Downey's mellifluous voice silenced but rich legacy of his work remains
Paddy Downey’s speaking tone was not so much a voice as an extraordinary and magical instrument; the newspaper’s gain was radio’s loss. But the story of his life is in many ways the story of Ireland in the 20th century, from the simple childhood in west Cork to the terrifying and lonely months spent in isolation when he contracted polio as a teenager, an event which curtailed his fascination with sport to that of keen observer and, ultimately, writer and raconteur.
In the press box in the old Hogan Stand, which was a wooden green enclosure, Paddy’s seat was on the extreme right of the front row, a black leather swivel chair. For decades, it was his perch. (The press refreshments room was just across the main thoroughfare: pressmen would slalom through the crowds and vanish through an unmarked door. Inside was a long narrow room with teas, coffees and a buffet and, down the back, where the traffic was heaviest, was a little section containing wines and beers).
There is something wonderful about the idea of Christy Ring taking time to steal into the hospital to visit Downey on the morning of an All-Ireland hurling final. It speaks of a gallantry and innocence which could not happen now.
Dublin was Paddy Downey’s playground during the decade that has gained the reputation for greyness, the 1950s, and he contributed to Seán Ó Mordha’s Seven Ages series, cataloguing Ireland through the decades. But for Downey, that decade wasn’t dull: people were young, they had fun, they got on with it.
The GAA was blessed to have such a striking and courteous figure in its press box during those decades when media coverage of its games was a smaller affair and television coverage a rarity. By strange coincidence, news that Paddy had died broke at roughly the same time as the word that the Off the Ball team had resigned from Newstalk radio. No media entity represents just how far GAA coverage has travelled since Paddy Downey was last escorted into a press box.
But they shared a common trait: they brought originality and a sense of urgency to the way they covered Gaelic Games. The Off the Ball gang almost unconsciously changed the game when it came to broadcast radio . . . listening to an evening show felt a little like eavesdropping on a bunch of friends joshing in a pub except that the conversation was often riveting, sometimes funny and usually informative.
They took the game seriously but, like Paddy Downey, weren’t so precious about themselves. The shame is that so many of those who light up the games now have become deathly serious and po-faced about what is a cultural as well as a sporting phenomenon and have become reluctant to tell their own story. The Off the Ball team will surely reappear again, perhaps in some other guise. Meanwhile, though, their absence will be keenly felt.