He crafted his pieces with the care of the poet he was
OBITUARY:There were many paradoxes about Paddy Downey’s life and career. At a time when national GAA correspondents numbered an elite few rather than, as they would become, a demographic, he weathered the rarefied distinction with courtesy and charm – even if capable of volcanic temper if provoked.
In a world of urgent deadlines and often disposable prose he agonised over and crafted his pieces with the care and attention of someone who also liked to write poetry.
Reared in the remoteness of rural Ireland in the 1930s and ’40s, he grew to play a prominent role in the dissemination of Gaelic games through a national newspaper at a time when that was effectively the sole means of mass-media communication.
Committed in his writings to celebrating Gaelic games and particularly hurling he nonetheless cultivated a wide range of interests and wrote on politics, the arts and was this newspaper’s radio critic for a spell in the 1970s.
He was particularly interested in the work of Patrick Kavanagh and plucked up the courage to speak to him on one occasion in Searson’s and although gruffly rebuffed, he went on to commission a piece from the irascible poet for the Gaelic Weekly in 1956.
The transaction is mentioned in one of Kavanagh’s letters to his brother Peter, but sadly from Paddy Downey’s point of view the identity of the commissioning editor remains unrevealed.
From Toormore in west Cork, he was a strapping youngster, more than six feet tall at the age of 14, interested in many sports and with ambitions of a military career, but his life changed irrevocably in the summer of 1944 when he was struck down by polio.
His pastimes became by necessity more sedentary and formal education became impractical but days, weeks and months in hospital gave him a love of reading, which ranged from newspapers and periodicals to books of all sorts.
The broadness of his self-taught curriculum helped make him the writer he became but the career path to journalism stretched throughout the 1950s after his arrival in Dublin at the start of the decade. A position secured through the Polio Fellowship correcting crosswords for the Sunday Independent supplemented his primary income, earned as an estate agent.
“I managed to sell two houses,” he later said about his initial career direction.
Pangs of envy
A decade spent writing about Gaelic games began with a position in the Gaelic Sportsman and passed through other publications, culminating in an appointment to The Sunday Review, this newspaper’s short-lived venture into Sunday publishing.
Earlier in the decade his health took another knock when he contracted TB and spent over a year convalescing. By that time he had established relationships and friendships within the games and on an occasion which must send pangs of envy through all modern practitioners, he was visited in the Richmond Hospital on the morning of the 1953 All-Ireland by the Cork hurling maestro Christy Ring.
His move across the house to The Irish Times was partly inspired by representations to management about the declining volume of GAA coverage, as the paper’s original correspondent PD Mehigan, writing as Pat O, was now in his 80s and unsupported by any new appointment to share the burden. Paddy Downey became synonymous with this newspaper’s improved coverage, his style of writing and enthusiasm helping to bring the games to audiences that wouldn’t have been traditionally receptive. In this respect he played a major role in Douglas Gageby’s project of bringing The Irish Times into the mainstream of national life.
From the 1960s he and his colleagues from the other national newspapers travelled the country like touring celebrities, meeting the locals and socialising after matches as they called into various hostelries from where reports could be telephoned back to the waiting copytakers.
One of the most famous yarns dates from 1981 when feeling unwell and having been warned by a local doctor in Thurles that he should go to hospital immediately after the match, a Munster hurling championship encounter in which Clare surprised Cork.
Having been checked out, he was told to rest but insisted on gathering together his notes and going to work. “I was anxious to do the report because Clare had beaten Cork,” he recalled, “a thing they hadn’t done for ages. By good chance on the ward that I was in there was a reception area with a phone.
“They wheeled out my bed beside the reception desk and I phoned my report from the bed. It was the most peculiar, I suppose the most bizarre thing that ever happened to me.”
On his retirement in September 1994, the famous Galway footballer and writer Jack Mahon wrote a letter to this newspaper in which he paid tribute, describing Paddy Downey as follows: “A brilliant writer, he was always kind to players though never afraid to criticise the GAA if he saw fit.”
He is survived by his wife Catríona and children Margaret, Pádraig and John.
Doyen of Irish sports journalists Woe betide the naive sub who approached him for that first All-Ireland draft
“Most people rightly remember Paddy Downey for his exceptional GAA writing, but he also possessed a wonderful speaking voice and it’s a pity that more of his recollections about particular games and controversies were not recorded in that rich voice of his.
His beautiful reports on hurling and football down through the years earned him a special place in the annals of this newspaper and the GAA. Those reports were more than often carved out oblivious to deadlines. The only visible concession to anxiety over late copy would be more frequent puffs of smoke from his pipe.
But woe betide the naive sub-editor who approached on the night of an All-Ireland final looking for the first draft of his report. That’s a mistake a sub-editor wouldn’t make twice.”
– Malachy Logan, The Irish Times sports editor since 1988.
“The greatest memory I have of Paddy was his courage in adversity. His early education was intermittent due to developing polio as a child, which meant he always walked with a limp. Then he survived TB, then he beat cancer. And Paddy didn’t live all his life on health foods!”
– Danny Lynch, GAA PRO (1988-2008).
“A tall man with an enormous presence, he was widely respected in sport in general. He once applied for the editorship of The Irish Times on these terms: “On the basis that everyone is entitled to buy a ticket for the sweepstakes, I am applying for the job of editor ...” There were many people, and they weren’t all involved in sport, who believed The Irish Times could have made worse calls than that.
Incidentally, Paddy loved The Irish Times with a passion, and he loved the GAA too, but he also loved cricket. I think he got that from his mother who was from Kilkenny.
He was a close friend of Christy Ring, who once visited him in hospital on the morning of an All-Ireland final.
– Peter Byrne, former soccer correspondent for The Irish Times.
“The quality of copy he produced was incredible and what he overcame to produce it put him above all of us. It was a privilege to know him.”
– Edmund van Esbeck, former rugby correspondent for The Irish Times.
“His reporting of matches was always very fair, very incisive, particularly in relation to hurling. He had a great feel for the game.”
– Jimmy Barry Murphy, Cork hurling manager.
“He was one of nature’s gentlemen. A pleasure to deal with, he was renowned for not identifying players who were having a poor game, which showed a great generosity of spirit.”
– Tony Hanahoe, former Dublin footballer and manager.
“For me Paddy Downey was the doyen of Irish sports journalists, irrespective of the sport. More than most, he understood the GAA’s ethos, both the good and the bad in it.”
– Peter Quinn, GAA president (1991-94).
“Paddy was the guy who influenced us all and made us want to be GAA sports writers. We all wanted to be him but weren’t able to be him. He just had that culture and that style and that intellect that made him unique. He could paint beautiful pictures. Particularly of hurling matches.”
– Donal Keenan, Gaelic games journalist.