When Michael Met Davy: ‘He pretends to be a tough child, but he’s a very soft child’

This elegant documentary followed 11-year-old Michael as he gave Wexford’s hurlers a pre-game pep talk

Equally eruptive: Davy FitzGerald and Michael O’Brien

Equally eruptive: Davy FitzGerald and Michael O’Brien

 

“Basically, what I like about it is just the noise,” says Michael O’Brien of his passion for GAA. He gives us an immediate example: “G’wan!” he shouts, as though rehearsing a stadium cheer. “G’wan Kerry! G’wan Dublin!”

O’Brien, an 11-year-old boy from Killarney, who is fantastically voluble and visually impaired, conveys such sound and sensation with a rapture that is beyond infectious. G’wan, Michael!

Since his appearance on The Late Late Toy Show in 2018, as an impeccably dressed, apparently dauntless reviewer of books in braille, Michael has become something of a big noise himself. Surprised live on air to be given an audience with his favourite GAA manager, the equally eruptive Davy FitzGerald, O’Brien barely hesitated when asked, impromptu, to deliver a pre-game pep talk to the Wexford hurling team.

“Yeah,” Michael agreed, sounding about as unfazed as if he had just been asked for the time.

When Michael Met Davy (RTE One, Monday, 6.30pm) is really a documentary about the consequence of its title, in which producer and director Rania Atamna follows the young GAA fan’s preparations to deliver that motivational speech.

In any other circumstances this would be a slalom-pole story of confidence and doubt, achievement and set-backs, a mountain climb towards the peaks of inspiration. For the unflappable Michael, though, whose self-belief comes with the same jabs of Mohammad Ali in his prime – “I was born ready!” – that mountain seems to bow before him.

The programme doesn’t try to manufacture drama, instead elegantly bringing you into Michael’s world. That’s nowhere more illuminating than his love of the game and the way he watches: so electrically engaged and empathetic that he sweats in sympathy when watching the 1977 All-Ireland final between Kerry and Dublin (“It is absolutely spectacular”), and rarely happier than when he is cocooned in the roar and rumble of a live game.

“It’s loud in here!” he yelps to his parents, reading the game precisely by the rhythm of response.

If Michael is an inspiration, it is because of how he conveys such passion, naturally and unstinting.

At the outset, though, his mother Noreen must remind us, almost protectively: “He pretends to be a tough child, but he’s not, he’s a very soft child.” At one point, in a touching and unguarded moment, you see that when Michael asks his special education teacher, Shirley McGough, with quiet awe: “Could you imagine if they won?”

If his family, friends and teachers make it clear that Michael is unusually independent, the film makes it clear that he also has a community of immense support. In preparing for his pep-talk, the staff of St Oliver’s National School, from his ebullient principal Rory D’Arcy, to McGough and his special needs assistant Olive Horgan, become his own pep-whisperers. “Sometimes we all forget that Michael is a child,” cautions another, and it’s not a small point: inspiration can itself become intoxicating.

In Wexford HQ, ahead of their bout against bitter rivals Tipperary, a sharp-suited and assured Michael delivers his motivational spiel: an exhortation to “dream big” and “change your story”. The team listens intently and agrees to do just that, and the last surprise is that it works.

“This is what the team talk was all about Da,” Michael nudges his father as Wexford’s dispiriting start is magically altered towards victory, as though his own story has proceeded entirely as planned.

But nothing seems more approving than his highest praise, surveying the scene of Wexford’s triumph. Michael whistles: “It’s loud out there.”

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