Effects of Downey's revolution still keenly felt today

Wed, Mar 6, 2013, 00:00

ON GAELIC GAMES: I only knew Paddy Downey towards the end of his career, by which stage he was naturally finding the whole thing more of a struggle than he had in his heyday. Still capable of elegant and flowing prose, he had to work harder and harder to draw it out of himself.

Gaelic games journalism was changing, with the emphasis decreasingly dependent on major presentations of big events, his forte, and leaning more towards daily coverage of issues and controversies. He was, however, capable of weighing in with the best of them when such matters arose and it would be a mistake to think seismic rows only took place in modern times.

But his favourite task was lyrically recording matches and interviewing those involved.

For all the tributes paid to him as someone who was generous to players in what he wrote, it would be a mistake to confuse that generosity with indulgence or professionalism blurred by soft focus.

I remember late one night in Perth in 1990 watching him standing in a hotel lobby, arguing patiently with a few players that the media role in covering the International Rules series was not as a support group for the team. He was answering complaints that some misbehaviour had been reported as opposed to “going on tour and staying on tour”.

On the same trip he told me that four years previously, in 1986 on the first of the International Rules series to be played in Australia, The Irish Times had been the only travelling newspaper with a fax machine. By that stage I was making (albeit largely unsuccessful) attempts with foam and Velcro strips to send copy down a telephone with what were known as “acoustic couplers”.

The world was changing and Paddy made only fleeting contact with modems and laptops before he finished up in 1994. The technology revolution has affected communications so profoundly that previously radical departures in media have receded in memory.

Paddy Downey’s revolution mightn’t be commemorated by granite monuments or blue plaques but it took place. GAA coverage in this newspaper had deteriorated to the extent that there was no coverage of a league hurling semi-final. Someone forgot or didn’t think it was sufficiently important.

Following a complaint by a staff member, Liam MacGabhann, to then editor Alan Montgomery and managing director Douglas Gageby, the sports department was ordered to give more prominence to Gaelic games.

The new appointment in 1961 – initially without a byline – became a key factor in Gageby’s modernising of The Irish Times. It might have been 30 years after the Irish Press had pioneered mass-media coverage of the GAA but it signalled a realisation that football and hurling were as important to the newspaper’s new target audience outside of Dublin as rugby was inside the capital.

That evolution would reach the point at which the GAA’s middle-class demographic within Dublin is larger than at any time in history.

Apart from Micheál O’Hehir’s legendary broadcasts and the Sunday night results service from Seán Óg Ó Ceallacháin, broadcast coverage of sport was limited and newspapers effectively were the mass media. Paddy offered something different: great observational powers, honed no doubt by endless months spent in hospitals, articulated through fine writing.

He had an intellectual hinterland through his interest in arts and politics that arguably wasn’t always sufficiently appreciated. There’s the story that having applied for the political correspondent’s job, he was effectively asked was he serious – you know, coming from the sports department. His answer was that he also bought sweepstake tickets.

The answer is generally quoted to show his sense of humour. But this was someone who was an activist in Noel Browne’s National Progressive Democrats in the 1950s and contributed compellingly to Seán Ó Mordha’s monumental television history of the Irish state, Seven Ages. He might have had the same chance of getting the job as he had of winning the sweepstake but that was no reflection on him.

Unfailingly polite and generous to me from the first time I met him, I’m glad the end came so peacefully after a lifetime of fighting against polio, TB and cancer. But I mourn his passing and the loss for his family, especially his wife and companion of nearly 60 years, Catríona.

I’m also sad that he didn’t get to write the books he wanted to, especially the much anticipated one about the life of Christy Ring, who became his friend in the 1950s. He completed a couple of chapters but it was almost as if the relentless tyranny of deadlines and the percussive beat of everyday events on the typewriter ultimately undermined his joy in the written word.

Yet that joy flows through so much of his journalism he has no need for further written memorials now that he finally stands dapper and distinguished, smiling enigmatically on the threshold between the worlds.

Paddy Downey’s funeral takes place tomorrow in the Church of the Good Shepherd, Churchtown, at 11.30 and afterwards to Mount Jerome crematorium.

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