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The Nation Holds Its Breath: George Hamilton is still at the top of his game

Book review: The soccer commentator’s gossip-free memoir recalls how his career unfolded

George Hamilton was one of the few broadcaster who moved from the BBC to RTÉ. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
A Nation Holds Its Breath
A Nation Holds Its Breath
Author: George Hamilton
ISBN-13: 9781785373732
Publisher: Merrion Press
Guideline Price: €22.95

Broadcasting is all about the voice, and RTÉ has produced its share of extraordinary voices, from Gay Byrne to Olivia O’Leary to Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh. But because he is such a low-key and polished presence, it is easy to forget that George Hamilton has been the voice in our heads and in our living rooms for some of the more extraordinary social moments in the history of the Irish State.

Hamilton has been RTÉ’s chief football commentator since the middle of the 1980s. Since 2003 he has presented a classical music show on Lyric FM, where his cheerful insistence on properly accented name pronunciation transfers smoothly from obscure middle-European wingers to long dead composers. Quiz buffs of a certain vintage recall him as the smiley sidekick to the late Jimmy McGee’s cameo as The Memory Man on the long-running RTÉ television show, Know Your Sport.

So everyone knows George Hamilton. But for all the years he has been with us, could we ever say we know who he is?

The accent is clearly from “up there” but not overwhelmingly so. He has always been too difficult and elusive a turn for the satirists and mimics. The voice isn’t particularly sonorous but is easy on the ear, and the information is flowing and knowledgeable and dictated by the rhythm of the game. He never tries to make a match something it is not.


But where did he come from? Why George Hamilton, for all these years? His memoir sets out to explain that, at least partly. We learn fairly quickly that Hamilton’s was a postwar, middle-class Protestant Belfast upbringing, in which a burning interest in sport provided the backdrop for school in Methody, college in Queen’s (modern languages), an enthusiasm for cigars and a sharp eye for detailing the quirks of the rarefied broadcasting halls through which he made his way as a novice freelance.

George Hamilton has been RTÉ’s chief football commentator since the middle of the 1980s. He also presents a classical music show on Lyric FM.

The book is just shy of 300 pages and two-thirds of it chronicles the lost world of 1970s and 1980s broadcasting. Here Hamilton is on the head of current affairs at BBC Ulster: “Dan was a nautical man whose greeting of choice was, ‘What ho, dear boy.’” On an early meeting with Jeremy Paxman: “I was introduced to him at one of the many garden parties, a striking figure in a striped hat and straw boater.”

A few pages later, he writes about his first significant broadcasting opportunity, a Leinster-Ulster rugby match at Lansdowne Road. As markings go, it’s not a bad start. The BBC crew travelled on the Ulster team coach on Friday. The coach pulled up at the Shelbourne Hotel.

“In those days you didn’t do things by halves. I’d never stayed anywhere as grand as this.” The editor of the Belfast News Letter – strolling across the lobby – in his evening slippers! – called in greeting as they walked in. Drinks in the Horseshoe; dinner in the Saddle Room; Saturday afternoon at the match and then back to the Shelbourne that night. What ho, dear boy, indeed.

In case you are wondering what year or decade we are in, it was Christmas 1973; the messy, be-flared era of Mott the Hoople and Nixon, when the Cosgrave administration was reeling from escalating inflation caused by the oil crisis. But in the world of Auntie, the smoked salmon never stopped.

As you read you begin to hear that familiar voice, with its pleasing Ulster back notes, urbane and somewhat above the fray, as though he is match-commentating on his own life

Hamilton was one of the few journalists to leave the BBC – twice – for RTÉ, working with the Irish broadcaster from 1979-80 and from 1985, when poached by Tim O’Connor, until now. The migration – a slender flock – is usually the other way. The reason he was in such hot demand is that he was and is very good at what he does.

He tells a wonderful yarn of being inveigled into singing, with Derek Davis, a late-night version of The Sash in the basement bar of the Cosmos Hotel in Moscow at the 1980 Olympics. The episode invites the reader to wonder what it was like for a young Belfast Protestant to find himself as the emerging star in RTÉ during a time when the Troubles were raging and Montrose filled with conflicting political ideologies.

Although Hamilton covered current affairs, he seldom ventures into that territory here. It’s a book of how his broadcasting career unfolded rather than how it all made him feel. In fact, as you read the pages, you begin to hear that familiar voice, with its pleasing Ulster back notes, urbane and somewhat above the fray, as though he is match-commentating on his own life as it unfolds.

On page 102, he gives what might be the commentator’s equivalent of a chef’s secret sauce, noting that its “a crying shame that so many who are granted the privilege of commentating on a game on television do not realize that the last thing they should be doing is stating the bleedin’ obvious”.

Hamilton’s return to RTÉ typified his knack of happy timing: RTÉ had just won the rights to broadcast English first division games in 1985, and Jack Charlton would soon arrive to transform the Ireland national football team into a carnival of national pride and escapism.

It’s clear that Euro 1988 and Italia ’90 registered deeply with Hamilton, and the last third of the book relives that. He obviously enjoys travelling, from the logistics to sampling the cultural highlights of the great football cities. And while he doesn’t state as much, you sense he packs an immaculate suitcase. He’s generous with a series of well-written anecdotes of various mishaps and comedic adventures involving trains and wrong turns where all’s well by the end. There is zero insider gossip, and if Hamilton has had any major fall-outs or turbulence in his career, he isn’t telling here.

Of course, there is every chance that he has simply glided through to this point. He is still at the top of his game, still the consummate professional. The voice still sounds fresh and contemporary even as it has become an indelible part of Ireland’s folkloric archive.

Curiously, the book ends with Charlton bowing out after a rainy defeat against Holland in Anfield in 1996. It would have been interesting to hear Hamilton’s view on the profound changes within broadcasting and football over the following quarter century. Maybe that’s for a second volume. Or maybe, if you read his closing pages closely, he is acknowledging that he knew even then that nothing could top the emotion and drama of the Charlton era: that he had broadcast through a unique era where the mood of a football team and nation were in perfect harmony.

At the end, Hamilton strikes the wistful note he saves for the crescendo of epic football nights: “Things would never be the same again.”

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times