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.
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.
And even though it is a while now since the byline of Paddy Downey last appeared, the rich archive he has left of those countless journeys to the great GAA cathedrals will continue to shine. Tens of thousands of people attended the blazing championship matches in the 1950s and 1960s but when the sun fell and the field was empty, there was only a few left in the ground to chronicle them and record them. Paddy did it in a way that transported people to the very dust and heat of the games of he covered.
You could pick innumerable examples but the mind turns to the tribute he wrote to his friend Christy Ring a week after the Cloyne man died suddenly in 1978.
“Curiously I remember most clearly of all the day in 1963 which marked the end of his intercounty career. It was a day of June sunshine and Cork were playing Clare in the Munster championship at Thurles. As we waited for the teams to appear the word came to the press box on the sideline that Ring was off the Cork team. Within minutes you could sense that the news of his absence was spreading through the crowd and the low murmur all round seemed like one voice uttering disappointment.
“And as we stood for the anthem with the light wind billowing the flag against the white clouds and the blue sky, I knew by some instinctive foresight that Christy Ring would not again be seen wearing the red jersey of Cork in a championship game in Thurles or any other ground. It was like finishing the last page and closing a book which you had read with delight but which yet you put aside with regret because now the story was ended and the day was done.”