Downey's mellifluous voice silenced but rich legacy of his work remains
Sideline Cut: I was on a train to Dublin on Monday evening when news broke of the death of Paddy Downey through the usual instantaneous sources. I thought immediately of the number of journeys he must have taken on Irish Rail, filling carriages with that mellifluous voice of his and, no doubt, a cloud of fragrant tobacco smoke.
Paddy had evaded so many brushes with illness in recent years that many of us had begun to hope that he alone had been granted some kind of celestial pass from the hereafter on the grounds that it simply wouldn’t do to deprive the world of his charm. But no.
He was rightly described as a doyen of Irish journalism and was so regal and Yeatsian in bearing that he seemed to leave a lasting impression on anyone who met him even fleetingly. But he wasn’t remotely precious and many of his endless supply of anecdotes were, as they say, against himself.
When I saw the photograph on the web edition of this newspaper of Downey in the 1980s, with that warm, amused half smile, it brought to mind the evening in a pub in Dublin when he recalled covering a very ill-tempered hurling match between Kilkenny and Tipperary in Nowlan Park.
The atmosphere was rancorous and when Downey called his report down the telephone to the copy taker, he declared: “In the second half, we were sitting on a powder keg.” Things were apt to get lost in translation in the old process of copy-taking and in the newspaper the next day he discovered that he had informed his puzzled readership: “In the second half, we were sitting on a powdered cake.”
And that in turn led to a recollection of a story that his old sparring partner Peadar O’Brien delighted in telling. This was in a period when there was just a handful of journalists covering Gaelic games – Pádraig Puirséil, John D Hickey, Donal Carroll, and O’Brien didn’t so much attend games in those days as were received as guests of honour.
They took a leisurely approach to their craft – Downey once managed to turn a championship match in Munster into a three-day odyssey which ended up with the GAA press corps appearing unannounced, and probably underdressed, at an ambassadorial ball in Dublin.
It was practice then to break a journey from Dublin to Semple Stadium or Fitzgerald Stadium at some hotel along the road, where they would enjoy a few libations and, in good time, deliver their reports down the phone.
On one evening, O’Brien overheard Paddy refer to a “spavined dray horse” as he called his match report down the telephone. O’Brien waited until they had a few more drams before telling the company that he had come up with a phrase for his report that nobody could beat. “A spavined dray horse, lads,” he said, winking at the others and convincing Paddy that he had been trumped until finally the cane was rapping against the floor to announce the first breezes of a hurricane temper. The voice was raised and indignant and O’Brien and the others could collapse in laughter.