GAA Football

"You cannot judge until the era is over" - legendary RTÉ commentator Michéal Ó Muircheartaigh

Micheal Ó Muircheartaigh
Cahair O'Kane

THERE is little on this island that Michéal Ó Muircheartaigh hasn’t seen since he left behind Dún Sion, home to just eight families in those days, to head for Baile Bhuirne at the age of 15.

He hasn’t lived in Kerry in the 72 years that have passed since he stepped out in to Cork, from where he went on to Dublin before moving “out to the country” in Meath just over a decade ago.

“I moved out of Kerry in 1945. It was my first time out of home. I never slept a night out of home before that. I go back regularly, every Christmas, and I think ‘tis different there than any place else.”

Like any great GAA man, there has never been any denying his roots. While the former long-serving RTÉ commentator was able to purvey neutrality on the airwaves, he has always been Kerry through-and-through.

Since listening to Kerry play Galway on the wireless as a seven-year-old in Sheehy’s packed house in the neighbouring village in 1938, his life has been steeped in the GAA, not least when he trained the Dublin-based players on the Kerry squad in the late 1970s.

Ten years later he went to his first All-Ireland final – which none other than Mayo lost, to Cavan – and since then, he has missed just one.

“I saw Meath win for the first time in 1949, Mayo win in 1950 and 51, the great Down team win for the first time in 1960, Tyrone, Derry, Donegal, Armagh all win for the first time, and Offaly win in both hurling and football,” he rhymes.

“I reckon between hurling and football, counting draws as well, I’ve seen at least 150 All-Ireland finals.”

So in the debate that rages now over whether the current Dublin team is the greatest of all time, there is surely no greater authority to pass comment.

“I’ve always said you cannot judge until the era is over. In four or five years’ time, many of the players that have now won three-in-a-row will have departed the scene, and that is the time to look back and judge how they’ll compare with the Meath team that won two All-Irelands; the great Kerry team that won four-in-a-row, and eight in 12 years; other Dublin teams, the teams that Kevin Heffernan had.

“Endless conversation and debate and argument trying to compare, and it’s impossible to do it really. They were all wonderful.”

There would perhaps be no more joyous a Croke Park than one that would see Mayo finally end their 66-year drought but that will have to wait for another 12 months at least.

But with Andy Moran staying on and none of the rest really in the line of retirement, there is the sense in Ó Muircheartaigh’s mind that their pursuit will bring them right back to the brink once more.

“For a neutral – and you mightn’t have many in Croke Park on All-Ireland final day – the men’s All-Ireland football championship this year was as good as ever played.

“A happy ending for those supporting Dublin. At times it looked like it was gone. Those supporting Mayo thought for a while: ‘This is it’, and then it happened, the game is over, and they’re not champions.

“But they’ll certainly win. I was down in Mayo last week and I met one or two of the players. I asked them: ‘You’ll be there next year, won’t you?’ They gave a non-committal answer but I know from the way they gave it that they will be there.”

The conversation is just an endless stream of positivity as he sits the other side of the wall from Tipperary sculptor Jarlath Daly, who is busy crafting awards for the Electric Ireland minor football and hurling stars, of which Michéal is an ambassador.

In going back over the years in his mind, the emotion and colour of 2002 stands out.

“Croke Park is a wonderful sight, and never better viewing than it was when Armagh won it for the first time.

“They had very attractive and colourful banners, they take to the camera.

“There was a shot taken from Hill 16 and they covered the entire playing areas with their mass of colour and flags. You couldn’t but stop and stare.

“I’ve seen all those great sides over the year. Croke Park growing from a little stand that held 5,000 to another being added on, then the Hogan being renovated.

“Things change by degrees but it’s major change when you look back on it all side-by-side, and all for the better – for the game, the people playing, those listening or watching.

“All sports are great; they knit communities together and create friendships, and an interest in people even if they never advance beyond minor stage.

“One sentence in Irish sums it all up: Ni neart go cur le cheile. You don’t really appreciate what really strength is until all sections of the community are backing something,” he inflects.

He later pulls another phrase from the native tongue that this anglicised ear can’t quite gather, but which he describes as translating to “do not give your verdict on any topic until you hear the other side”.

And perhaps that measure is what got him through 62 years on the airwaves, bringing the national games into living rooms just as Michéal O’Hehir had done for him when he was a child.

Perhaps it was a generational thing, that endless ability to see the good in things. The country felt the loss recently of Jimmy Magee, and Ó Muircheartaigh felt it personally too.

“A huge loss, and personally is very important because he knew everyone, and everybody knew him.

“I rarely if ever heard him talk negatively about anything. He picked out the good parts, the good players, the good things an individual player might do once off in his career and Jimmy would have saw it and mentioned it.

“He wouldn’t be criticising players in any code for what didn’t go right for them. He was great to me, great to have a debate with and liked talking about sport.

“He was a great character. He enjoyed everything and had a fantastic sense of youth. He was always looking forward: ‘We haven’t seen the best yet, next year will be the best that’s ever come.’”

Ó Muircheartaigh retired in September 2010 after 62 years on the beat and yet every time you enter the press area in Croke Park, he is there displaying the interest and passion for the games that shone through in his work.

Most recently, he was teaching Sky Sports soccer pundits Jeff Stelling and Chris Kamara the ins and outs of the game for their enjoyable Journey to Croker.

“I don’t in one sense,” he says when asked if he misses working.

”I gave 62 years broadcasting games. I was always going to a game, and it was an added purpose to be talking about it and letting people who couldn’t be there know what was going on.

“I still go to all the games, Saturdays and Sundays, be it underage up to the senior All-Irelands, I go to them all. I go to the Irish Games in Asia. I’ve been in America a few times, to South Africa.

“I don’t miss working, I look forward to the next game.”

** Michéal Ó Muircheartaigh is an ambassador for the Electric Ireland Minor Star Awards, which will take place in Croke Park today.

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