Readers of a certain age will remember Seán Óg Ó Ceallacháin’s voice reading out the GAA results on Irish radio on Sunday nights. He did so for more than 60 years and by the time he retired, he was in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s longest-serving radio sports broadcaster.
He was born in Newcastle West, Co Limerick, 100 years ago on May 12th, one of four children of John O’Callaghan, a commercial traveller, and Frances Madden. The family moved to Fairview, Dublin, in 1926. The father became GAA correspondent of the Evening Mail and from the early 1930s, presented the first sports programme on Irish radio (then 2RN, later Radio Éireann), reading out the sports results.
Seán Óg attended primary school on Marlborough Street and played hurling, football, cricket and soccer in local parks.
He won awards for singing at feiseanna and performed on national radio with his school choir.
His secondary school was the all-Irish Coláiste Mhuire on Parnell Square; because of taking part in drama competitions for the school, he spent two years at the Abbey Theatre School of Acting (1939-40). He won hurling and football medals representing his school and played underage for local GAA clubs.
Finishing school in 1940, he became an apprentice in a drapery shop on O’Connell Street, and served in local defence forces during the war, while also performing in 30-minute radio plays with his sister Máire.
He played minor hurling and football for Dublin, senior hurling for Eoghan Ruadh and senior football for Clanna Gael and then O’Tooles, also playing soccer and cricket under an alias in defiance of the GAA ban on foreign games.
A senior hurler for Dublin 1943-48, he won a Leinster championship medal in 1948 and played for Leinster in the Railway Cup.
When he opened a sports shop on Talbot Street, he stepped back from hurling but continued to play for the then struggling Dublin football team. Amateur drama was an abiding love of his; he performed with his local Walkinstown Players, winning the best actor award at the 1954 All-Ireland Amateur Drama Championship. He also wrote two plays in English for the stage and two in Irish for radio.
An occasional stand-in for his father on his radio sports-results show from 1943 (by then it broadcast GAA results only for 10 minutes at 10pm on Sunday nights), he replaced him as presenter in autumn 1951. “Benefitting from his Abbey School of Acting voice training, he was admired for his clarity of diction and for his soothing, undulating tones,” according to Terry Clavin, who wrote the entry on him in the Dictionary of Irish Biography.
He became GAA contributor to Radio Éireann’s Sports Stadium, which meant travelling Ireland interviewing hurlers and footballers. He became friendly with the famous but sometimes irascible Cork hurler Christy Ring, who gave him a movingly honest interview shortly after winning his eighth and final All-Ireland medal in 1954. That same year, Ó Ceallacháin married Anna McDonagh; they lived on the Howth Road, Raheny and had two daughters and a son.
He was a GAA match commentator on both radio and television but didn’t make the same impact on the listening public that fellow commentators Michael O’Hehir and Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh did. He commentated on the first All-Ireland football semi-final and first hurling and football finals shown live by Teilifís Éireann (later RTÉ) but differences in outlook with O’Hehir (who was head of television sports) meant his only other All-Ireland final commentating was on radio in 1970.
“His 1963 television interview in London of the characteristically ebullient world-heavyweight boxing champion Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali) represented a career highlight,” according to Terry Clavin, who thought that his presenting of RTÉ's GAA highlights programme, The Sunday Game, in 1980-81 “rather exposed his weaknesses as an anchor on unscripted live television”.
He had been a GAA reporter for the Evening Press from its foundation in 1954, delivering four columns a week until the paper’s closure in 1995.
In these columns, he wasn’t afraid to criticise the GAA, particularly opposing its notorious “ban” on its members playing foreign games, until its removal in 1971, and he afterwards supported allowing rugby and soccer in Croke Park.
Although retired from everything else, he continued his Sunday night GAA results radio show, and this acquired a worldwide audience thanks to satellite and internet broadcasting. He always initially welcomed his listeners in Irish with “Go mbeannaí Dia díobh go léir, a chairde Ghaeil” before continuing with the results in English. His programme’s final broadcast was in May 2011.
A lifelong member of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association, he was a daily Mass-goer in old age. He died on February 17th, 2013, just three months short of his 90th birthday and is buried in Fingal Cemetery, Co Dublin.