O Ceallacháin, Seán Óg (1923–2013), sports broadcaster and hurler, was born on 12 May 1923 in Newcastle West, Co. Limerick, one of four children (three sons and a daughter) of John O’Callaghan (Seán O Ceallacháin), a commercial traveller of Newcastle West, originally from near Coalisland, Co. Tyrone, and his wife Frances (née Madden), originally from Ballyhahill, Co. Limerick. The family moved to Fairview, Dublin, in 1926. A former member of the IRB, his father was active in Fianna Fáil and the GAA; he became the Evening Mail’s GAA correspondent and from the early 1930s presented Irish radio’s first sports programme, which involved him reading out results on the state broadcaster 2RN (later Radio Éireann (RÉ)).
Seán Óg successively attended Scoil Mhuire and Scoil Colmcille, both on Marlborough Street, the latter being an all-Irish speaking school. He played hurling, Gaelic football, cricket and soccer in local parks. A fine singer, he won contests at various feiseanna and was part of the Scoil Colmcille choir that participated in RÉ broadcasts. In 1935 he performed in a radio play as a young St Patrick (qv). From 1936 he attended the all-Irish speaking Coláiste Mhuire, Parnell Square. Arising from his participation in drama competitions for his college, he spent two years in the Abbey Theatre School of Acting (1939–40). As a member of the Colaiste Mhuire hurling and Gaelic football teams, he won a senior Metropolitan Cup medal with the hurlers in 1938 followed by the Gaelic football equivalent in 1939. He played underage hurling and football for his local GAA club, St Vincents, before transferring in 1940 after his father quarrelled with one of the selectors.
He quit school that year to take up an apprenticeship in a drapery on O’Connell Street that sold only Irish goods. During the Emergency he served in the Local Security Force (1940–43) and Local Defence Force (1943–5) while performing with his sister Maire in thirty-minute plays broadcast on RÉ. Lining out in football at left-half forward and in hurling either at midfield (mainly) or left-half forward, he was chosen for the Dublin minor hurling and Gaelic football teams during 1940–41. He played senior club hurling for Eoghan Ruadh and senior club football, first for Clanna Gael and then from 1946 for O’Tooles, which like Eoghan Ruadh selected players with local roots. He defied the GAA ban on participation in ‘foreign games’ by playing soccer and cricket under an alias.
Most renowned for his hurling, he was a fast, stylish player, skilled at striking the sliotar first time in the air, though perhaps a little lightweight. He made his debut for the Dublin senior team in 1943, but his first inter-county championship match came in the Monaghan colours in 1944 when he played one game incognito. He established himself on the Dublin side in 1946, appearing in that year’s National League final lost to Clare. Considered one of the best ‘native’ hurlers in his county at a time when countrymen working in the city dominated the Dublin team and most club sides, he was chosen for the 1947 Leinster Railway Cup team along with his brother Seamus who was cornerback for Dublin and Eoghan Ruadh. He won a Leinster championship medal with Dublin en route to the 1948 all-Ireland final where he scored a goal as his team lost heavily to Waterford.
He then opened a sports shop on Talbot Street, the demands of which led him to rule himself out of championship hurling for Dublin until 1953, when he returned briefly for the drawn Leinster final and replay, lost to Kilkenny. During 1946–51 he featured intermittently for a struggling Dublin football team. He won a Dublin senior hurling medal with Eoghan Ruadh in 1951, but only after being carried off the field senseless midway through the county final, the victim of a vicious assault. It was likely a case of mistaken identity, his good sportsmanship being uncharacteristic of an Eoghan Ruadh side that pulled rather freely around the sliotar. Amid a public outcry, the GAA banned the perpetrator for ten years, later reduced on appeal to two. O Ceallacháin recovered fully following surgery on his broken jaw and ignored encouragement from the Garda Síochána to press charges.
Around 1950 he started refereeing club football games, quickly progressing to inter-county level. Praised for his firmness, he took charge of the senior Ulster final, a senior all-Ireland semi-final, the minor all-Ireland final and a Railway Cup semi-final, all in 1952, but stopped refereeing the next year. In the early to mid-1950s he performed in amateur productions as part of a local drama group, the 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 the radio. In the mid-1950s he retired from serious hurling and football and took up golf, which remained his main recreation into old age. A member of the Hermitage Golf Club, Co. Dublin, he played in the Barton Cup for his club, achieving a handicap of two.
From 1943 he occasionally stood in for his father on his sports results show, which by then dealt exclusively with the GAA and broadcast for ten minutes at 10pm on Sunday nights. During 1946–50 he had a slot on the show reading out the main results in Irish. His father began to struggle with a persistent cough and Seán Óg appears to have replaced him as presenter in autumn 1951, though this change was not formalised until January 1953. Benefitting from his Abbey School of Acting voice training, he was admired for his clarity of diction and for his soothing, undulating tones. In his early years as presenter, his brief accounts of important matches were keenly anticipated by GAA fans for providing them with the earliest media commentary. He lost his match reports section to a general sports programme in 1969.
In 1953 he was made GAA contributor to RÉ’s Sports stadium, a midweek sports roundup. This involved travelling the country interviewing footballers and hurlers; later, he would occasionally present the show. He was friendly with the famed, and often prickly, Cork hurler Christy Ring (qv), drawing an unusually forthcoming radio interview from him hours after his eighth all-Ireland victory in 1954. That year O Ceallacháin became GAA reporter for the newly founded Evening Press, delivering four columns a week until the newspaper closed in 1995. Media work compensated for the failure of his sports shop. In 1954 he married Anna McDonagh from Oxmanstown, Dublin, settling with her on the Howth Road, Raheny. They had two daughters and a son.
When O Ceallacháin broke with convention in 1955 by naming players on air who had been sent off, the GAA’s general secretary Pádraig Ó Caoimh (qv) threatened fruitlessly to have him sacked from RÉ. In 1961 the Cork County Board initiated legal action after he reported on air that Ring had struck an opponent with his hurley. O Ceallacháin had not attended the match and was eventually forced to withdraw his remarks even though he could produce numerous witnesses prepared to affirm his report’s veracity.
He commentated on GAA matches for radio and television with the latter format suiting him more. For most radio listeners his understated narratives compared poorly with the alternate realities conjured so hyperbolically by his celebrated colleagues, Michael O’Hehir (qv) and Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh. In 1962 he co-commentated with Ó Muircheartaigh on Telefís Éireann’s first live televised all-Ireland championship match, the football semi-final between Kerry and Dublin, and on the first all-Ireland hurling and football finals shown live by the station. His belief that television commentators too often described the obvious caused friction between him and O’Hehir, who was head of Telefís Éireann (later RTÉ) sports. O Ceallacháin only commentated on one other all-Ireland final, and that for radio, in 1970.
He was regularly on RTÉ television into the early 1980s either as a match commentator or as a reporter on sports programmes, most notably Gaelic Report, a GAA programme that ran from 1968. His 1963 television interview in London of the characteristically ebullient world heavyweight boxing champion Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali) represented a career highlight. During 1980–81 he presented RTÉ’s marquee GAA highlights programme The Sunday game, which rather exposed his weaknesses as an anchor on unscripted live television.
His influential Evening Press columns manifested a slight bias towards the Dublin county teams along with a willingness to criticise the GAA. Without explicitly opposing the GAA’s ban on its members playing ‘foreign games’, he ensured the Evening Press publicised the arguments being made against the ban prior its removal in 1971. (Later he supported allowing rugby and soccer in Croke Park.) In 1974 he wrote a column that pushed his friend and near neighbour Kevin Heffernan (qv) into embarking upon his momentous tenure as Dublin football coach.
Long after otherwise retiring, he continued his Sunday night GAA results show, which, thanks to satellite and internet broadcasting, gained a worldwide audience among Irish emigrants. The show’s longevity, simplicity, and unvarying format lent it an air of reassurance and solemnity, much like a homelier version of the Angelus. O Ceallacháin welcomed his listeners in Irish ‘Go mBeannaí Dia díobh go léir a cairde Gael’ before reading out the results in English. The ensuing litany took in colourful club appellations (Fighting Cocks, Dreadnoughts and Slashers) as well as quirky multi-syllabled place names, his two favourites being Gortletteragh and Knocknagoshel. By the time he completed his last broadcast in May 2011, he was in the Guinness book of records as the world’s longest serving sports radio broadcaster.
He wrote an autobiography, Seán Óg: his own story (1988; expanded edition 2003), as well as six books of which all bar one – his history of the Hermitage Golf Club – concerned the GAA. A lifelong member of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association, he was a daily mass-goer in old age. He was active in the campaign that led in 2001 to the exhumation from the grounds of Mountjoy Prison of the remains of ten IRA men executed there during 1920–21; the remains were reinterred in Glasnevin cemetery. He died on 17 February 2013 and was buried in Fingal cemetery, Co. Dublin.