Jimmy Magee contributed to the ‘soundtrack to many generations’
Ex-colleagues recall the talent of ‘Memory Man’ to find the right words over and over
It was like an art critic admiring the brushwork of Rembrandt or a wine connoisseur savouring a fine Bordeaux.
“Ah, different class,” says commentator Jimmy Magee, soaking up the Argentine’s skill.
Maradona skips past another three English tackles. “Different classsssss!” roars Magee, elongating the second word in sheer joy as the footballer slides the ball into the goal.
The skill in the Louth man’s commentary was not just in finding the right words when jaws around the world dropped in awe but in the pace of his delivery: he knew just when to talk and when to let the moment of genius speak for itself, chronicling greatness on a football pitch with just two words.
Friends and former colleagues remembering the RTÉ sports commentator and journalist who died on Wednesday at the age of 82 spoke of his skill, talent and instinct to describe such artistry in sport.
“To be able to reach for that phrase and then to have that discipline to let it breathe knowing something potentially magnificent was about to happen and not feel you have to embellish it – that requires remarkable discipline,” said fellow commentator Ryle Nugent, RTÉ’s head of sport.
“He found the words but he allowed the words to carry it. It is, for me, an iconic piece of commentary and perfectly sums him up.”
Great moments of joy
Magee’s was the voice that tied people’s memories to great moments of joy and sadness, contributing to “the soundtrack to many generations”, as Nugent put it on Wednesday .
There are many Magee moments from Irish sport. For RTÉ commentator John Kenny what stood out was his late colleague using the final yards of John Treacy’s second-place finish in the 1984 Olympic marathon in Los Angeles to pay his respects to Ireland’s great past medallists.
“It was just brilliantly delivered,” he said. “We are always looking for the moment that people will remember you by, that ‘a nation holds its breath’ moment. You have to have a certain amount of knowledge and you have to write things down, but that was all in Jimmy’s head.”
The “Memory Man”, as he was known, was a walking pre-internet search engine filled with information gleaned from covering 11 Olympic games and 12 World Cups from the time he joined RTÉ in 1956.
President Michael D Higgins, one of many who paid tribute to the journalist, called his contribution of more than six decades of sports broadcasting “immense” and said it “earned him the deserved moniker of the ‘Memory Man’.”
One anecdote, circulated fondly on Wednesday, was of Magee being asked by a lost and inebriated Irish fan in Genoa after the Ireland-Romania game during the 1990 World Cup: “Hey Jimmy, if you’re the Memory Man, where’s my bleeding hotel?” (Or words to that effect.)
Colleagues say his skill in retaining information came from his passion for sport and years of shoe-leather reporting, travelling long distances and covering different, lesser-watched sports.
“Before Google and Siri there was Jimmy,” said Nugent, citing “passion” as the inspiration for Magee’s encyclopedic knowledge.
Born in New York City and raised on the Cooley Peninsula in Co Louth, Magee doubled-jobbed early in his career, working in broadcasting and as a clerical worker.
He presented music programmes early on, and even managed showbands before working as a reporter for the RTÉ Radio programme Junior Sports Magazine on Saturdays, covering mostly rugby, hockey and athletics.
Sports journalist Des Cahill, Magee’s former RTÉ colleague, remembered his friend’s delight at Ireland’s sporting successes in the 1980s and 1990s after relatively barren years in the 1960s and 1970s.
He was the voice heard through cheers when Katie Taylor won a gold medal at the London 2012 Olympics.
“He loved all of that,” said Cahill. “He knew all of these athletes, their families and the individuals. He knew them as people. Most commentators don’t know the protagonists as people.”
This may in part explain one glitch in Magee’s memory: his refusal to accept the doping charges against swimmer Michelle Smith, who won three golds and a bronze medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, or US cyclist Lance Armstrong. His unusual position would lead to arguments with colleagues.
“His idea was: sport is sport, and whoever finished first was the winner,” said Kenny.
Cahill accepts that his defensive posture damaged him in his final years, particularly with younger people who didn’t know him. “He clung to it, but it became unreal what he clung to.”
Nugent views it differently: “Everything was positive for Jimmy. He didn’t want to see the negative. He didn’t want to see what he loved and what to him was so pure to be questioned.”
Magee hit occasional bum notes. In his final Olympics in London in 2012, he drew criticism for remarks he made about black American boxer Rau’shee Warren over luminous green boots he wore during a fight.
“One thing’s for sure – if there’s a blackout here in London you’ll find Warren with those boots,” he said, before pausing and adding “you mightn’t see the rest of him.”
Away from the microphone, Magee loved travel, eating out and fun company. He retained his life-long interest in music, holding a share in a record label for a time, and releasing a single, three years before his death, to raise funds for the Irish Motor Neuron Disease Association in memory of his eldest son Paul, who died from the disease in 2008.
In an interview almost two years ago Magee said his most emotional moment in broadcasting was being in the commentary box during Paul’s debut as a professional League of Ireland footballer.
He also spoke with pride at all the Olympic Games he covered in his career.
“Not once did I have to train. No training, no running, no weight-lifting, nothing. All I had to do was talk. It was bloody wonderful.”
Magee is survived by his children Linda, June, Patricia and Mark and his 11 grandchildren. His wife Marie died in 1989.
His funeral Mass will take place at 11.30am on Friday in the Church of St Laurence O’Toole, Kilmacud, Dublin, followed by burial in Shanganagh Cemetery.