In the room where Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh is waiting there is a table laden with stuffed sandwiches and pastries and a scattering of fruit. He stands upright and strong to meet me and puts down a plate of freshly sliced orange.
“You’re keeping yourself trim,” he says, beating me to the first compliment. The handshake is firm and bony and both an honour and a pleasure.
“You’re looking well,” I say back, and he most certainly is. The only thing I checked before this interview is his age: Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh is 89 years old, and will turn 90 next August. He is not slowing down.
“I’m well enough,” he says. “I don’t worry about anything.”
There is a gentle frailty in his voice, otherwise as soft and measured and unbroken as when he first graced the national airwaves to commentate in all-Irish on the Railway Cup final at Croke Park.
That was March, 1949, when he was 19, one of the original voices of Gaelic Games. Something and everything about the way he carried and delivered it – at home and abroad, injecting it with life and colour and history – made him the lasting voice.
There is also some nostalgia in that voice; it’s the morning after Gay Byrne died at his home in Dublin, and we both share compliments on one of the original voices of Ireland, the sort of treasure that isn’t found very often, if at all.
“I was shocked,” he says. “Like everyone I was shocked. We’d have met many times over years, and Gay was always very supportive, always found time to listen. He was able to treat everyone the way they liked to be treated.”
Many people would say the same about Ó Muircheartaigh. It’s one of the reasons why his voice resonated in the way it did, a sort of poet laureate of Gaelic Games, dedicating his match commentary to the listeners on the radio as much as the players on the field.
It’s coming up on 70 years now since Ó Muircheartaigh first found his master voice, and he’s been on the road ever since. His last working All-Ireland finals were in 2010, after which he retired from RTÉ. One of his eight children described that as a sort of “mid-life crisis”. A decade on and still hardly a Sunday passes without him sitting in a GAA press box in some part of the country.
“I’ve seen 77 senior All-Ireland football finals, if you count replays. And I’ve seen much the same in hurling, counting the five or six replays. I don’t miss it, because I’m still going to the matches. When I was working, I was always going to the match as well as going to commentate. So it’s still the same.
“It’s also different to other jobs, in that when we retire, we’re still going to the same scene, meeting the same people. In other jobs it might only be at the Christmas dinner that you’d meet people you used to meet regularly.
“I first saw Cavan beat Mayo, in 1948, and the lure is still there. It has changed completely. And will change again in another few years. And you should never dismiss change. Or ideas.”
I’ve an idea he still drives, and ask anyway.
“Oh I am indeed. I was up and down from Kerry last weekend, and I’ll be going down again this Sunday, for the county football final. Dr Crokes against East Kerry. East Kerry haven’t been there for a while. The Gooch isn’t playing for Dr Crokes.”
“And still playing golf?”
“Well the clubs are in the boot of the car, always. Golf is a game you can play at age any. You mightn’t play as well, but you can enjoy it, gets you out walking, Jimmy Magee once said you can be the worst golfer in the world, and walk out on to a course like St Andrews, and feel like the best player in the world. That’s unique. Do you play?”
The last time we talked at some length was the summer of 2014, when Ó Muircheartaigh climbed Carrauntoohil in aid of the Alan Kerins Project, on a blissfully clear day when the Sam Maguire and an All-Ireland-winning medal from every county was carried to the top of Ireland's highest mountain.
“Remember we met a young lad, eight or nine, racing down, and I asked him ‘were you at the top?’ And he said ‘no, but I forgot something’. And he arrived back up at the top with a Kerry jersey. He’d run back down to get it. At that age you’re carrying no weight, think nothing of it. I’d like to try it again. I still try to go up Mount Brandon once a year. That’s the eighth highest mountain in Ireland.”
Ó Muircheartaigh has somehow held on to that childlike energy and attitude, innocent though certainly not naive. Anyone who worked closely alongside him will talk of his unfailing professionalism to ensure he stayed on top of his game. I can talk of his frequent willingness to share it.
“And you never drank, Micheál, why was that?”
“Well, I met Roy Keane’s father at an event one time, and he came over and presented me with a pint of Guinness. He said ‘I hear you don’t drink, that can’t be true’. And I said it never once appealed to me. Especially not a black drink.
“With that he lifted up the pint and looked it over, and said to me ‘well, I would hold a different view on that’. And that’s perfectly fine.”
There is a common breed of Kerry man who will answer a question with a question; Ó Muircheartaigh is that rare breed of Kerry man who will answer a question with a story – complete with beginning, middle and epitaph.
He was born Michael Moriarty, on August 20th, 1930, in Dún Síon, just outside Dingle. There was no GAA in the family. It wasn’t until he began teacher-training at Coláiste Íosagáin in Baile Bhúirne in the Cork Gaeltacht that he changed his name to Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh, and it was four years after that before he found his voice.
Bob Dylan once defined destiny as knowing something about yourself that no one else does. Ó Muircheartaigh felt happy in his teaching, only felt for something else beyond that too.
“I’d moved to my last year in teacher training, at St Patrick’s in Drumcondra, and just spotted a little notice on the wall, just like that,” he says, pointing to the wall across the room.
“It just said anyone interested in testing out for commentary should come down to Croke Park, the following Sunday, Gate 5. Even being admitted free was something big. A few of us went down, maybe six or our seven, coming from UCD and other places like that, and we all sat in under the old Hogan Stand, quite enclosed.
"When my turn came, I looked upon it as a bit of fun. It was a hurling game, and I had never seen a hurling game before in my life. But I knew one player, Tadhg Hurley. He went to school in Dingle, and was playing in goal for UCD. And he played as fine a game as anyone played in Croke Park. I was on for maybe 10 to 15 minutes, talking about Tadhg Hurley. The others other got five minutes, and I was asked there and then would I broadcast from The Railway Cup final, that St Patrick's Day.
“That was the chance, that the notice was there, that we saw it, that we went down to have a bit of fun. And I’ve been having fun ever since.”
“Was there not some ambition?”
“Not really. Only once, at Coláiste Íosagáin, there was a sort of a play on, with props around, and an old BBC microphone, made of cardboard. Someone was going around the hall with this, talking like hell, and I took it off him and said ‘I can do that even better’.
“But the test happened by chance, and an awful lot of things in life happen like that. Back then there was only one game broadcast every Sunday, and as it began to expand, I got to work on more commentaries. But I loved the teaching too, it keeps you young.”
It was after the preceding voice of Gaelic games Michael O’Hehir retired due to illness in 1985 that Ó Muircheartaigh’s era probably began. For years the family home away from Kerry was in Dublin, before he moved to Meath with his wife Helena in 2006 (“to be closer to Kerry”). Those roots never left him.
“There was always a love of football in Kerry, because they were always doing fairly well. And there was great lure about it. People like Sigerson Clifford writing songs about the ghost train to Croke Park. It helps when you’re doing well. But I always got a great kick out of a county winning something for the first time. That’s a great occasion.”
Which brings us neatly to today’s game, where in senior football at least it appears the chances of most counties winning anything again are numbered; not as long as Dublin stay as strong as they do.
“Periods of dominance will always come and go. But Dublin was never better organised than it was in the last 10 years. Every club gets great help, a good coach, and the people took to it. There are very few capital cities in the world where the native sport is the dominant sport.
“But I would like to see two teams in Dublin, and for this reason alone. I know a hell of a lot of great players that will never wear the Dublin jersey, and it’s unfair on those. Because of the size of the population. There are some marvellous players sitting on the bench all year. For the sake of the players, I would have two Dublin teams.”
He’s a little divided too in measuring Dublin’s recent five-in-a-row against the Kerry team of the 1970s and 1980s.
“Well you would have to say they are as good, except there were more changes in the Dublin team over the five years. Whereas it was the same bunch with Kerry that went for the five-in-a-row. When you win five, you can’t question them. They were always winners, always good finishers, and they go out to play football. I like that about them.”
As for where the GAA is at, or going, he’s mostly positive.
“Traditions always change. Go back to Dr Eamonn O’Sullivan. Did you ever read his book? His theory was no player was to be out of position. And then it would be a test of skill. Now that’s changed, and it’s changing all the time. There is a lot more thought, a lot more pattern, teams are coached to play as a team.
“The rules are changing, but I don’t like all this hand-passing. Nobody goes to see hand-passing. Especially not across the field, to kill time. They go to see catching and kicking. I don’t know if the attacking mark is a good idea either. If you win the ball, it’s up to you to play it. I don’t like stops in games, and there are far fewer stops in hurling. But there is still great support, and I think the association is going well.”
What is certain is that his standout players haven’t changed over his years; not yet anyway.
“In hurling, I always thought that was Christy Ring. And I saw him in many, many matches. If you look at his record alone, played minor in 1938, senior in 1939, and in 1963, I remember broadcasting a Railway Cup, and at the age of 43 he was still on the Munster team, winning his 18th medal.
“He had all the skills. He was a shy man, only in retirement he softened out, and I often spoke to him. And he was convinced he never met, or would meet, a man who was stronger than him. And he wasn’t a big man. But he said nobody could ever knock him, the most they could do was straighten him up. He was 100 per cent hurling,
“In football, there was something special about Mick O’Connell. There was. There were lots of great players, going back over the years, only he was different, from day one. He was this superb fielder, he did not believe in fouling.
"Brendan Kennelly wrote a line in a poem one time, 'that a foul in sport is a sin against a great art'. And a truer word was never spoken about Mick O'Connell, He loved a contest between two people. I always said that sport was to be enjoyed. Some managers say you should hate the opposition. I don't believe that."
His own kindness has always been shared into some charity in some way, the latest in support of My Legacy Month, an initiative encouraging people to leave a legacy gift to one of 65 charities, of their choice, in their will. It’s about raising awareness as much as funds.
“With all charities, people have a certain grá. And My Legacy is one of them. For a long time I’ve been extremely interested in charities. From the time I was in college, I was in the Vincent de Paul, and I’d an area around Connaught Street, up from O’Connell Street, or down towards Amiens Street. An extremely poor place. And I’d meet elderly ladies there, to whom the smallest gift they’d get from the VDP was always a big thing to them. And that’s where it started.
“And it’s the same with My Legacy. I think it’s something everybody should consider. I’ve made my will, and will be gifting Third Age [the national voluntary organisation], and when writing a will, I think it would be a good idea to leave a legacy gift. And November is a good month to be thinking about that.”
“Do you ever think about your own mortality and legacy? How you’d like to be remembered?
“Well I couldn’t comment on that,” he says, pausing for the first time, his voice trailing off. “I’ve been very lucky. I don’t worry about it.
“Would you like a slice of orange?”
Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh: in his own voice...
“. . . Teddy McCarthy to Mick McCarthy, no relation . . . Mick McCarthy back to Teddy McCarthy, still no relation . . .”
“. . . Seán Óg Ó hAilpín, his father’s from Fermanagh, his mother’s from Fiji. Neither a hurling stronghold . . .”
“. . . Pat Fox has it on his hurl and is motoring well now, but here comes Joe Rabbitte hot on his tail . . . I’ve seen it all now, a Rabbitte chasing a Fox around Croke Park . . .”
“We have [listening] three TCD students who are studying Chinese Mandarin in Taipei in Taiwan. Could you say in Chinese ‘ni hao ma?’ That means ‘conas atá tú?’ in Chinese.”
“Teddy looks at the ball, the ball looks at Teddy.”
“. . . Stephen Byrne with the puckout for Offaly. Stephen, one of 12. All but one are here today, the one that’s missing is Mary, she’s at home minding the house.
And the ball is dropping i lár na bpáirce . . .”
“. . . he’s not a big man, he’s not a small man, he’s what you might call a handy man. . .”
“. . . I saw a few Sligo people at Mass in Gardiner Street this morning and the omens seem to be good for them. The priest was wearing the same colours as the Sligo jersey! Forty yards out on the Hogan Stand side of the field Ciarán Whelan goes on a rampage, it’s a goal. So much for religion. . .”
“. . . and we’re listening to Sunday Sport on Radio One. And through the internet and everything it’s going all over the world and maybe beyond. . .”
“. . . and Brian Dooher is down injured. And while he is, I’ll tell ye a little story: I was in Times Square in New York last week, and I was missing the championship back home. So I approached a news stand and I said, “I suppose ye wouldn’t have The Kerryman, would ye?” To which, the Egyptian behind the counter turned to me and he said, “Do you want the North Kerry edition, or the South Kerry edition?” He had both – so I bought both. And Dooher is back on his feet . . .”
“. . . Anthony Lynch, the Cork corner back, will be the last person to let you down – his people are undertakers . . .”
“. . . the stopwatch has stopped. It’s up to God and the referee now. The referee is Pat Horan. God is God.”