Obituary: Michael O'Hehir

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The Independent Online
Michael O'Hehir was the voice of Irish sport for almost half a century.

Best known for his vivid commentaries on GAA Gaelic football and hurling matches and horse racing, he was head of sports programmes at Radio Telefis Eireann (RTE) from 1961 to 1972, while he also had a brief spell as manager of Leopardstown Racecourse. Before that, he was racing correspondent for the Irish Independent, a position he held from the late 1940s until the early 1960s. He also produced the Irish Form Book for the Turf Club - a task his son Peter now performs - from 1975 onwards.

Born in Dublin in 1920, Michael O'Hehir began commentating as a schoolboy at the tender age of 18. He was given a five-minute microphone test during the first half of a GAA league match, and the director of broadcasting at RTE, Dr T.J. Kiernan, was so impressed with him that he allowed him to commentate on the whole of the second half. Two months later, in 1938, he made his first broadcast when he covered the All-Ireland football semi- final between Monaghan and Galway.

On Sunday afternoons in the 1940s and 1950s people gathered around the radio to listen to him. He covered virtually all major GAA matches from 1938 to 1985, when illness prevented him from covering his 100th All Ireland final.

One of his two most memorable commentaries was on the 1967 Aintree Grand National. That was the year of the horse Foinavon, when the 100/1 rank outsider emerged from the havoc of fallen horses and riders at one of the railway fences and went on to win the race. O'Hehir spotted every horse that came to grief at that fence, and immediately called Foinavon as he came away from the obstacle all on his own. That was his most outstanding performance in 25 years covering the Grand National for the BBC.

His second great commentary, on the visit of President John F. Kennedy to Ireland in 1963, showed him to be a man of unique talent. He was in the United States later that year when Kennedy was assassinated and was asked by RTE to cover the funeral. Without the resources available to others, he gave an emotional commentary lasting almost five hours. He described that commentary as the most demanding of his career.

The previous year he had been asked by ABC television in the US to cover the Washington DC International horse race at Laurel Park, and following the Kennedy funeral he was offered a full-time job in American broadcasting. He preferred to stay in Ireland. In 1972 he became manager of the newly designed Leopardstown Racecourse, but, after finding that this position conflicted with his radio and television work, he left a year later to continue writing and broadcasting on a freelance basis.

As a stipendary steward with the Turf Club, he oversaw many developments in Irish racing, including the organisation of television coverage. He neither smoked nor drank, and when, in 1984, the Family Solidarity group was founded, he became one of their principal patrons.

Just over two weeks ago Michael O'Hehir was honoured by President Mary Robinson at a celebration of his career which also marked the launch of his autobiography, My Life and Times.

Cliff Noone

Michael O'Hehir, journalist and broadcaster: born Dublin 2 June 1920; married 1948 Molly Owens (three sons, two daughters); died Dublin 24 November 1996.