassed to stand for Browne’s party of the late 1950s and early 60s, the National Progressive Democrats. Unable to raise the £100 deposit, his career maintained its by then established trajectory in sports journalism.

Born on August 29th, 1929, to Patrick and Johanna (née Walsh), Paddy Downey spent his childhood in Toormore, a townland near Schull in west Cork. By his early teens he was big enough, more than 6ft tall, to enlist with the LDF, the forerunner of the FCA, even though well below the age limit. But his ambitions to make a military career – his father had been in the RIC – were shattered when at the age of 14 he was struck down by polio.

Formal education became impossible but long periods spent in hospital made him an avid reader, while a broad interest in sport – he was a cricket enthusiast having been introduced to the game by his mother’s family, who were from Inistioge in Kilkenny – gave him a particular fondness for sports writing.

He came to Dublin as a young man in the early 1950s and loved the city. In later years he would always dispute the stereotype of the decade as dreary and dull, as he had found life there thoroughly enjoyable, socialising in the journalists’ pubs and artistic haunts of the time.

A succession of jobs in Gaelic games publications, Gaelic Sportsman and Gaelic Weekly, were supplemented by earnings from correcting crosswords for the Sunday Independent and even a spell selling houses for an estate agent. He had had the misfortune to contract TB in 1952, which disrupted his fledgling career, although he had made a sufficient impression for Cork hurling legend Christy Ring to visit him in hospital on the morning of an All-Ireland final.

Having resumed journalism (minus half a lung and seven ribs), he met his wife Catríona Ó Ruadhain, then working in the Folklore Commission, when she began contributing to a women’s page in the Gaelic Weekly. They married in 1959.

Work took Paddy Downey to the Evening Mail and Sunday Review, and in the early 1960s when the mother publication The Irish Times was anxious to improve its GAA coverage, he was appointed Gaelic Games correspondent (he insisted on the title in preference to the later “GAA correspondent”) in succession to the celebrated Patrick Mehigan (Pat O), who was by then in his 80s.

The quality of his writing attracted new readers for Gaelic games and for the newspaper in what were exciting times for both, with trips to the US for exhibition matches common at the time.

There were fewer national newspapers then, and the Gaelic games correspondents were feted up and down the country. The representative function was taken seriously, with return journeys on occasion taking days as various counties were visited.

As a result he was known throughout the country. He famously survived a heart scare to file a report of a Munster hurling semi-final from his hospital bed.

Periodic attempts were made by other newspapers to entice him away and among the inducements that persuaded him to stay were the granting of a mileage allowance at a time when such expenses were not commonplace and, in the early 1970s, the position of radio critic, which allowed his wide range of interests scope for expression.

When he retired after the 1994 All-Ireland football final, the GAA made a presentation to him. It showed in relief a footballer and a hurler on either side of Paddy Downey, who is sitting at a desk with a quill in his hand.

He continued to attend matches well into his retirement and maintained a lively interest in the games and in particular hurling, which he loved above all sports.

“There is nothing,” he said in a retirement interview with Seán Kilfeather in this newspaper, “nothing to compare with hurling played well. That is skill and beauty: poetry in motion to use the cliché.”

He is survived by his wife Catríona, daughter Margaret, sons Pádraig and John, daughter-in-law Evelyn and grandchildren, Ian and Trevor.