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How a GAA broadcasting legend found himself commentating on JFK's funeral

Michael O’Hehir described it as the toughest broadcast of his career.

jean-kennedy-smith-sister-of-jfk-dies-at-92 United States President John F. Kennedy's family following his death in November 1963. Source: CNP/ABACA

HE ENJOYED A long and storied career as the voice of Gaelic games, yet one of the most fascinating tales from Michael O’Hehir’s life on the airwaves had nothing to with the GAA or his other great love, horse racing.

The talented broadcaster displayed his versatility when he provided the commentary for RTÉ  on President John F Kennedy’s funeral in 1963. O’Hehir happened to be in the US at the same time Kennedy was assassinated. For four hours without a break, he held the Irish public spellbound as he added colour over the black and white pictures on TV sets around the country.

“Little John going over having a word with Carolyn. Carolyn the six-year-old who may well at that tender age have a grasp on just what is really happening today. But it’s very obvious that little John has no idea whatever.

Source: KillianM2/YouTube

“Now the coffin has arrived by the graveside.  And overhead sweep 75 jets in final salute for the President. There are seats alongside the grave. Mrs Jacqueline Kennedy, Mr Robert Kennedy, Mr Edward Kennedy, Mrs Jean Smith, Mrs Eunice Striver, Mrs Pat Lawford take these seats.

“Now as it were, all at peace in Arlington. And as the cadets from the Curragh give final military honours, one can see the statesmen of the world on the fringe of the graveside area.

“And now moving up from their chairs are the ladies of the Kennedy family and moving in just behind comes general De Gaulle. De Gaulle looking slightly nervous…”  

***

michael-ohehir-1987 Michael O'Hehir pictured in 1987. Source: ©INPHOBilly Stickland

O’Hehir’s career in the media started out as an 18-year-old in 1938 when he commentated on Galway’s win over Monaghan in the All-Ireland football semi-final.

He was also more than capable with the written word. He joined the sport staff of the Irish Independent in 1944 and three years later became their chief racing correspondent which brought him to some of the world’s most famous racetracks. At the same time O’Hehir continued to pick up freelance gigs with Radio Éireann in broadcasting. 

After Radio and Telefis Éireann was established, O’Hehir was appointed as the station’s Head of Sport in 1961. Broadcasting was his first love and he quickly became Ireland’s preeminent sports commentator.

His legendary voice provided the backdrop to some of the most famous occasions in Ireland and the UK’s sporting history. 

From the 1947 All-Ireland football final played at the Polo Grounds in New York for Radio Éireann to the ‘Foinavon Grand National’ at Aintree on the BBC 20 years later which is widely regarded as one of O’Hehir’s finest moments in racing. 

His coverage of the chaotic scene at the 23rd fence that afternoon drew much acclaim for how he cooly and quickly picked out the unconsidered outsider on his way to victory.

“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!”

Source: Colm Gillis/YouTube

The simplicity by which he commentated on Seamus Darby’s famous goal in the 1982 All-Ireland final showed O’Hehir, by then a veteran, at his best.  

“Here they come. This is Liam Connor the full-back. A high lobbing, dropping ball in towards the goalmouth. A shot…a goal! A goal! A goal for Offaly! There was a goal in the game. A goal, oh what a goal!”

Going back to 1963, RTÉ was still in its infancy in June when the first major challenge of international importance cropped up – the State visit of JFK to Ireland. RTÉ director general Gunnar Rugheimer asked O’Hehir to commentate on the main events of the visit. In the weeks leading up to it, he helped pick out the best camera positions around the streets of Dublin.

files-john-f-kennedy Kennedy at a speaking engagement in June 1963 shortly before his visit to Ireland. Source: Sachs Arnie/CNP/ABACA

He described the build-up in his autobiography, My Life and Times.

“On one such mission I got out of my car near Nelson’s Pillar telling the Garda on duty what we were at and asking if I could park my car there,” he wrote. “He was very co-operative but made a crack about me not really deserving any help because of what I had done to his father.

“It seemed his father had invested in some of my tips which, I gathered, were not my best. Nevertheless, he allowed Burt Budin and the rest of the crew to get on with their work.” 

President Eamon de Valera was supposed to meet Kennedy at Dublin Airport, but as the visitor’s plane approached he was still in Áras an Úachtarán for “some unexplained reason”. A mad dash followed via the backroads to get de Valera to the airport, while Air Traffic Control delayed Air Force 1 until he appeared on the tarmac. 

The following day, Kennedy was due to visit his ancestral home in Dunganstown, just outside New Ross in Wexford. O’Hehir and his TV crew stayed there the night before and arrived early at the Kennedy Homestead to see how things had been arranged. 

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They were told in no uncertain terms by the bodyguards that the President would be at one end of the room and no TV microphones were allowed to be placed anywhere near him. A daring floor manager from a broadcast crew climbed down from the TV scaffolding tower, ducked under the tables and set-up a microphone in the forbidden zone. 

“We settled down to await JFK’s arrival and, sure enough, when he reached his end of the room he jokingly picked up the microphone and tested it, thus letting it be seen that he realised it was there,” said O’Hehir. 

“It stayed there and picked up quite an amount of the President’s conversation, thus undoubtedly improving the coverage.”

By the time the Kennedy party flew out from Shannon, O’Hehir was in the Curragh covering the Irish Derby. His next assignment involving JFK was in far more tragic circumstances.

jfk-assassination-files-due-to-be-released The front page of the Napa Register from 22 November, 1963, reporting on the death of President John F Kennedy. Source: J.L. Sousa/Register

A chance trip to New York with his wife Molly five months later coincided with the assassination of Kennedy. O’Hehir immediately phoned the newsroom in RTÉ and offered his services. 

An hour after news of the shooting broke, he phone in a report to RTÉ from New York, describing the scenes of shock and confusion in the US.

“Here in New York everybody seems to be stunned and shocked by the terrible news. News that flashed across the United States just over an hour ago. First the news that an assassination attempt had been made on President Kennedy on that motorcade that we got to know so well in Ireland during the summer.

“And that motorcade was speeding through Dallas, Texas. There then followed almost an hour of utter confusion with the reports: ‘The President was dead, the President was still alive.’ And then, 35 minutes after he had been removed from the scene of the shooting to the hospital the news came through – President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was dead.

“The motorcade was going through Dallas, Texas when an assassin over the motorcade opened fire and a bullet struck the President in the head. President Kennedy slumped onto the lap of Mrs Kennedy, who was sitting beside him and she was heard to scream, ‘Oh no’.” 

O’Hehir helped arrange television coverage of the funeral with NBC and provided the commentary for the national broadcaster. He was known for his meticulous research and immediately set about prepping for one of the biggest days of his career.

“It was down to work then as I set about briefing myself as thoroughly as was humanly possible about the funeral arrangements and particularly about the very many foreign dignitaries who where expected and whom I would have to be able to identify,” he wrote in his book. 

“We hired a second TV to help us collect information, and familiarise ourselves with names and faces. We heard that General McKeown, the Army chief of staff, and a group of cadets were coming from Ireland so I went out to the airport to meet them. President de Valera and Frank Aiken, the Minister for External Affairs, were on the same plane.

He continued, “After a few words with General McKeown, who said he and his men had not yet been told what role they would play in the ceremonies I headed back to the hotel through streets full of people weeping and wandering around in a dazed state.”

00082bfe-622 A view of JFK's funeral from the RTÉ broadcast.

O’Hehir was allocated a commentary position at the NBC studios, with three monitors in front of him. He had just his wife and an engineer alongside him working for the RTÉ broadcast, but BBC presenter Richard Dimbleby recognised O’Hehir from his Grand National coverage and graciously offered him the help of his team of researchers and assistants.

Prior to the broadcast, O’Hehir made one request to RTÉ.

“Before we went on air I spoke to Tom Hardiman, the man in charge at the Dublin end and requested that no one contact me over the headphones during the coverage,” he said.

“I felt strongly that any interruption to my concentration would disturb the flow and mood of the commentary. This request was respected and there followed four hours of silence from Dublin. But, of course, I wondered whether we were getting through at all so at one stage I asked Molly to phone Dublin to find out. Their answer was in the affirmative.”

O’Hehir’s melodious voice captured the Irish audience back at home and he said “all the homework we had done paid dividends.” Without much political or current affairs broadcasting experience at that point, his commentary again earned rave reviews and showed an entirely different string to his bow. 

Offers arrived afterwards from American broadcasters but he opted to remain in Ireland. He later described the live broadcast as the most demanding of his career.

“It was a gruelling session both emotionally and physically and I was exhausted when it was over,” he continued. “The following day, as life in New York returned to normal, Molly and I went to the pictures to relax and unwind a bit.

“The movie we saw was It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World. So it was.”

Incidentally, five years later O’Hehir was supposed to have been in New York again when another Kennedy was slain. This time it was to broadcast the National Hurling League final between Tipperary and the Exiles.

He was ordered by doctors not to travel after being diagnosed with high blood pressure so RTÉ had to hastily make alternative arrangements for the radio broadcast. The game wasn’t played as scheduled due to heavy rainfall which forced its postponement for seven days.

A week later it was postponed once again as America was in mourning, this time following the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy, brother of JFK.  

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About the author:

Kevin O'Brien

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