Tuesday, September 18, 2012

MICHAEL O'HEHIR

‘Bail ó Dhia oraibh a chairde Gael agus fáilte romhaibh go Páirc an Chrócaigh’ Known as the voice of the GAA for almost fifty years, Michael was born in Glasnevin, Dublin on June 20th 1920 to parents from County Clare. His father, Jim O'Hehir, who was born in Lack, County Clare was active in the GAA, having trained his native county to win the 1914 All-Ireland title in hurling. He subsequently trained the Leitrim football team who secured the 1927 Connacht provincial title and later serving as an official with the GAA Dublin Junior Board and chairman of Civil Service and St.Vincents Dublin GAA clubs. Michael was educated at St. Patrick's National School in Drumcondra before later attending the O'Connell School, a Christian Brothers-run institution in the city centre. He later studied electrical engineering at University College Dublin, however, he abandoned his studies after just one year to pursue a full-time career in broadcasting.He enjoyed a distinguished hurling career with the St. Vincent's club in Raheny. Michael became fascinated with the radio when he received a present of one as a child. He had just turned eighteen and was still a school-boy when he wrote to Radio Éireann asking to do a test commentary. He was accepted and was asked, along with five others, to do a five-minute microphone test for a National Football League game between Wexford and Louth. His microphone test impressed the director of broadcasting T.J. Kiernan so much that he was invited to commentate on the whole of the second half of the match. Two months later in August 1938 Michael made his first broadcast - the All-Ireland football semi-final when Galway defeated Monaghan at Mullingar’s Cusack Park. He went on to commentate on the second semi-final and that year's final between Galway and Kerry. The following year he covered his first hurling final - the famous "thunder and lightning final" as Kilkenny beat Cork by a score of 2-7 to 3-3. Sports broadcasting in Ireland was still in its infancy at this stage, however, his Sunday afternoon commentaries quickly became a way of life for many rural listeners who gathered around radio sets to listen to the games. As a man who could ‘make a boring game interesting’, by the mid-1940s Michael was recognised as one of Ireland's leading sports broadcasters. In 1947 he faced his most challenging broadcast to date when he had to commentate on the All-Ireland Football Final from the Polo Grounds in New York City. Over 1,000,000 people were listening to the broadcast back in Ireland and he was the one link between the game in New York and the fans in Ireland. The broadcast had to be finished by five o'clock local time, however, the match ran late. The last few minutes of his commentary included him pleading with the broadcast technicians not to take him off the air. His pleas were successful and the Irish people were able to listen to the game in full.
In 1944 Michael joined the staff of Independent Newspapers as a sports sub-editor, before beginning a seventeen-year career as racing correspondent in 1947. His racing expertise was not just limited to print journalism as he became a racing commentator with Radio Éireann in 1945. Even though his reputation was on the up with the national broadcaster in Ireland, he applied to the BBC for a position as racing commentator. His application was accepted and he provided commentary for the Cheltenham Gold Cup. The BBC bosses were sufficiently impressed with him to offer him further commentaries. Michael describes the chaotic scene at the 23rd fence in the 1967 Grand National “Rutherfords has been hampered, and so has Castle Falls; Rondetto has fallen, Princeful has fallen, Norther has fallen, Kirtle Lad has fallen, The Fossa has fallen, there's a right pile-up... Leedsy has climbed over the fence and left his jockey there. And now, with all this mayhem, Foinavon has gone off on his own! He's about 50, 100 yards in front of everything else” He subsequently became a staple of the BBC's coverage of the Aintree Grand National, arguably the most famous horse race in the world. It is a role that would be continued by his son Tony who followed in his father’s footsteps. He would invariably pick up the commentary at the Becher's Brook fence and take the race to Valentine's Brook, a vital section of the race where many a favourite fell. Foinavon's famous victory in 1967 will be remembered as one of his finest moments in racing commentaries and won him great respect for the speed and smoothness with which he picked out the unconsidered outsider.
Michael later confessed in an interview that he it had been his inability to identify the colours on his card when inspecting the riders silks in the weighing room prior to the race that had led him to question rider John Buckingham who his mount was. Buckingham advised him that Foinavon's silks had been changed at the last minute as his regular green colours were considered unlucky. It was because of this chance meeting that he was able to identify the 100/1 outsider and carry the commentary. In addition to horseracing he also covered showjumping, including the annual Dublin Horse Show at the RDS in Ballsbridge. In 1961 Ireland's first national television station, Telefís Éireann, was founded and Michael was appointed head of sports programmes. As a result of his influence he secured the broadcasting rights to the closing stages of the All-Ireland hurling and football championships for the new station. As well as his new role he continued to keep up a hectic schedule of commentaries. He continued in the position until 1972 when he was replaced by Fred Cogley. Michael’s skills did not just confine him to sports broadcasting and, in November 1963, he faced his toughest broadcast. By sheer coincidence he was on holidays with his wife Molly in New York when US President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. He was asked by Telefís Éireann to provide the commentary for the funeral. The live five-hour broadcast proved a huge challenge for him, as he had had no association with political or current affairs broadcasting up to that point and lacked the resources available to more established television stations. His commentary, however, won widespread acclaim in Ireland and showed a different side of his nature. He later described it as the most moving and most demanding commentary of his career. Michael was known in the United States prior to this as he had worked with ABC as a racing commentator. His presentation of the Kennedy funeral brought offers from ABC, however, he preferred to remain in Ireland. Michael later provided commentaries for other non-sporting events such as the repatriation and funeral of the remains of Roger Casement in 1965 and the celebrations marking the golden jubilee of the Easter Rising in 1966.
In the early 1970s the initial challenge of being head of sport had faded as Telefís Éireann was now an established broadcaster. In 1972 he became manager of the newly designed Leopardstown Racecourse but left the following year to continue writing and broadcasting as a freelance journalist. This work took him to the United States where he commentated for NBC in races such as the Arlington Million. This association with the American broadcaster lasted well into the eighties. In 1975 Michael was honoured by The Late Late Show with a special tribute show. In his commentary he aimed at impartiality but admitted that he was always blamed for being "against the losers." Similarly he was also blamed for making a game out of nothing. Shortly after Dublin defeated Galway in 1983 in a tense All-Ireland final about thirty Dublin supporters attacked him in the commentary box when he was commentating at another match in Navan. Only the presence of an armed detective - there to protect the microphone - saved him from serious injury.
In August 1985 Michael was preparing to commentate on the All-Ireland hurling final between Offaly and Galway. It would be a special occasion as it would mark his 100th commentary on an All-Ireland final. Two weeks before the game he suffered a stroke which left him using a wheelchair and with some speaking difficulties. This illness denied him the chance to reach the century milestone. He was subsequently replaced by Ger Canning on television, and on radio by Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh. He had hoped to return to broadcasting one day to complete his 100th final, however, this never happened. In 1987 the centenary All-Ireland football final took place and a special series of events was planned on the day at Croke Park. There was a parade of the 1947 Polo Grounds finalists, however, the biggest cheer of the day was reserved for Michael who was pushed onto the field in a wheelchair by his son Peter. Nobody expected the standing ovation and the huge outpouring of emotion from the thousands of fans present and from himself.
Over the next few years Michael alas withdrew from public life. He returned briefly in 1996 when his autobiography, My Life and Times, was published. Michael O'Hehir passed away in Dublin on 24 November 1996.

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