To this day, Pat Guthrie vividly remembers the summer of 1954. His father purchased a battery radio for the princely sum of £16. It was also the year he listened to his first All-Ireland hurling final radio commentary, leading 60 years later to his book which chronicles the careers of RTE’s radio sports commentators.
IT was the first weekend in September and John Guthrie headed the few miles down the road from his thatched home in Commons North to Corofin village, to Pat Reidy’s bicycle repair shop on Church Street. It was a chore he was growing accustomed to, having the recently-purchased wet and dry radio battery charged and at the ready.
That weekend was particularly special for the Guthrie family, as they tuned into their first All-Ireland hurling final radio broadcast. It was a final that elevated Ring to legendary status as he won his eighth All-Ireland medal, eclipsing the record shared in hurling by Kilkenny’s Sim Walton, Dick ‘Drug’ Walsh and Jack Rochford.
Having a radio was a novelty but it was an occasion which left an indelible impression on a young Pat P Guthrie because of Micheál O’Hehir’s descriptive commentary.
“My late father purchased our first wet and dry battery radio and its arrival in our house in Kilnaboy caused fear, wonderment and curiosity. My 82-year-old grandfather was not impressed. He wondered how all those people talking could fit in a small box,” Pat remembers.
Setting up the radio to receive a signal was equally amusing.
“A very high pole was erected in the cabbage garden. Long wires were connected from the pole to the radio nestling on the window cell. The instillation man, who accompanied my father with his treasured brown Pye Radio purchased in Micko Burke’s shop in Corofin, carried it carefully into our house.
“With great ceremony he gingerly placed it on the kitchen windowsill and hovering over the large contraption he connected some wires, turned a few knobs before the first sounds reverberated around our thatched house.
“We stayed well-back from it in case the people in the radio might see us or even talk to us. But as we became familiar with the ‘talking box’ we were told that it could not be turned on except for the news, mass and GAA matches on Sundays and ceílí music on Saturday nights,” he remembers.
That first commentary was the All-Ireland hurling final between Cork and Wexford played on September 5, 1954.
“My father had asked that only my brothers and sisters who were interested should stay in the house to hear the commentary. And if you stayed, strict silence had to be observed. I was the only one who stayed. I remember my father standing with hat removed for the playing of the national anthem by the Artane Boys Band.
“I was enthralled and captivated by the speed of the commentary by Micheál O’Hehir and his description of players, Croke Park and the scenes he painted left indelible marks on my memory. Indeed, the seeds of my future career and ambitions were being laid. The GAA and the radio were entwined and my love-affair with both had begun,” he states.
Pat admits to becoming a radio-addict following that 1954 commentary and the radio became his constant companion during his college years in Dublin.
“When I went to college in the 1960s, the crystal set was a cherished companion. It relayed all the GAA results of the Sunday via the dulcet voice of the late Seán Óg Ó Ceallacháin. I went to sleep listening to the finish of the day’s schedule with the national anthem. And in the morning, I’d waken to the early morning audio pips to the melody of O’Donnell Abú,” he acknowledges.
That love affair eventually blossomed almost 60 years later when Pat decided to write a book, The GAA & Radio Éireann 1926 – 2010, The story of the commentators who broadcast Gaelic Games, chronicling the careers of RTÉ’s radio sports commentators, including those with Clare connections – Canon Michael Hamilton, Art McGann, John ‘Lefty’ Devine and Micheál O’Hehir. The book does not include current commentators.
The genesis for the book was the retirement of Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh in October 2010. He had completed an unbroken 62 years broadcasting record with RTÉ Radio 1.
“Because of my involvement with the administration side of the GAA, with Féile na nGael in particular, it was only natural that I would meet with the GAA broadcasters. From the early ’70s I got to know Micheál O’Hehir, Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh, Seán Óg Ó Ceallacháin, Liam Campbell, Jim Carney and Jimmy Magee very well.
“In the mid-70s, I began to travel with Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh to matches every Sunday, taking notes of the match statistics for him. This brought me closer to the radio. I now saw how a programme was produced and broadcast. Sitting beside the iconic broadcaster for 25 years was one of the greatest experiences of my sporting life,” he recalls.
However, it was during a visit to his sister, Susan, in Boston in September 2010 that he learned of Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh’s retirement from broadcasting.
“As the weeks sped by, I thought of how best to keep his memory before the public. As I did, it began to occur to me that there were other commentators that must not be forgotten either. Quickly, I made up my mind that I would write a book on the six or seven commentators I knew,” he reveals.
Over the next three years, Pat Guthrie spent more time researching material at the National Library, the GAA Archives in Croke Park and the Pearse Street Dublin City library than he did at his home in Templeogue. Hundreds of GAA books were read and studied.
“As my research developed and deepened, my curiosity strengthened as the names of new commentators began to emerge. Having started out with the names of six broadcasters, within six months I had the names of another 12. My work was increasing alarmingly but once I had started, I was not going to give up,” he declares.
Tracking down relatives of earlier broadcasters long since dead was a major problem. Records were not kept, understandably, so of the GAA commentators of the 1930s or the ’40s.
“I point out in my book that the GAA and Radio Éireann made great efforts to get suitable people to do commentaries but because sport broadcasting was in its embryonic stage, there were no guidelines or instructions available for them. It was a question of the commentator saying what he thought best during a commentary,” he acknowledges.
But who were these commentators in the early days of GAA broadcasting and how difficult was it to build up a profile of these people?
“Many senior people in Raidio Teilifís Éireann and top GAA administrators were of great assistance to me. Names were mentioned but details were non existent. So with only a surname to guide me, I began the tedious search in the telephone directory for numbers. Even then, it was a hit and miss scenario.
“At times I was lucky and had a relative of a commentator speaking enthusiastically to me. In the case of John ‘Lefty’ Devine, a native of West Clare, who broadcast the 1951 National Football League final from the Polo Grounds, New York it took a short letter to The Irish Echo newspaper in the Big Apple to make contact with his son, Tommy.
“In another case, I was talking to a senior producer at Raidio Éireann when he told me that he once dated a girl who later became the wife of a GAA commentator! Two years ago I was talking with a priest friend in Ennis about my book. Then he suddenly enquired if I had heard of a certain gentleman who was a commentator. I answered that I had come across his name but had little information of him. The priest smiled. He was a distant relative of the commentator. I had opened another door to a great reservoir of information.
“So that was the way I gathered information. I criss-crossed the country following every lead, visiting graveyards, libraries, rendezvousing with relatives of the broadcasters, making early morning and late night calls, nurturing every snatch of information, recording every glimpse into history and nuancing every item that would all coalesce historically into this work of mine,” he responds.
For Pat it was a labour of love and worth all the effort. “The book has brought to life the commentators who broadcast Gaelic Games from 1926 to 2010. Many have been forgotten. I hope that the museum in Croke Park will recognise their contribution to the promotion of hurling and football and of the GAA in general. Here they will take their place with the great administrators, officials, presidents, players, historians and an army of voluntary workers, whose collective input all coalesce into a powerful collage of outstanding selfless endeavour and ingenuity for the advancement and promotion of the Gaelic Athletic Association,” he says.
The book will be launched at Treacy’s West County Hotel, Ennis on Thursday, November 7 at 6pm.