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Dublin: 4 °C Friday 25 April, 2014

Michael O’Hehir’s battle to broadcast the All-Ireland final from New York

A new book ‘The Fairytale In New York’ looks back at the famous decider in 1947.

Michael O'Hehir in the commentary position in New York in 1947.
Michael O'Hehir in the commentary position in New York in 1947.
Image: screengrab via youtube

Hot in the city

WHAT STRUCK THEM more than anything was the heat. It hit the Irishmen like a sledge hammer when they came ashore in Manhattan and, later, when the door of the jet slid open.

The players’ shirts clung to their backs as they stepped on the dock to be greeted by a horde of well-wishers and pressmen.

The New York Times was on hand to capture the 14 players and 11 officials, noting the names of only two of the footballers — Lieut Joseph Keohane and William Doonan who “was an infantry machine gunner in the British Army during the war and was wounded three times while serving in North Africa and Italy, where he was attached to the United States Fifth Army”.

“Do we have to play in this heat?” one incredulous player, who remained nameless, was quoted in the Irish Press. When the other party landed at the airport that evening at 6.30pm local time, suited and booted in shirts and ties, they were equally struck by the 85 degree weather.

Said Higgins: “It was overcoming, the heat. If you opened a window, it was warmer.”

The delays had thrown the reception arrangements out of sync but Ó Caoimh had quickly re-organised things. After a good night’s sleep, the players rose early on Wednesday morning and began to take in their surroundings. The city was alive.

“The sight of skyscrapers was not a surprise because we had seen them in the cinema,” remembered John Wilson.

“Instead, the culture shock arrived in smaller ways. The city was full of lights, the shops were full of food, unlike the rationing that had been endured in Ireland and England and the bars all had televisions. The whole city carried an air of prosperity; everything was just go, go, go.”

Nothing could have prepared the groups for the welcome that awaited them. They made their way to City Hall, where a crowd of 2,000 had assembled, to be greeted by the man referred to as “the boy who put the ‘r’ in Mayo”, O’Dwyer.

The Bohola man was in ebullient form.

“When the Dodgers win the National League,” he began, only to be drowned out by the rapturous cheers of the crowd.

He soaked it up for a moment and then continued.

“When the Dodgers win, if we were to suggest playing the World Series outside Brooklyn and taking it to Ireland or any other country, I would not accept responsibility for the peace of this city.

“Well, that’s parallel to what the GAA are doing in playing this great game in New York, and New York should be proud to welcome this generous offering of the best Ireland has in sport to this country.”

Songs were sung and the mood was a carnival one. The New York Police Band played Irish airs and John Feeney, a magnificent tenor from Swinford who was by then huge in the States and commanding a hundred bucks a night, belting out The Rose of Tralee with Sean Ryan singing Come Back Paddy Reilly to Ballyjamesduff in response.

From there, the group motored the seven miles, through Riverside Drive, under Manhattan Bridge and up South St, to the Hotel Roosevelt, on 45th St and Madison Ave, and literally brought the city to a standstill. Along Broadway, the wide avenue running north to south down the middle of Manhattan, they were escorted by 18 bright red police motorcyclists, their sirens wailing. Thirty cars carried the Irish party as the rush hour traffic came to a halt. The sidewalks were crammed with crowd straining for a look, while bare-chested workers on scaffolds and high-rise buildings downed tools to cheer and wave.

Confetti and ticker tape rained down from 40-storey high buildings, a reception usually reserved for July 4 or the election of a new president. “The Irish appeared to have taken over New York,” it was reported. “Everywhere, crowds were stupendous.”

The brilliant Anna Kelly in the press captured the scene.

“From the sidewalks, Irish voices cheered, Irish faces smiled, wistful faces, happy faces, all lighted with love for the country that will always be home. Women wept and waved handkerchiefs.

“How’s the turf at home?” some cried.

“Ah, ’tis fine and dry,” shouts Mick Finucane.

“Anybody here from Cork, Galway, Mayo…?” and so on.

Two nuns thrust forward. “Any Killarney boys here?”

Teddy Sullivan replied.

“Now don’t let Kerry down,” said the little nuns.”

After lunch in the Roosevelt, the players, under the wing of both counties’ welcome committees and a Galway man, Commissioner Nolan – chairman of the Police Department’s Athletic League – took in some of the sights before returning to rest for the night.

A Bronx tale

Next day, they trained, Cavan in Van Cortland Park in the Bronx, Kerry in John Kerry O’Donnell’s Croke — later Gaelic — Park.

But the heat was ferocious, and training had to be curtailed. The hype was building, too, hurtling towards Sunday like a steam train. The Cavan players, ensconced in the Hotel Empire, found it hard to get a minute’s solitude.

“I remember the many meetings with callers and friends; the difficulty to get a peaceful period for rest before the game,” Columba McDyer would write.

Fans poured into the city and made tracks for the team hotels, where the squads were inundated with callers, autograph-hunters, strangers and old friends. Kerry, based at the Henry Duson Hotel, could take no more and took off for two days as guests of the New York Athletic Club to Travers Island, where the temperature was cooler, away, wrote Kelly, “from the intense humidity and the burning sidewalks”.

While they were gone, Cavan took their place in Croke Park but their training schedule was light.

It needed to be. Edwin Carolan was struggling to overcome an adverse reaction to the inoculation he received at home while the Gunner was taking penicillin for an injury. The news was worse in the Kingdom camp, as they sweated – literally – on the fitness of midfielder Paddy Kennedy, who had been taken off injured in both the Munster final and All-Ireland semi-final win over Meath.

After Wednesday’s reception, there was no further contact between the camps, and there wouldn’t be until Mass on the morning of the match. Both were struggling to adapt but Kerry, the older of the teams, were finding it particularly hard, as Mitchell Cogley noted in The Irish Independent.

“Popular opinion among Irish-Americans is that neither side have had time to acclimatise themselves and certainly the weather here is something we never experience at home. From early morning to late night, the city is baked in dead and damp heat… I will say I have seen more sign of weather-distress in the Kerry camp than in the opposition…”

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The clock ticked on…

All was calm until Friday. A few boxes had been ticked during the week and ticket sales were brisk, with all media back at home confidently announcing that the Polo Grounds would be a 55,000 sell-out.

It was announced that a film would be made of the game, to be flown as the first and only cargo on the three new Aer Línte — a sister company to Aer Lingus — planes two days after the match and, after a meeting of the official delegation, the match officials, barring the referee obviously, were selected. The umpires would be Gerry Arthurs and Tom Kilcoyne, secretaries of the Ulster and Connacht Councils respectively and the linesmen appointed were two Irish priests who had come to New York in the previous three months, Fr Hickey from Dublin and Fr Burke, a Corkman.

Malachy Doyle and Tom Burke, two Croke Park officials, would supervise the lining of the pitch.

Unplayable

On Friday morning, then, Cavan followed Kerry’s lead and boarded a bus, heading upstate to get away from it all. When they returned, they got a look at the pitch for the first time, and couldn’t believe what they were walking on.

At home, it would have been deemed unplayable. There was barely any grass and the ground was concrete-like. It was small, too, and seemed smaller than the bare measurements looked on paper but the most bizarre feature was the pitcher’s mound, 18-feet in diameter and 10 inches high in the centre.

“It wasn’t real high but when you were going for a ball you had to go up on it,” was Higgins’ description. “Anyway, some of the pitches in Ireland at the time weren’t that great.”

Peter Donohoe also played it down.

“It wasn’t something you’d trip over. You knew it was there. I wouldn’t think it put anyone out of their stride. But when you came from a place like Kilnaleck in Cavan you came across plenty of bad fields and bad football pitches.”

The big man, however, conceded that compared to Croke Park, “it was a big disappointment.”

Batt Garvey went further.

“It was ridiculous to play a game of football on it,” he said, years later, “it was rock-solid, like concrete.”

When Martin O’Neill had seen it, he immediately said it wasn’t suitable and the mound would have to go. The reaction of the groundsman? “The lad went beserk.”

So, the hump was staying, and the teams would make do. That evening, however, another crisis was developing behind the scenes, one that threatened to derail the success of the whole project. When Michael O’Hehir was shown around the commentary position early on Friday, his heart skipped a beat. The place was bare, no lines, no equipment and, seemingly, no hope of sending back any type of commentary on the game.

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Michael O’Hehir  at Croke Park in 1987 Pic: INPHO\Billy Stickland

“To my astonishment there were no wires to be seen anywhere to suggest that the required broadcast lines from the international telephone exchange had been installed,” he reflected.

“Panic. The caretaker knew nothing about a broadcast, so I hastened back to the hotel and immediately told Paddy O’Keeffe that no provision seemed to have been made for the broadcast. It even looked as if I might not have anything to do on the Sunday.”

Born in Glasnevin, O’Hehir was 27-years-old by the time of the Polo Grounds final and already established as “the voice of Gaelic games.” While Radio Éireann had first broadcast a live match commentary as far back as 1926, the first station in Europe to do so, on any sport, it was when O’Hehir took over on the microphone that the tradition of hundreds of thousands gathering wherever the nearest radio set took off.

He had applied for an audition with the broadcaster as a teenager and was handed his first major gig, the All-Ireland semi-final between Dublin in Monaghan in Mullingar, aged just 18 in 1938. While his technique was described as “folksy”, he had an ingenious ability to capture the imagination, rolling his tongue around exotic club names and playing up the sobriquets of footballers and hurlers.

When a radio commentary from America had been first mooted and to put it in context, when Cavan played Kerry just 20 years earlier in Tralee, the first word on the game to reach Breffni was via carrier pigeon, O’Hehir’s name was immediately mentioned. It had to be him.

When Cavan formally requested it, the GAA wheels started to turn, but they faced significant resistance from the off.

Ó Caoimh reported to Central Council that he had had “consultations with the broadcasting authorities here with a view to having the running commentary of the game broadcast” but the path was not a smooth one.

Money, as always, was the main stumbling block; Radio Éireann were working off a tight budget and the cost of the commentary from New York, estimated at around £300, wasn’t part of it. At the time, the broadcaster was answerable to the Department of Posts and Telegraphs.

As luck would have it, Radio Éireann’s Director of Broadcasting at the time was Seamus Ó Braonáin, a Kilkenny native who had won four All-Ireland football championships with Dublin in the early years of the century, back when he was known simply as Jimmy Brennan.

Ó Braonáin, a GAA fanatic who helped draft the first ever set of rules for camogie, was strongly in favour of the broadcast and approached Sean Moynihan, then Secretary of the Department of Finance and a man with zero interest in the association.

The story goes that Moynihan’s reply to Ó Braonáin was: “Tell me, Seamus, does anybody listen to these football matches?”

The money wasn’t being released, then, and the negotiations started. Eventually, it was agreed that Radio Éireann would send O’Hehir so long as the GAA covered his flight, hotel and expenses. Deal done, they relayed the news to the commentator, who was equally famous as a horseracing announcer.

After receiving his vaccinations, O’Hehir, not unusually for the recently vaccinated at the time, fell ill and in mid-August, he had to leave the races at Tramore, where he was working, due to sickness.

Luckily, he recovered in time, but, two days out from the game, it appeared that all the effort would be in vain. That was until Ó Caoimh got to work.

His report on the trip told the story succinctly.

“As I wished to determine where on the field to place the commentator’s box, I tried to ascertain who on the New York side had charge of the arrangements for the broadcast,” he reported to Croke Park.

“I cabled Radio Éireann for the name of the responsible party and, on receipt of their reply, contacted the Colombia Broadcasting System, only to be told that they knew nothing of the matter. A representative of that body informed me that they only supplied equipment and had nothing to do with the relay lines, the American Telephone and Telkegraph Company being responsible for that end of the work. However, ATT also informed me that they knew nothing about a broadcast of our proposed game.”

This was late on Friday afternoon, and panic was beginning to set in. A broadcast, which would eventually attract a million listeners, was almost still-born.


YouTube: Bryansford Gael

“Time was running out and after exhausting my patience on the phone, I went to the CBS at 5.30pm on Friday evening to ensure that the equipment would be available, as my informant told me their staff did not work on Saturdays. From there, contact was again made with an ATT official, who agreed to arrange the lines when I promised payment. I returned to the office and decided to ring Ireland to find out the position there. I also cabled Radio Éireann to ring me so that the position could be clarified.”

Ó Caoimh, unbeknownst to the hundreds of thousands of supporters at home, was a worried man on the Friday night but, at 1pm (local time) the following day, the word he had been praying for arrived.

A cable from Radio Éireann’s offices on the top floor of the GPO re-assured him that all was sorted. Then, ATT got in touch to say that it was all systems go – the match would be broadcast and Radio Éireann had promised payment for the supplying of equipment at the ground. The Secretary General breathed a sigh of relief.

Meanwhile, something was stirring in the Irish Independent newsroom back in Dublin. All of the toing and froing, the worried expressions and the whisper of problems had alerted their reporter Mitchell Cogley, who was also staying in the Woodstock Hotel along with the official GAA party.

So, Cogley wrote the piece at its height and filed his copy. The Evening Herald dropped on Saturday evening, carrying word that the broadcast was in doubt, and the Sunday Indo carried the story again the following morning.

“A last-minute crisis developed among the GAA contingent when they were informed late on Friday night by the Columbia Broadcasting System, who are handling the technical details here, that certain vital details had been overlooked by Radio Éireann and there might not be any broadcast of the game possible,” said the Independent.

Hearts sank in Cavan and Kerry and everywhere else. By the time the problems were fixed, a statement was rushed out which made the later editions of the Sunday paper confirming the commentary would go ahead.

The match was set to begin at 8.30pm and, not only that, the coverage was to be preceded by a special documentary looking back on 60 years in the GAA.

By late Sunday night and with an enormously-successful transmission behind them, Radio Éireann would hit back. The station would refute the newspaper’s story that there had been a hitch or that the broadcast was ever in doubt, with Deputy Director of Broadcasting Roibeard Ó Farachain denying there had been any uncertainty. By that stage, though, it mattered little. The day, for the million people huddled around the wireless back in Ireland, had been saved.

The Fairytale In New York is written by Paul Fitzpatrick.
More details can be found here.

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