Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh: People felt they knew him and that he knew them too

The Kerry broadcaster’s lyrical genius wouldn’t have had such an impact without the organic connection with his audience

Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh with his daughter Doireann at Croke Park commentating on the All-Ireland football final between Kerry and Galway in September 2000. Photograph: Andrew Paton/Inpho

Ní bheidh a leithéid arís ann. That’s what we say, isn’t it? Reflexively, automatically. Someone Irish dies and it’s one of the cúpla focail that we can all reach for with a reasonable level of comfort. There won’t be the likes of him again. We say it so readily that it eventually loses its impact.

Not today though. Today it suits. Because think about it – has the great old phrase ever been truer of anyone than it is of Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh? He was such a singular presence in Irish life for so long, such an organic, original one-off. There won’t be the likes of him again. There can’t be.

Imagine trying to explain Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh to someone who had never come across him. He was the most popular GAA person in the land without anyone ever seeing him kick a ball or strike a sliotar. He was the most famous broadcaster in the country but he was virtually never on television.

Instead, he was a radio man. That was his thing. And it was our thing too, in a way that very possibly might never be a thing again, at least not to the same extent. He took over from Micheál Ó Hehir, himself a thoroughly inimitable slice of Ireland. He became something more again, a kind of a landscape feature in the background of Irish life.


Voice of the GAA isn’t what you’d call a successionist posting. It’s not like being Taoiseach or Uachtarán. For Ó Hehir to be followed by Ó Muircheartaigh upon his retirement in the mid-1980s suggests a kind of careful planning on someone’s part in the RTÉ of the day. But it doesn’t work that way. It can’t.

Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh pictured with the Sam Maguire trophy outside Croke Park in 2010. Photograph: Colin Keegan/Collins

You can hope to appoint someone who has wit and personality and who knows the game. You can make it a requirement of the job that they have good contacts and are respected throughout the land. You can insist on them being fluent in two languages and encourage them to be storytellers. But you still need a Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh to fall out of the sky and into your job vacancy.

He was a radio commentator in much the same way as Taylor Swift is a country singer. Calling matches was the source of his fame but his connection to his audience took on a depth and a richness by the time it got to full flow. His popularity spanned the generations – if you ever saw him after a match, the crowd around him would have as many 10-year-olds as 80-year-olds lining up to say hello.

That kind of thing either happens or it doesn’t. It can’t be forced. Radio is such an immediate medium. Listeners hear everything and they can spot a try-hard in an instant. For all his lyrical flights of fancy, Ó Muircheartaigh would never have become such an institution if any of it had felt artificial.

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It never did. That was the basis for everything. Ludicrous though it sounds, it was perfectly believable that Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh knew someone in every town and village in Ireland. Which meant he knew someone who knew you. You would listen to his radio commentary on a summer Sunday and it would feel genuine, like he was talking to you directly.

As a commentator, his genius was that he was able to summon up an endless stream of description, as if he had conveyor belt of anecdotes and aphorisms flowing under his microphone while he looked out at the games and merely had to pluck the ones he liked best of it between breaks in play. None of it felt rehearsed, none of his lines seemed parboiled in advance.

Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh during his last All-Ireland football final as a commentator for RTÉ Radio for the 2010 decider between Cork and Down. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

The internet gave him a second life. Somewhere around the mid-2000s, web pages started to do the rounds with all of his best streams of consciousness collated into one place. There’s very little chance you were listening the day he talked about neither Fermanagh nor Fiji being a hurling stronghold. Or when Mick McCarthy and Teddy McCarthy were still no relation. But you know them like a second language now.

They’re in the lexicon forever not because they’re great lines, even though they are. It’s the fact that they came from the mouth of Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh, beloved by all, on days when the sun was high and the car doors were open so you could hear the radio on the beach, from matches you couldn’t see in Clones or Thurles or Croke Park.

They came to you via that west Kerry strum, that accent that was never planed off, that cadence that was never regulated, by way of that poet’s delivery that no stats-crazy producer ever beat into shape. They floated from the radio, urgent and wordy, delighted and uncynical, yours to conjure with at your own convenience.

If the internet had never collected them all together, you might not remember them word for word. Or maybe even at all. But you’d still be able to summon up how you felt on those days when the games were on and Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh was calling them. There probably aren’t five people in Irish broadcasting history you can say that about. There might not be two.

Ní bheidh a leithéid arís ann. Cinnte.