Sideline Cut: Carl O’Malley’s year of absent presence

Passing of The Irish Times sports journalist has left a hole in hearts and minds

The Irish Times sports journalist Carl O’Malley passed away this time last year, aged 36.

The Irish Times sports journalist Carl O’Malley passed away this time last year, aged 36.

 

By rights, he’d show up at the desk tomorrow, manned with a coffee and a bit of mischief on his mind for a live blog of the Twickenham game. He’d be out and about. He’d be trying to convince the similarly-devoted that Liverpool FC were on the verge of an improbable renaissance. He’d be fizzing about. But this is, unbelievably, the first anniversary of the death of Carl O’Malley, sports journalist with The Irish Times and so much more besides.

One of the clichés that the world of sport likes to reach for in periods of true tragedy and sorrow is that death “puts everything in perspective”. It’s an observation that anyone in sports journalism has dutifully reported without ever really believing or understanding.

At its height, sport has the capacity to engage and move people in a way that you don’t normally find in everyday life. In that way, it can be a thrilling and very pure representation of what it is to be alive. But nobody really thinks that it is “bigger” than life or death. If anything it is an escape from both extremes.

Newspaper organisations are like battle ships. Yes, at this precise moment in their evolution they probably resemble what Omar in The Wire might refer to as “sorry-ass battle ships”: battle ships have had the bejaysus –not to mention the advertising- torpedoed out of them. Nonetheless, they are remorseless in their continuity and movement.

Carl died on a Thursday evening, having taken ill while playing football with FC Fathom. He was just 36. By Friday morning, while his colleagues were stunned and disbelieving, the Saturday Sports supplement was already crying out for this feature or that preview; pages were drawn up, games marked. Everyone was winded. To even think about sport seemed like an indecency, let alone write or talk about it.

It is safe to say that nobody in Tara Street had much appetite for any kind of journalism that weekend. But the option of closing the blinds and hanging a wreath for a few days doesn’t exist for news organisations. The Saturday edition went ahead and even if nobody had the heart to invest any emotion in the match they were covering or the copy they were editing, they still did it to the best of their ability. Anything less would have been a disservice to Carl as this was the game he was in; the game he –well, bitched about like every last one of us but nonetheless loved.

Salute

In the many tributes to Carl in the days and weeks afterwards, many people were struck by the salute from his college classmate Tony Cuddihy at Griffith College who remembered meeting him their first term in the autumn of 1997.

“We were two factions,” he wrote on Joe.ie, where he works now. “The ten of us – slightly off kilter, drunk and inexperienced. The ten of them – well put together, confident, good people but (we thought) better at the college experience than us. They did the bold things we could only snigger about. Of the group, though, Carl was always the one we felt we lost to them. One of us masquerading as one of them.”

The pair stayed friendly and bumped into each other occasionally: their last meeting was a chance encounter on the street not long after Carl and his wife Moira had their first baby, after whom Cuddihy enquired. “He beamed the same smile that had levelled the girls in college: told me Charlie was great, love in his eyes, then politely moved the focus back to me.”

He wasn’t exaggerating about the smile: Carl had one of those disarming smiles which was at once pure hearted and mischievous. He had a gift for making people smile. He could make people smile in person and in his work, through the lightly sardonic live-blogs he did for big rugby and international football days- elevated into something original through energetic and sometimes manic collaborations with Ross O’Carroll-Kelly, Tara Flynn and James McClean. He almost had President Michael D Higgins snagged too, but for some ceremony or other.

Carl joined The Irish Times straight from college and was there as the online side of the house made the transition from curious prop to the lifeblood: from the flash alloys on a car to its very engine. He contributed to print and digital and was endlessly innovative and dedicated when it came to the latter but he was an old-fashioned newspaper man too.

At Euro 2012, he sent home video after video to be posted online, a task that involved the oldest form of journalism: pounding the pavement, finding people to yap to; engaging them; hearing their stories. He was a natural at that stuff.

Laughter was something you heard a lot around him. He was very good fun in daytime and even better to have a drink with in the evening. He liked tunes. He liked fun. Scan through any of his tweets and you are reminded of that.

A random selection:

-Happy birthday, Missus. You’re ancient. -

‘Who2unfollow: Unfollow verified journalists: they’re paid by corporations to subvert and taint social fabrics.’ Shit, rumbled.

-My son just called me a ‘big Egypt.’ It was Pharoah nuff.

Robust debate

Course, the nose quickly crinkled at a loose opinion or whenever he detected a line of BS and he was always up for a robust debate: at his funeral, many of us heard about the Ulster lineage in his family and it made sense. He wasn’t a man to concede a point easily. And he had a sharp eye for what makes people tick.

Here he is on Conor McGregor after watching him destroy some poor guy called Diego Brandao in Dublin in the summer of 2014 and it is hard to find a more succinct summary of the “why” of the Crumlin man’s phenomenal appeal.

“He treads a very fine line between arrogance and humility: he knows when the time is right to rein it in and just when you think ‘ah here’ he dispenses a charming quip, a show of respect for his opponent or a heartfelt eulogy to his Straight Blast gym manager John Kavanagh. His words can hypnotise even himself and if mixed martial arts wasn’t his bag, somewhere in a parallel universe McGregor would be selling something else to people who weren’t even sure if they wanted or needed it.”

At his funeral, Carl’s mother, Dr Katherine O’Malley, read words written by his father, Dr Carl O’Malley. reflecting on their son’s too-short but very bright life. Carl was born on December 14th, 1978 so his most impressionable years coincided with an untouchable period for Liverpool: he was hooked from the beginning. Among the images which drew laughter was that of Carl as a kid, in pyjamas, daring to wander down among the parties when the family had friends around, cheerfully introducing himself: “My name is Carl, what’s yours?” That was instantly recognisable: not precocity, more the openness and curiosity which lit him up in front of strangers.

It was a privilege to know Carl a little and, of course, there are so many people who knew him a million times better. Those of us who are in the office each day – the sports editor Malachy Logan, online sports editor Noel O’Reilly and Carol Kirwan, the sports administrator, are still trying to get used to the fact that when they swivel their chair, he isn’t there.

For the football writers – for his close friend Paul O’Hehir, the soccer correspondent with the Mirror who worked in The Irish Times with Carl for a decade and Emmet Malone, Carl is present through his very absence at every single match, every press conference, every post-training huddle in the drizzle.

At The Irish Times Sports Woman of the Year lunch in December last, Moira and Carl’s parents accepted an invitation to come along. It’s a celebratory occasion. Carl always enjoyed it immensely. It was about the only time of the year when most of the sports department is gathered in one room.

The previous year, he had been seated beside Katie Taylor. Anytime you looked across, there he was, chatting away, holding court; a pleased head on him. This year, the night went on a long while, as usual. Carl’s name came up plenty, although not in any heavy way.

Wider world

His death was beyond words and anyhow, everyone knew the score: he was with The Irish Times from when he was a kid and he left his mark on the place. He leaves, too, a fine body of journalism which will be there for his children Charlie, Arwen and Carl , who was just seven days old when his Dad played his last game of football, to read through when they are older. (And you can just see the amused, challenging grin at that notion: a thousand wisecracks forming in front of him).

He was and is, in the wider world, a beloved husband, father, son, friend.

Around The Irish Times, he was – and is – simply “Carl”: such a likeable, admirable, once-off cat.

He is missed.

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