Peter Byrne, the journalist and author who passed away on Wednesday, played a crucial role in the exponential growth of sports writing within The Irish Times and beyond.
In Byrne’s role as soccer, boxing and athletics correspondent over 38 years, as well as being Jack Charlton’s official biographer, co-writing three books with the former Republic of Ireland manager, the cleanest of copy was filed from six World Cups and eight Olympic Games up to 2000.
Known simply as ‘The Doyen’ amongst his peers, current Irish Times athletics correspondent Ian O’Riordan remembers dispatches from Byrne, Jimmy Meagan and Ian’s late father, Tom O’Riordan, as the trio traversed the globe reporting on historic Irish track achievements, from Eamonn Coughlan to Sonia O’Sullivan.
“Peter got sport into The Irish Times when it was still a battle,” said O’Riordan. “He fought for that ground by going to Olympics and World Cups when it was not easy, nor popular to do so. He raised the standard of sports writing across the board.”
Born and raised in Finglas by Billy and Agnes Byrne, Peter was still a teenager attending O’Connell’s School in North Richmond St, Dublin 1 when he began delivering boxing reports, by hand, from the National Stadium into The Dublin Evening Mail on the corner of Parliament Street and Lord Edward Street.
Previously he worked as a clerical officer for British Railways alongside future RTÉ commentator Jimmy Magee, where one time the pair managed to misplace a circus elephant in transit from Holyhead to Dublin.
“It was eventually found in a wagon up a siding in Clacton-on-Sea and on the point of death through starvation,” Byrne revealed in 2017.
When the Evening Mail controversially closed in 1962, Byrne worked for a year at The Sunday Review before starting at The Irish Times in 1963, replacing Seamus Devlin as soccer correspondent in the mid-1970s.
He retired in 2001 after a journalism career that also included many pieces for The Daily Telegraph and The News of the World as the UK publications’ Irish sports stringer.
Recipient of the Benson and Hedges sportswriter of the year award five times – 1973, 1977, 1978, 1980 and 1981 – there remain some unforgettable opening paragraphs attributed to Byrne.
“It was a memorable evening for Irish swimming here in the Olympic Pool,” he observed from the Montreal Olympics in 1976. “Nobody drowned.”
On another less than illustrious occasion, Byrne noted in a match report from the Brandywell that it was a game of two halves, “the first of which I did not see,” having been waylaid by Christmas traffic en route to Derry.
After winning the silver medal in Sydney, Sonia O’Sullivan gifted Byrne her identification vest. Among many adversarial interviews, he spoke to Muhammad Ali in July 1972 ahead of the Croke Park bout with Al ‘Blue’ Lewis.
Never shy of casting a critical eye, following the refusal of the FAI to pay for then Ireland manager Eoin Hand’s expenses while scouting at the 1982 World Cup, Byrne insisted that Hand stay in his rented apartment in Valencia to witness Northern Ireland’s 1-0 defeat of hosts Spain.
“Peter was a man of integrity,” said Hand. “You could always trust him with sensitive material. We became very good friends over the years. The FAI were a disgrace in ‘82 when I wanted to scout our upcoming opposition, the Spanish, only looking after the blazers. And with accommodation scarce, Peter facilitated me. It was a lovely gesture.”
Ronnie Delany, Olympics gold medalist in the 1500 metres at the 1956 Melbourne Games, also considered Byrne a close friend.
“Peter was a brilliant correspondent,” said Delany. “He wasn’t around for Melbourne but he covered so many great moments in Irish boxing, football and athletics. Sonia O’Sullivan and I had regular conversations about Peter’s health in recent years as we used to always attend events together, especially in Santry. Ireland has lost a great journalist. My deepest sympathies to the family.”
Byrne is survived by wife Tina, daughters Miriam, Nicola – his beloved son Keith died in 1991 – grandsons Tomás and Isaac, son in law Patrick, brother Vincent, sister Joan, and friends.
Ní bheidh a leithéad arís ann.
Noted pieces by Peter Byrne