From Wireless to WiFi: Tracking the history of broadcasting GAA

A new exhibition in the GAA Museum celebrates the broadcasting of Gaelic games

Marty Morrissey with former RTÉ Gaelic games commentator Michéal O Muircheartaigh   at the opening of the new exhibition in the GAA Museum ‘Tuning In – From Wireless to WiFi’ at Croke Park. Photograph: Eoin Noonan/Sportsfile

Marty Morrissey with former RTÉ Gaelic games commentator Michéal O Muircheartaigh at the opening of the new exhibition in the GAA Museum ‘Tuning In – From Wireless to WiFi’ at Croke Park. Photograph: Eoin Noonan/Sportsfile

 

On Monday the GAA Museum launched its latest exhibition, ‘Tuning In – from Wireless to WiFi,’ dedicated to broadcast media from the earliest days of radio on 2RN through television to the digital age and the era of the GAA website and live internet coverage of matches.

Association president John Horan said in his launch that last year when in Canada, he had been able to see Dublin play Kilkenny in Parnell Park on the GAAGO streaming service and even on glimpsing the crowd, tell his wife that he could see what she was wearing in the crowd.

There is a connection with this newspaper in that the first person to broadcast live coverage of GAA matches was PD Mehigan, who writing as PatO was the first Gaelic games correspondent of The Irish Times. It was the 1926 All-Ireland hurling semi-final between Galway and Kilkenny on 29th August, in the first year of 2RN, the station that would evolve into RTÉ.

In the exhibition it explains that the match was “the first radio broadcast of a field sport in Europe. At the time the BBC was prevented from broadcasting sporting events before 7pm as a means of protecting newspaper sales”.

If this resonates amongst today’s print journalists as a reminder of gentler times in inter-media relations that may be misleading, as the prohibition was the result of newspaper proprietors agitating to limit any possible impact that the more immediate dissemination of news in general might have on print media.

As a result it was agreed that the BBC would not broadcast news, including sports activities, until 7.0 in the evening.

The interconnectedness of the GAA and RTÉ took off in earnest 12 years after that initial broadcast when a Dublin schoolboy Micheál O’Hehir was given a trial at the All-Ireland football semi-final between Monaghan and Galway in Mullingar.

In those years before television the sound of O’Hehir’s commentaries were a significant part of GAA and national life. Pádraig Ó Caoimh, then general secretary of the association, had an acute awareness of the importance of the public image of Gaelic games and was well aware of the power of broadcast coverage.

The GAA contributed for instance to the cost of Radio Éireann’s coverage of the famous Polo Grounds All-Ireland final in New York even though, as detailed in Pat Guthrie’s book, ‘The GAA and Radio Éireann 1926-2010,’ the association caused controversy by refusing to do so for the 1951 league finals, also played in New York because the hosts had reached both the football and hurling finals.

Instead, a reporter with the ‘Irish World’ weekly newspaper, John ‘Lefty’ Devine was tasked with providing commentary on New York v Meath in the football and New York v Galway in the hurling. O’Hehir was angry and upset at the slight and spoke of giving up commentary.

Major blunder

Guthrie writes: “Central Council realised it had made a major blunder. Saving on the cost of sending its greatest exponent and publicity guru to New York was a monumental error of judgement. Pádraig Ó Caoimh, general secretary of the GAA, who was a friend of Micheál prevailed on him ‘stay the course’.”

Which of course he did.

This didn’t stop the association regarding the station with an occasionally proprietary eye. O’Hehir for instance used to observe the convention that players sent off in matches shouldn’t be named.

There is a fascinating insight into this by the late Seán Óg Ó Ceallacháin – himself a major figure in the history of GAA broadcasting – speaking to Radio Kerry’s Weeshie Fogarty, who died only last year and is also commemorated in the exhibition.

Ó Ceallacháin recounts how, having identified players sent off in his Sunday night sports bulletin, he was contacted by Ó Caoimh’s assistant and eventual successor Seán Ó Síocháin.

He argued that the prohibition was ridiculous given that 50,000 people were present at the match and that it was furthermore unfair on the relatives of players who hadn’t been dismissed that they should be under this cloud of ambiguity. Ó Síocháin wasn’t impressed and effectively threatened the broadcaster with the sack.

Alarmed he consulted the station sports editor Philip Greene and the matter was referred to the controller of programmes Roibeárd Ó Faracháin, who instructed Ó Ceallacháin to request an official letter from Ó Caoimh stating the Croke Park concerns. The matter was never mentioned again.

‘Tuning In – from Wireless to WiFi,’ includes historical artefacts from the early days of radio, wireless radio sets and broadcasting equipment from the 1920s to the 1950s, courtesy of collector and radio enthusiast Pat Herbert of the Museum of Vintage Radio in Howth. The displays are complemented with selected footage and imagery from the RTÉ Archive. The exhibition in the GAA Museum, Croke Park, runs for the next 12 months.

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