Almost 50 years ago, listening to the All-Ireland by radio was uncertain and frustrating.
In 1956, RTÉ knew how much the All-Ireland meant to the Irish diaspora. Arrangements were made with the authorities in the then French Congo to have the match rebroadcast the following evening, on the powerful short-wave transmitter in Brazzaville.
The time and frequencies were published in the Irish newspapers. This information was sent by letter to the Irish on oil rigs off the coast of Borneo, to round-the-year painters on Brooklyn Bridge, and to missionaries within sight of Mount Kilimanjaro.
I had noted the time and frequencies before I was sent out to Mumbai to join my first ship, the Amra, as second radio officer. The hurling final was between two giants, Cork and Wexford.
As soon as our crowded deck-passenger ship left port to cross the Indian Ocean, bound for Mombasa, Dar Es Salaam and Zanzibar, I searched the short-waves for Radio Brazzaville. During the six-hour night watch, I rotated the tuning control on one of our big, marine radio receivers. I found it. The station signal wasn’t strong, perhaps because it originated on the other side of the African continent.
I told my boss. He was from the nationalist side of the political divide in Belfast, but he had been on Eastern service so long that he had lost interest in GAA sports.
However, when I told him about the Cork side, powered by players like Christy Ring, Willie John Daly and Josie Hartnett, and the Wexford team, backboned by the Rackard brothers, he was intrigued.
The night of the broadcast, we sat together in the radio room, sweltering in the Equatorial heat. To my dismay, I couldn’t find Radio Brazzaville.
“Get out of me way, for God’s sake,” he said, taking over the tuning control.
He was in a vile temper. He had been severely reprimanded by the captain for unseemly behaviour with a lady passenger in the first-class bar.
When he came up to his cabin, he flung things about and then could not find his dentures.
Now, the mouth on his gin-soaked face was a mean, sunken hole.
His tapered, nail-bitten fingers moved the quivering cursor slowly back and forth across the tuning scale. “Hold on, hold on,” he shouted in his sharp, Belfast accent and, suddenly, the distinctive voice of Micheal O’Hehir came into that radio room.
The roar of the crowd at the end of the national anthem poured out of the receiver.
This hurling match, since regarded as one of the best All-Irelands, was neck-and-neck. The names of the players rang out in the tropic night — Nick O’Donnell, Jimmy Brohan, Tim Flood, Matt Fouhy. The occasional Lascar seaman, padding past on bare feet, looked in curiously.
Just as Ring scored a goal from a 21-yard free, several, large, locust-like creatures flew into the radio room. They had come from the nearby coast of Somaliland and they now went buzzing about in a frenzy.
“Get out, you bastards,” yelled the chief, jumping to his feet and grabbing the radio log book to use as a swatter. I used the telegram receipt book for the same purpose.
We flailed furiously at these elusive African interlopers, accompanied by the frenetic, rapid-fire commentary of Micheal O’Hehir.
We scored several direct hits and drove the survivors outside, where the airflow of the moving ship carried them away into the dark night.
In the final quarter, Paddy Barry, of Cork, brought the sides level with a goal and the game was on a knife-edge. Just then, Radio Brazzaville began to wane and then to fade.
Maybe the heat of the receiver had caused the signal to go out of tune. Another radio station took its place — it sounded like All India Radio.
O’Hehir’s voice was replaced by Lata Mangashkar’s, for decades India’s most popular female singer (and still recording at the age of 83). The chief growled and unleashed a stream of obscenities. Then, biting his lips with concentration, with the sensitive skill of years of experience, he coaxed Radio Brazzaville and the All Ireland back into the receiver.
We sat perspiring, listening intently as Art Foley, the Wexford goalkeeper, made a great save and Nick Rackard scored the goal that wrapped the game up for Wexford.
When the broadcast finished, we sat there limply. The chief looked sad, as if a bout of homesickness had descended on him. Then, he said: “I’ll die if I don’t get a drink.” I was meant to be keeping radio watch on the international distress frequency, but I joined him in his chaotic cabin.
“No bugger should send out an SOS when the All-Ireland is on,” he said with a toothless grin as he poured himself a large gin and tonic.
The era of Radio Brazzaville is long since gone. And no harm. Nowadays, whether it’s Adelaide or Zanzibar, or most other places, it’s a just a matter of accessing a TV channel, or tapping the keyboard of the PC, to bring all the excitement of the All-Ireland to reality.