Forty years on and still agrowing

Sat, Mar 21, 2009, 00:00

INTERVIEW SEÁN BÁN BREATHNACH: KEITH DUGGANtalks to one of Ireland’s most distinctive broadcasters on the 40th anniversary of his first time on air

ON APRIL 1st, Seán Bán Breathnach, the indefatigable and arguably the original RTÉ Gaeilgeoir, will celebrate the 40th anniversary of his maiden broadcast by playing his all-time favourite songs. Although he has, in more recent times, become one of the most distinctive sports broadcasters on Irish airwaves, this programme is a throwback to his first coming as an irrepressible force of nature who demonstrated that pop culture and Irish need not be mutually exclusive.

Breathnach’s first show, Popseó na Máirte, holds the dual distinction of being the first pop music show announced in Irish and the first show aired on RTÉ without a script. To add to its claims, it had no less a reputation – or voice – than Terry Wogan as a continuity announcer. Wogan and Brendan Balfe had a show that went out directly before Breathnach’s, and, by way of signing off, Wogan told listeners in that suave, amused tone of his: “Time now for the groovy bábóg from Spidéil.”

Breathnach laughs at the memory: he knows new heirs have assumed that honorary title. He is as surprised as anyone to find he has become a respected statesman of Irish broadcasting, an institution on RnaG and habitue of the major – and minor – sports events of the calendar year.

It is easy to think now of Breathnach as a radio man and to forget that, for a time in the 1970s, a promising television career beckoned with the success of SBB in a Shuí, which ran from 1976 until 1982. But even at the height of its success – it topped the RTÉ ratings in its peak seasons – there was the sense Breathnach was reluctant to be categorised or to follow a conventional path within Montrose.

Although he had the aptitude for the emerging medium of light entertainment, he had too much energy for any one form and was forever pinging around and popping up in a new guise. Perhaps the RTÉ mandarins were not quite sure what to do with Breathnach, or perhaps they never got hold of him long enough to decide: either way, the Galway man didn’t stand still to think about it.

“I was doing everything. I had a live music show from 1973 until 1980. Then there was the television show. But I was freelancing all that time. It was easier to pay me per programme because there were restrictions on staff, and I was possibly in the wrong department – if I had been into news or current affairs, it might have been easier. I was into light entertainment and sport. And then when SBB started, I was travelling here, there and everywhere doing shows.

“I was doing magazine programmes, and then started the sport. There was a period when I was even doing discos around the country. It was life in the fast lane. It suited me grand, and then I was staffed in 1980. But sport was always my first interest.”

There is surely a case to be made that Breathnach’s place in Irish broadcasting helped to set an example for west of Ireland kids who have gone on to achieve success on Irish television and radio.

He was, as he emphasised when we spoke on the phone, a typical child of his time: he grew up in Indreabhán, left school at 14 and was in London at 16. There was, he recalls, a great impatience among his generation of Galway children to get out and get to London, perhaps stemming from the realisation that this phenomenon called the 1960s was happening – somewhere else.

But Breathnach left Ireland armed with an abiding fascination with radio and with pop culture. The former was nurtured by his father, who was, Breathnach attests, “a lunatic for getting up late to listen to the great boxing fights. I remember sitting up for Archie Moore fights, for Ingemar Johansson,” he says now.

“BBC Light carried all these fights live on longwave. With a perfect reception. And even then I was very influenced by the likes of Raymond Glendenning and Eamon Andrews – the best boxing commentator ever. Andrews had this guy with him, Barrington Dalby, who was also a member of the British Boxing Board. And they always had the English fighter doing well.

“I remember one particular fight, and years later I read the history of it. Dave Charnley was the guy’s name and, of course, on the radio, it sounded like he was winning. But, of course, he had the s***e beaten out of him by this guy called Joe Brown. Not that you could have told it from listening to the radio. But Glendenning doing soccer and racing and Andrews on boxing – I would listen to that stuff day and night.”

His parents were, he acknowledges, heartbroken when he decided to bolt, but at least they persuaded him to go to his uncle in the relative seclusion of Potter’s Bar rather than the Irish enclaves in the city. Because of his fascination with radio, the prevailing pop culture in suburban London did not seem so strange to him, and with the help of his relatives he quickly found his way.

“I think now that if I had gone into that jungle of Camden and Kentish Town, that would have been the end of me. I would never have seen daylight again. I did all the usual work, but I did a few courses in broadcasting and was starting to DJ a bit around London.

“The only time I didn’t get paid, in fact, was at an Irish wedding. I didn’t have Seven Drunken Nights with me and there was a riot. The wedding party turned my equipment upside down and then threw me out. They told me I was s***e and that I wasn’t getting paid.”

He didn’t heed the critics. In Dublin the following summer, he got his break and has been broadcasting since.

Sport, though, has become his chief subject and passion. If he is asked to single out moments he enjoyed most, then Seán Mannion in Madison Square Garden, the Galway footballers in 1998, Steve Collins’ word title fights and Ray Houghton’s goal in Giants Stadium stand out. He broadcasts with an off-the-cuff enthusiasm, but although he had the temerity to ad lib his first national broadcast, he quickly developed a need for absolute preparation.

“I used to drive as far as Longford for local papers just to dig out stuff on games in the old days. I have to have my homework done. I can’t abide broadcasting unless I have. On a Saturday, before the radio show, I will prerecord eight interviews before twelve o’clock. And I can’t face an interview unless I know all about the person I am talking with.”

Breathnach is the first to admit he wears his emotions on his sleeve, a trait he communicates on air and also in the friendships he has forged with the athletes he has covered down the years.

Prior to Collins’ first fight with Chris Eubank, he wrote out a small speech in Irish at the request of the Dubliner, which Collins then recited at the press conference. Eubank walked out, declaring himself insulted by his opponent. He was still highly indignant as he entered a lift in the hotel – in which, inevitably, Breathnach was standing.

As Eubank wrathfully expressed his disappointment, SBB nodded respectfully and muttered something about it being a terrible way to treat an English visitor. The late Seán Kilfeather, then boxing correspondent with this newspaper, could hardly contain his glee. “You were bloody lucky, Bán,” he said when Eubank strutted away. “You were lucky you weren’t nailed. I could easily have hung you there.”

Not long after, Eubank and Collins were fighting in Millstreet, Cork. Sky had the television rights but RnaG had the exclusive Irish radio rights. Immediately after the final round, the television sound failed and there was a brief period of panic. Breathnach, never one to ignore a gift horse, nimbly stepped into the ring and snatched Collins for his first interview.

As he chatted to the Irish man, he heard a dismayed London voice declare: “The sound has failed. And I think that this bald-headed b****cks speaking the Mongolese has something to do with it.”

The insult delighted SBB then and does still. Forty years down and still not sitting still.

Ceolta Croí le SBBwill be broadcast on Wednesday, April 1st, on Raidió na Gaeltachta at 9pm.

SBB at 60will be broadcast on Thursday, April 2nd, at 2pm.