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'It’s inevitable that it will happen. You have no power over it, why worry about it?'

Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh talks to The42 about death, Gay Byrne, Kerry and Luke Kelly.

Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh.
Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh.

Updated Nov 5th 2019, 8:16 PM

COMMITTING A CHAT with Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh  to print is a lousy act. 

It strips the conversation of its most vital part: the elemental metre of his voice, which is forever stirring and giving life to some part of history or culture that might otherwise grow stale and forgotten.

It’s a bit like divorcing Bob Dylan’s early lyrics from the urgent, hectic voice that lent the songs to protest. 

Ó Muircheartaigh’s voice is a rare thing: its every utterance evokes a whole era, and it has grown rarer still in the aftermath of the passing of one of the few other men who held similar sway.

Ó Muircheartaigh remembers the first time he saw Gay Byrne on television and the last time he met him. 

“The last place I met him was in the Mater hospital, maybe a year ago”, he tells The42.

“He was all set to make a comeback on the radio, but the poor man has been going down since.

“I used to like meeting him, he was never in a hurry. If you’d meet him walking around RTÉ, he would talk away. He was a very refined type of man, he was very intelligent, and was a great listener.

He would really try something that was current in the sport, knowing that I had an interest in that, even though he was never an attender. I never saw him in Croke Park but I’m sure he went sometimes. Of course he used to be working, The Late Late Show started on a Saturday night and so he wouldn’t be in a hurry to a match on a Sunday.

“I remember the first time I saw him on the television. It was in black and white. I came in late, I was in my brother’s house down in Kerry and he gave me the key.

“I turned on the television, it was a small television, and there was John B. Keane and himself.

“They were two very interesting people. John B. was a rogue but he was great, he could get anything out of people. They were matching each other, and it was most entertaining.

“Himself and Gay Byrne debating was some sight. Gay kept that up for years and years. Many days after a show, people would be talking about it, and what had been said and what was said to them.

“He was an entertainer. He knew anyone on that show must be an entertainer.”

Gay Byrne might have been a commentator too.

His obituary in today’s Irish Times revealed that he included in his many attempts to first breach the walls of Radio Éireann an application to summarise soccer games, but it failed when it “emerged he knew nothing at all about the game.” 

“He’d have had opinions, anyway, wouldn’t he?”, laughs Ó Muircheartaigh when we indulge the fantasy of what might have been. 

As for what was: Byrne ultimately held court on The Late Late Show with some of the sport’s biggest names. Few were bigger than George Best, who found in Byrne the kind of empathy lacking in other high-profile interviewers. 

Best’s friend Eamon Dunphy wrote in the Sunday Independent in 1990 of how the dignity afforded Best on The Late Late paled in comparison to the stage version presented on Wogan in England. 

“Gay Byrne was different”, wrote Dunphy, “more sensitive, more discerning of the real George, allowing time for conversation. After Wogan his father phoned him to ask what the hell he was at. After The Late Late his dad rang again to say he’d been proud of him. 

“He is a boy who remains sensitive, decent, vulnerable. That Gay Byrne enabled some of this sense to be conveyed mattered.” 

Ó Muircheartaigh remembers these interviews with Best. 

“He knew how to deal with people. I think above all he was intelligent and let people talk”, he says of Byrne. 

“He was able to read people, and bring people on. Another person wouldn’t get away with the way he had. He knew that they knew things that would be of interest to people. He was always thinking of the audience and he kept it entertaining.

“Others would be afraid to bring people on like that, in case they wouldn’t be able to stand up to them.” 

To venture further heresy: did this Dubliner have a Kerryman’s taste for roguery?

“Not as much as John B! But he had some. He could play people, and he could ask awkward questions. Audiences liked that, that he would ask strong questions. And he loved doing it. I’d say if he was asked when he was really happy, I’d imagine he would say when he was behind a microphone.” 

Byrne was behind a microphone and in front of Ó Muircheartaigh back in 2010, on Byrne’s interview series The Meaning of Life

Ó Muircheartaigh had announced his retirement from RTÉ that year, and amid a discussion about his faith, was asked by Byrne if he thought about death.

No, came the answer, but he said he might begin to think of it slightly more often in the years to come. 

Nine years on, has he? 

“No. I was always a person who accepted what was to come, because you have no power of what is to come.

“So what is the point in worrying about it?

“I never worry about things like that. Others spend a long time worrying about that, and worrying is not good for you. Most of the things you worry about never materialise.

“I’d be a believer in that.” 

Not that he is unprepared. He has written his will, and is speaking to The42 to raise awareness for MyLegacy Month, which asks people to consider leaving a donation to a charity they care about. 

He told Byrne he does not fear death, and that has not changed in the intervening years. 

“No. It’s inevitable that it will happen. You have no power over it, why worry about it until it confronts you? Then deal with it.” 

Ó Muircheartaigh is 89 now, enjoys retirement and doesn’t miss his commentaries too keenly. 

“I don’t as I’m still going to the matches. It’s different if you packed in another job: when you retire you have to go. But I can still go to the matches.

“That’s what it is all about, the matches. And the hope.

“The hope must be there. Teams that hope and plan eventually succeed…so you might see Longford win an All-Ireland”, he says with a nod to this writer’s homeplace. 

Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh Launches Legacy-5 Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh teams up with My Legacy and 65 Irish charities to launch a nationwide appeal to the public to leave a legacy gift to charity in their will.

O’Muircheartaigh no longer lives in Kerry – he has moved to Meath – but retains a house there and visits often enough to keep thoughts of missing it at bay. 

John B. Keane was never shy in espousing the exceptionalism of Kerry in his jousts with Byrne on The Late Late, and once described being a Kerryman as the “greatest gift that God can bestow…you belong to the spheres spinning in the Heavens.” 

“I think they think differently”, Ó Muircheartaigh says of his fellow Kerry folk. “The vast majority of them are very positive, and there would be a god bit of roguery in a lot of them.

“John B. is one of the greatest rogues that ever lived.” 

A 25-minute conversation doesn’t come close to uncovering the absurd multitudes of Ó Muircheartaigh’s life and career, but we do briefly narrow in on one that deals with another of Ireland’s iconic voices. 

As a primary school teacher, Ó Muircheartaigh taught a young Luke Kelly in St Laurence O’Toole’s CBS in Dublin’s north inner city. 

“He was then what he was all his life, a trickster, and hilarious. He was very intelligent but he was cracked on music. He was small then, and a great little football forward. He was all action. Most of the parents were dockers, his parents came from East Wall and I don’t think he ever went to secondary school.

“There’s a sister of his in Ashbourne, and a brother a little bit outside Dublin, and I call there now and again.

“He was a wonderful character and had a great voice.” 

Write those words for the names written above.  

- First published today at 18.28

Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh was speaking at the launch of My Legacy Month 2019, an initiative encouraging people to leave a legacy gift to charity in their will. To find out more about leaving a legacy gift in your will, visit MyLegacy.ie.

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About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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