Seán Bán Breathnach: ‘They probably saw me as . . . a showman.'

Sports, music and Irish broadcaster Seán Bán Breathnach on luck, risk and the craic

“Oh, another thing I shouldn’t have done: I lay on a bed of nails,” Seán Bán Breathnach (SBB) confesses, alluding to the time when, for the gaiety of the nation, he whipped his shirt off, lay himself on a sunken bed of nails and waited sacrificially for stuntman Pat Whelan to drive over him on a motorbike.

It was just one of the moments featuring Breathnach in the RTÉ archives which should technically be classified under "Buck Eejitry" or "Truly Mental Shit That Just Wouldn't Wash Nowadays." But this was sometime in the late 1970s when Breathnach, with a shock of blond hair, a hyper-Gaelgeoir speaking style and a fearless sense of fashion, operated as a form of dropped acid in the imagination of RTÉ's national audience.

As he remembers it, the bed of nails was simply an inevitable upping-the-ante on their previous stunt, in which the Galway man agreed to drive a motorbike through a ring of fire. He'd never been on a bike before. Joe Lynch, the actor who became a cultural icon for his portrayal of "Dinny" on Bracken/Glenroe happened to be kicking around Montrose. In real life, Lynch was a motorcycle enthusiast.

“Did you ever ride a bike before, boy?” he asked Breathnach and shook his head when the Galway man acknowledged that he had not. “You’re getting up on that effing machine and you never rode a bike.” Breathnach managed to steer himself through the flames, feeling the uncomfortable intensity of the heat as he passed through: SBB In An Inferno.

Buoyed by that success, Pat Whelan pushed the bed-of nails idea. Whelan was a force of nature: an accomplished stunt man who had worked on major films like Live and Let Die and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid and was the last resident on Omey Island when he died two years ago. He was adamant that this would be box office gold for SBB In A Shui, the Irish language show which traded on an up-for-anything spirit of adventure – as Gaeilge. “You won’t even feel me,” he promised Breathnach.

I'd say the Director General went bananas. But when they heard, then, that I was going to jump off the roof: no f**king way

“He missed my head by that much,” the broadcaster says now, making a less-than-an-inch sign with his fingers. “Because I think what happened was, as I felt the weight, I was guiding him and I kind of turned. But he was going at some speed to make it easier for me,” he says, shaking his head at the memory of how gruesome the episode could have turned out.

“Was this going out live?” I ask, aghast. “No! Jesus, no,” Breathnach replies as if appalled by the lunacy of the idea. “Ah no, Christ, it was recorded. But we never asked for permission. Health and safety would have been an issue. I’d say the Director General went bananas. But when they heard, then, that I was going to jump off the roof: no f**king way.”

He’ll be in Croke Park for the National League finals on Sunday and on Monday will quietly celebrate 50 years of broadcasting with Radio na Gaeltachta and RTÉ. April 1st is the official date of his half century on air and its appropriate for a figure who was always a ready jester and who, after everything, remains outside any easy category in the pantheon of RTÉ presenters.

Since 1980, he has worked primarily in sport and and music and nowadays broadcasts almost exclusively in Irish. His live commentaries on significant events, particularly Katie Taylor’s gold medal fight at the London Olympics, have become celebrated examples of the form. But for the first decade of his career, he was a rising and unpredictable television star who championed the native tongue, pop music and general devilment.

When he charts his career, it’s hard not to conclude that he was walking under some kind of divine guiding star: doors simply opened in a way that would not be possible anymore. The creation of SBB in a Shui, for instance, the Irish-language, mainstream television show that became sufficiently popular to replace the Late Late Show on the summer schedule, originated out of pure chance.

Breathnach was working in Radio na Gaeltachta and was contacted by the producers of Wanderley Wagon, the long-running show featuring a maudlin puppeteer who travelled in a gypsy caravan with a cast of characters including a moralistic dog, a sardonic crow and a Victorian-type lady who knitted a lot.

The show was absolutely huge among a generation of Irish children and also, one now suspects, the fringe communities of hashish enthusiasts nestled into the creases of the countryside. The producers dreamed up an episode where Judge and company end up in SBB’s radio studio and wanted to know if the host was game. He was.

Watching the sparks fly back in HQ were Liam Ó Murchú and Joe O’Donnell and they recognised the potential in Breathnach’s high-octane Gaeilgeoir. The show was dreamed up there and then. “I was summonsed to Dublin. I remember asking what the name of the show would be. Joe grinned and said: ‘You’ll love this, boy.’”

It's hard to quantify how antic and unusual SBB was in a time when most of Ireland had two television channels: it remains the most popular Irish language show ever broadcast, topped the TAM ratings and sprinkled stardust on its host. In presentation, along with Gráinne Gleoite, Breathnach was utterly apart from the urbane neutrality of Gay Byrne or Mike Murphy: he was from definitively from the elsewhere of Connemara and, of course, he spoke a different language.

He popularised the phrase "ceol, caint agus craic," to the extent that it has made it to the pages of the Oxford English Dictionary. In more recent years sports fans and TG4 viewers know him as sports broadcaster and he has a raft of stories, switching from his moment at the Atlanta Olympics when he dug Michelle Smith out of a hostile press conference after her medals wins – "I dunno" he says when asked what he thinks of Smith's successes now. "I haven't spoken to her in many years. I know that Jimmy McGee and I often discussed it and Jimmy was totally behind her. I'd nearly be in the same corner. I'm not sure it was her fault" – to the Steve Collins-Chris Eubank fight when, with Sky's sound gone, he was on the cusp of landing an exclusive Irish language interview with the Irish boxer seconds after his victory.

“I was about to speak. Then I felt this big hand coming around me. And I hear this English accent saying: ‘The sound’s gone, George, and I think this bald headed bollocks speaking the Mongolese had something to do with it.’”

If Breathnach never stopped to ask himself why or how his life in broadcasting happened, it’s probably because he never had time. When he started as a DJ at night time on Radio Eireann, he spent his days working on building sites around Dublin. “Working was what I knew,” he says simply.

But what a massive leap: An Indreabhán child of the 1950s era: he was "the shake of the bag" in a family of four who grew up on a small farmstead, left school at 14 and almost inevitably took the boat for England just two years later. The sensible money is on him being there still: one of thousands of west Galway's fled sons. But things kept happening to Breathnach.

He took one look at me and said: you're no f**king brother of mine

“I was lucky,” he declares more than once over a long coffee in the Ardilaun hotel in Co Galway. When he went to London, he avoided the usual grind of Kilburn and cement mixers, moving with his uncle Coil’s comfortable family home in Potter’s Barn, close to where Tony Jacklin, the golfer and Donovan, the pop heart throb, were then living.

Breathnach was amicable, curious and nuts about music. Through the ministrations of a local priest, he began working as an apprentice DJ in the parish hall and from there graduated to weddings and social clubs around the city under the dubious moniker of Benny Arnold.

“I hadn’t spoken much English before then. I still think in Irish. I remember going to do a disco near Manor House Tube station. It was two stories up in an Irish hall and the music they wanted was exclusively Motown, soul and reggae. I was the DJ. And I was the only white person there. And underneath me, I could hear the ceili going on.”

He met his brother Padraig in town one day and turned up wearing a full pyjama suit. “He took one look at me and said: you’re no f**king brother of mine. Padraig was the opposite. He was the Mod. The twills, the mohair suit, the crop-chop hair.”

The persona was formed, then, in the late 1960s metropolis. His sister knew that Liam Devally, a former broadcaster turned barrister, had this vision of a disc-jockey operating as Gaelige on Radio Eireann. She persuaded Seán to come home for the auditions in January 1969. He got the job and his first broadcast was on the evening of April 1st. He had no idea how long it would last and wasn’t that concerned: when Raidio Na Gaeltachta was conceived three years later, it seemed like a flighty notion.

“The attitude was that it would only last a year. But it grew very fast. MHe took one look at me and said: you’re no f**king brother of mine. All the young people on the panel were against me but they were hypocrites, once they stepped out the gates, they’d say: ‘Course the top effin 30 should be on but we’re not going to say it because when we go home, we’d hear all about it.’”

Breathnach was easy-going about broadcasting but he was also a devotee of the craft. Childhood was not luxurious and broken into working seasons. “Two cows, a bullock and heifer. On the bog straight from school from May 1st. We’d save five or six lorries of turf and sell three. We were poor. I mean, we were all poor.”

In 1958, their uncle brought a radio to the house and it became the pastime. Breathnach knew by heart the schedules and voices of Luxembourg, BBC Light and AFN. His father had spent eight miserable years in Boston during the Great Depression and took a book on slavery home as a keepsake.

"I don't know but I think, I think, that's what's started my interest in black music." The family's shared interest was boxing broadcasts and Breathnach possesses that bibliographic talent common among sports broadcasters for dates and events. Broadcasters like Raymond Glendenning, W Barrington Dalby, John Snagge and, above all, the velveteen Eamonn Andrews became more real than the voices around him.

"It was a whole new world. Pete Murray on Luxembourg. Wednesday night boxing. I remember Wally Swift and Mick Leahy who lost an eye: a great, great boxer. 1955 was the first fight I ever heard. I was six. My father carried me across the couple of walls to a neighbour's to hear Billy Kelly fight Ray Fanisham on Radio Eireann with, I'm fairly sure, Eamon Andrews. He was the best. That glorious voice."

Now, he himself had somehow become one of those radio voices without really trying. Breathnach was a vivid, energetic presence when the distance between RTÉ and Spiddal was greater than 120 actual miles. He briefly scandalised the country when, after heading into the Cellar Bar to meet Michael D Higgins and Mick Lally for pints, he ended up on a tear which saw him married to a young American woman he met within the week.

The event was carried as news. It’s not something he prefers to talk about or play up now: it was a long ago moment of foolishness: “a 10-day haze and I’ve cleared my mind of it.” What makes that episode interesting is that it is indicative of his absolute lack of interest in societal convention. Ireland was surface-conservative then but as someone who spent weekends touring the provincial nightclubs as a celebrity DJ, he knows that it was also anarchic and raw. Given his profile, it would have seemed natural that he would have made the transition from Irish language to English broadcaster. He gravitated back to radio, working on a radio current affairs show steered by John McKenna for two years.

“People were saying that you can’t give Seán current affairs. It can’t be a serious programme. They probably saw me as . . . a showman. So they took a chance on me doing a magazine programme with current affairs. In those two years I learned everything about broadcasting.”

He and Brighid have four children, grown up now and interested in acting and the arts. His son Cartach has begun working in broadcasts and podcasts. Since the advent of TG4, it’s no longer unusual for young people from the area to go into broadcasting. Seán Bán was, however, indisputably the first at a time when television and radio were remote as the moon.

Many of the big television names with whom he came through in RTÉ have disappeared. Cynthia Ni Mhurchú, the former co-presenter whom Breathnach rates as “the most professional broadcaster I ever worked with” left RTÉ to pursue a career in law. The burn-out rate can be high.

But Breathnach has lost none of the boyish enthusiasm for the game. There’s a sense, 50 years on that the executives in RTÉ didn’t ever quite know how to handle such a mercurial proposition and weren’t sure what to do with him. But it’s hard to imagine him having softened into an English language chat show host: a mainstream guy. It wasn’t to be and he is happy with that. He was and remains first and foremost a Raidió na Gaeltachta man.

“Of all the places in the world to live, I wouldn’t move away from Connemara. I wouldn’t have left,” SBB says in a rare moment of solemnity. He thought he’d done that at 16. The frequencies had other plans.

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is a sports writer with The Irish Times