By Adrian Cusack (first published in February 2010)
Given the enthusiasm he brings to his coverage of everything from horse racing to Gaelic games, it might come as a surprise to learn that Colm Murray initially resisted the idea of reporting on sport.
The Moate native - who once worked as a teacher in Athlone - was employed as a newscaster for RTÉ when a decision was taken to expand the station’s sports news coverage in the late 1980s.
“I remember a conversation I had with the boss of television at the time, the managing editor Rory O’Connor. I was trying to resist his urgings to be dragged into sports presenting and I said ‘Rory, I know nothing about sport.’
“He replied, ‘You like Gaelic football, don’t you? I’ve seen you at hurling matches. I saw you on the golf course. You go racing don’t you? Well you’ll do this, then, because that’s more than most of them do out there in the newsroom!’
“And that was it. Interview over! So I started off rather tentatively, and with no degree of confidence whatsoever, into this whole area of sport. I felt I was throwing myself into the 12-foot end of the swimming pool.”
While he may not have relished his move into sports reporting, Colm soon made the position his own. Speaking to the Westmeath Independent recently, he outlined his journey to date.
He is a native of Church Street, Moate, where his parents had a shop - a petrol pumps and general news agency - opposite the convent.
“I grew up there right through the 50s and 60s, going to school locally in the Convent of Mercy national school, then Blessed Oliver Plunkett Boys National School and then on to the Carmelite College - as it was then - at the far end of the town,” he said.
Today’s Moate is “a very different place” from the one where Colm was raised.
“You could not grow up in the Moate of the 50s and not be aware that the church had a strong hold on everyday life. Both in terms of the schools, the church itself, the whole atmosphere and the regime in the town. A lot of people’s lives were very much directed toward observance. It was about fulfilling their duties and remembering things like no meat on a Friday. All the rituals were observed and you were very conscious of that,” he said.
“Then as I was in school in the 60s I became aware of the gradual opening up that came with things like Elvis and The Beatles and the whole growth of the teenage syndrome, of kids getting more freedom. The start of rebellion of the younger generation at odds with the older generation. The general push for sexual freedom and personal freedom and the tensions all that brought. Moate was a microcosm of those strains and tensions in the same way as another town or city in the country.”
In national school Colm was involved in sport, most often playing the role of goalkeeper during games of soccer.
“I’m afraid when I moved to the Carmelite College that didn’t translate into any sort of talent for Gaelic football because I always seemed to contrive to be at the farthest possible remove from the ball. I never could manage to locate myself and the ball in the one spot, so I’m afraid my adventures on the Gaelic field were short-lived.”
On stage he was more successful, performing in several drama productions staged by the Carmelite College. Academically he was “not very hard-working” but he “raised his game” when in secondary school and developed a fondness for French, English, Latin and History.
In 1969 he started college in Galway, where he completed an Arts degree. “Galway is often compared to billiards. If they say being good at billiards is ‘a sign of a misspent youth’ then they say Galway is a city where you can misspend that youth. I suppose I would have fulfilled various criteria of that. I fell in love with Galway and was sorry to leave it,” he said.
When Colm started working as a secondary school teacher - teaching French, English and History - his first job was in Athlone. “I taught in Athlone for a few years under the late Brendan O’Brien in the Vocational School on Northgate Street, across the road from what’s now the Radisson Hotel.”
He then met his future wife Ann when they were both working at the Vocational School in Tullamore. His spell in Offaly was followed by three years’ teaching at Ballymun Comprehensive School.
Colm’s move into broadcasting occurred in the late 1970s after he spotted a newspaper advert seeking a continuity announcer with RTÉ. He applied and was eventually offered the role.
“At that stage I was faced with a choice: would I stay on at the teaching or would I take this job? I suppose it had to do with spending time on stage, but I always had a liking for debating, public speaking and things like that. So I found myself drawn to this area and I said I’d give it a go. That’s why I decided to jump ship from teaching and begin working as a continuity announcer in 1978.”
The first presenting role he was given was on a programme called Hospitals’ Requests.
“It was a popular programme at the time,” he said. “People would write in letters like ‘Aunt Mary is sick in hospital and this is with love from Tommy, Nora, Ben and all the gang back home in Banagher.’ That sort of thing. You’d get requests for Gina, Dale Haze and the Champions, or Foster and Allen with ‘A Bunch of Thyme’. Or big band music like Glen Miller and the orchestra. The requests could be many and varied. I quite liked that and I mixed that job with my continuity duties.”
Colm settled with his family in Clontarf. He and Ann have two daughters - Patricia, who is currently working as an intern in Brussels, and Kate who is studying Arts and Theatre Performance at NUI Galway.
In 1983 Colm became a full-time newscaster at RTÉ, working alongside figures such as Maurice O’Doherty, Charles Mitchel, Ann Doyle and Don Cockburn. Six years later he then moved into the area of sports coverage.
His current role is as a sportscaster, sports reporter and sports presenter, “sometimes out in the field but largely in the studio.”
The job is “frantically busy” when big sporting events - such as an All-Ireland final, Olympics or World Cup - are taking place. During quieter times, a measure of creativity can be required to come up with the necessary material for the sports bulletins.
“Obviously with the Arctic freeze conditions (in December and January) nothing was happening and there were days when you were trying to make up a story. You would be going down to do a story about how there was no racing at Naas because of the snow and the frost. You were trying to be inventive because the truth was you had nothing. But if you turned it around you could make a story like that interesting. You could talk about the economic effect it’s having on the sport, and its impact on the lives of the participants.”
Some of Colm’s most memorable reports for RTÉ came immediately before the start of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. He had just arrived in the city when he received a call from RTÉ asking him to film a series of ‘postcards from Beijing’ - news reports which would give Irish viewers a flavour of what life is like in the Chinese capital.
“I got this idea that I’d start the first one by basically saying ‘how does a gobshite from Moate, like me, get around Beijing?’ In some ways it was a daft idea and in other ways I think it was a good idea.
“So I tried to catch a bus, failed, ran down a subway, tried to read the Chinese lettering, couldn’t figure out which direction I was going, and then got a taxi driver who couldn’t understand my pronunciation of Tiananmen Square. We dramatised this, and it did give a flavour of the communication difficulties.
“Then I got the idea of showing what it’s like to order a meal, and I did a few of these samples of life in China. For some reason these reports - which literally were fillers to try and take us up to the real action of the Olympic games - generated a huge response.
“Some people were very positive, some were slagging me and some, I’ve no doubt, hated it. But I can tell you something – I was glad when the Olympics got underway and I could go back to straight reporting on Paul Hession or whoever it might be.”
Colm explained that he greatly enjoys having the chance to serve as “tribuna populis - the tribune of the people” at big sporting occasions.
“The fact that Irish people are so interested in sport, and have such a highly developed knowledge of it, means you’re kind of playing with the wind. The audience is receptive to what you’re trying to put before them and I think if you make a fair effort they’re appreciative of that as well.
“In many ways it’s been a privilege to have gotten the opportunity to be present at so many great events, whether it’s the World Cup, Cheltenham race meetings, the Olympics, the paralympics, or the World Athletics Championships.
“When you are sent out to these events, as the sports news reporter, you are the conduit through which the people get a sense of the story and a sense of what that athlete has put in to achieving what they’ve done and a sense of the joy and celebrations going on in Sydney, Athens, or wherever it may be.
“I regard it as a privilege to get to work on that and meet people of such extraordinary talent and ability,” he concluded.