Remembering PD Mehigan: The GAA’s first commentator

Live commentaries of GAA games are now taken for granted but PD Mehigan broke new ground when he described the action in the 1926 All-Ireland hurling semi-final, in which Kilkenny beat Galway 6-2 to 5-1 in an epic encounter. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

This weekend, some 60 members of the Mehigan family are gathering in the Cork parish of Ardfield.

They are travelling from Dublin, but also from England, France, and the USA, to remember PD Mehigan and his wife, Cissy (nee Scully).

PD was a singular individual, a prominent figure in the first five decades of the history of the Irish Free State.

His interests and achievements are extensive and fascinating.

In the summer of 1926, Irish people’s experience of sport was turned on its head.

The turning began when PS O’Hegarty, the man who ran the Department of Posts and Telegraphs and who founded an Irish state radio service — 2RN — met Mehigan, then the leading GAA journalist in the country, and made him a proposition.

The story of what happened between the two men was later told by Mehigan: “In his blunt, direct way, he (O’Hegarty) slung the question at me: ‘Mehigan, will you help us by giving a running commentary — describe the match as you see it — from the Hogan Stand?’”

Mehigan agreed he would, indeed, broadcast a match, with live commentary, on 2RN.

That match was the 1926 All-Ireland hurling semi-final, in which Kilkenny beat Galway 6-2 to 5-1.

It was an epic game, fitted perfectly to a landmark moment in broadcasting.

Indeed, many had doubted it was technically possible to achieve what was broadcast from Croke Park on that day.

After all, there was no tradition of broadcasting sports events in Europe and the new Irish state’s national radio station (run by O’Hegarty) had only been broadcasting from the GPO, in Dublin, for a mere eight months.

For Mehigan, it was an utterly unique experience: “I was at Croke Park an hour before the match. The mysterious signal came that I was ‘on the air’ and the engineer nodded to me to fire away.

“Without much ado, I fired away and found I could spout freely enough, particularly as soon as the game, which I was so familiar with, started.”

Mehigan continued: “At half-time, I had to do a summary of the first-half, and so on, to the end. I was very tired at the finish; they were beaming in the engineers’ room below and clapped me on the back. I knew I was a raw recruit and had a lot to learn. Yet, I got a great kick out of it all, and was glad to help to spread the light about the loved game of my boyhood.”

Mehigan’s memories of the day capture the pioneering nature of what was achieved in Dublin: “To the Gaelic Athletic Association and to 2RN (as Raidió Éireann was then called) belongs the honour of giving the first open-air games broadcast to Europe and to the western world.”

This was an exaggeration, as other sports had been broadcast in America and from Spain.

Allowing for that, the contrast with what the BBC had managed in England was stark.

No sports broadcast had been managed on that station, despite plans to commentate on the England-Scotland rugby international, the FA Cup final, the Oxford-Cambridge boat race, and the Epsom Derby.

Basically, the sporting organisations of Britain did not facilitate such commentary.

They were, for instance, exceptionally concerned about the impact live commentary might have on attendances and were concerned, also, about the image of their sports.

For PD Mehigan, this was another successful venture in what was a remarkable career.

He had been born and schooled in Ardfield, in Cork, before joining the civil service in 1899. He worked in the Department of Customs and Excise, before moving to London.

While there, he played on the London team that was hammered by Cork in the 1902 All-Ireland final.

Moving back to Cork, he played in the 1905 All-Ireland final — losing to Kilkenny — and was also Irish champion in the hop, skip, and jump, in 1908.

While still working as a customs officer, he began to write a column for The Cork Examiner, in 1912, under the pseudonym ‘Carbery’.

He continued to write for the Examiner on GAA, boxing, coursing and other sports, even after he moved back to Dublin, in 1922. He and his wife moved to Dartmouth Square, in Ranelagh, where they raised six children.

His life was transformed by radio broadcasting. He commentated on more than 100 matches and became a household name.

The opportunities that now opened up for Mehigan in journalism allowed him to leave the civil service and, as well as writing as ‘Carbery’ for the Examiner, he also wrote for The Irish Times, as ‘Pat O’, on Gaelic games and coursing. 

To say it was unusual in the 1930s to leave a steady job in the civil service to embark on a career as a fulltime writer does not come close to doing justice to the courage of this move.

With an expanding family to support, he worked year after year to develop new initiatives. His great innovation was the compilation of Carbery’s Annual in 1939.

This publication drew together his many talents. In this annual, he wrote on sport, history, and on the natural world, with his poetry and short stories adding creativity to his reportage.

The first volume of the annual proved such a success it was continued until he died in 1965.

Mehigan also wrote numerous books (as ‘Carbery’), usually on sport, but he also published a collection of his fictional works and reflections on nature and Irish history, as Sean Kearns noted in his excellent account of Mehigan’s life, published in the Dictionary of Irish Biography.

His most successful books were Hurling: Ireland’s National Game (1940), Gaelic Football (1941), and Fifty Years of Irish Athletics (1943).

Vintage Carbery, a lovely collection of his writings, can be found in the corner of some secondhand bookshops.

It was published in 1984, having been compiled by the former Irish Times journalist Sean Kilfeather.

In a fine introduction to the collection, Kilfeather writes that Mehigan was a remarkable man, whose writing was “lively” and “evocative”.

More than that, he recalls that Mehigan managed the seemingly impossible feat of being “loved and respected” by his colleagues in sports journalism.

In Vintage Carbery, Mehigan tells the story of his days as a radio commentator and finishes with a story of his greatest thrill from those years: Getting a scoop of an interview with world heavyweight boxing champion, Gene Tunney, who had just dethroned Jack Dempsey.

Tunney was in Dublin in 1928 to attend the Tailteann Games, when Mehigan approached him for an interview. Tunney said no. Mehigan persisted. Tunney still said no.

“‘We’re hooked up to all of Europe.’ No good. His face was still stoic. ‘We’re hooked up to all of America,’ I urged. No cord touched! Another brainwave came.

“I knew Tunney came especially to see his blood relations in Mayo and Cork. I spoke my tenderest: ‘We’re hooked up’, I said, ‘to every homestead in Mayo and every village in Co. Cork!’ His fine eyes softened. Meekly, silently, he walked to the microphone. I introduced him in 40 words and he was on the air.”

It was one more coup for a man whose career was defined by a capacity to break the mould.

Paul Rouse is an associate professor of History at University College Dublin.

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