Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh (thank you, Google) is handing in his gun and strolling off into the sunset, the match between Down and Cork representing the last time that his mellifluous (thank you, spellchecker) tones will illuminate the airwaves. This has led to much anguish amongst GAA followers as the bould Mícheál was one of those rare figures of whom everyone spoke well. And given his oft-expressed preference for hurling over football, who am I to dissent?
Well, I am going to dissent a little bit. For a start, it’s a relief that he can leave on his own terms, something denied to his predecessor as the doyen of GAA commentators, Michael O’Hehir. And while he was a great commentator, the extent to which people tended to fethishise his existence could get tiresome after a while. I’d wager that he was the type to find such adulation from people who only knew him as a disembodied voice a little vulgar. Personally I can’t get worked up over the cult of the commentator. Describe what’s on the pitch, keep the flannel to a minimum. And Lord, keeping the flannel to a minimum was something you could never accuse Mícheál of doing. His quotes are the stuff of legend, and while some of them are laugh-out-loud funny (“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! 40 yards out on the Hogan Stand side of the field Ciarán Whelan goes on a rampage, it’s a goal. So much for religion”), for the most part they are either a wee bit contrived (“In the first half they played with the wind. In the second half they played with the ball”) or just don’t make much sense (“Teddy looks at the ball, the ball looks at Teddy”). In the course of a 60-year career you’re going to say a lot of things, and it is Mícheál’s singular good fortune that people only seem to recall the profound comments.
But this is only a small dissent. He had many virtues, not the least of which is that lovely voice, something that seems to be under-rated in modern-day commentating. Part of Ger Canning’s problem is that when he gets excited his voice resembles a parrot being drowned in a bucket of soapy water. And as for Brian Carthy, it is probably best in the week when Brian Cowen is under pressure for mocking Philip Walton’s helium tones that we move swiftly on. His affection for the games and everything surrounding it was clear, and while he may have talked a lot he never strayed into the path of tedious moralising that is destroying commentary these days. Every match has to be a morality play for the Alan Greens of this world. Thankfully Mícheál never lost sight of the fact that it’s meant to be a pleasure, not a pain. Great games were lifted to the heavens, while even bad games could be made virtuous by emphasising the nature of the participants and their place in our lives. My brother and my cousin once enlivened a meaningless Uefa Cup match by commentating in the style of Jimmy Magee. It was much more entertaining for not being so relentlessly downbeat. And Mícheál never did downbeat.
Everyone will probably have their story about him, and mine certainly won’t make it into the Pantheon. But it was a moment that made me realise just why he was special. It was a number of years ago, and I was listening to the match on Sky in England – in itself a source of wonder at the time. Kilkenny were in the process of brushing someone off their studs so with the game petering out Eamon Cregan decided to hold forth on the referee, someone he dismissed as “what we call a technical referee”. Mícheál inquired what he meant by that and was told that refereed according to the rule book. Mícheál lightheartedly – always lightheartedly – asked “isn’t that what they’re meant to do?” Quite right, and for services to pomposity-pricking, he will always have a special place in my heart.