O'Hehir, Michael (1920–96), sports commentator and journalist, was born Michael James Hehir on 2 June 1920 in Glasnevin, Dublin, son of James Hehir, civil servant, from Co. Clare, and his wife Esther (née Sheehan) from Tullamore, Co. Offaly. He was educated at St Patrick's national school near his home and then at O'Connell's CBS off the North Circular Road. While in his last year at school he began to broadcast commentaries on Gaelic games, having entered a trial as an 18-year-old. Although he briefly attended UCD as an engineering student, he left within a year to become a full-time broadcaster. From 1938 his commentaries became synonymous with the growth of Gaelic games, and his capacity to forge a memorable broadcast from the most ordinary of matches soon established his as the most recognisable voice in Ireland. His flamboyant style was relayed to emigrants and missionaries across the southern hemisphere, ensuring a measure of international celebrity; but in Ireland he enjoyed the most intensely localised of fame. His radio broadcasts of the pre-television era of the 1940s and 1950s are imbedded in the folklore of that era, as is the evocative image of people gathering around radios in kitchens and public houses to hear his commentaries. His legendary broadcast of the 1947 All-Ireland football final from the Polo Grounds in New York – in particular his on-air appeal for the line not to be cut after the games ran behind time – confirmed his popularity.
Developing a hectic schedule, he began horse-racing commentaries for Radio Éireann in 1945 and in 1947 became racing correspondent for Independent Newspapers, which he had initially joined in 1944 as sports sub-editor. His knowledge and passion for horse racing drew the attention of the BBC, which offered him a position commentating at the canal turn in the Grand National at Aintree. He covered twenty-five Grand Nationals in all, usually at Becher's Brook, and most famously in 1967, when a host of horses fell at that fence, allowing the 100-to-1 outsider Foinavon to claim a victory. He also fulfilled a nightly commitment to the Hospitals Trust sponsored programme on radio, reading the racing tips for the following day, provided on-course commentaries at Saturday race meetings, and presented the sports magazine programme sponsored by Vaseline hair tonic, which was recorded on Sunday nights for airing on Monday mornings. He further edited and produced the Irish Form Book for the Turf Club, of which he was steward secretary.
In 1961 he undertook the challenge of setting up the RTÉ sports department as head of sport in the nascent Telefís Éireann, a position he held until 1972. As well as sports commentaries, he was acclaimed for his work on such high-profile events as the burial of the remains of Roger Casement (qv) which were transferred to Ireland in 1965, ceremonies to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 rising, and the visit to Ireland in June 1963 of President John F. Kennedy. He was in America in November 1963 when Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, and was assigned to cover the funeral; for over five hours he provided an emotional commentary. He was subsequently offered full-time broadcasting positions in America but declined. In 1972 he was appointed manager of the newly designed Leopardstown racecourse, but resigned the following year and concentrated on freelance journalism and commentating. He wrote for the Sunday Press, drove around the country organising on-course commentaries, and continued to commentate on Gaelic games. Having broadcast ninety-nine All-Ireland finals, he was on the verge of reaching his ambition of a century of such broadcasts when he suffered a stroke in 1985. He recovered but not sufficiently to return to work, although he did publish his autobiography in 1996, with a foreword by the then president of Ireland, Mary Robinson.
In his youth he had played hurling – but never Gaelic football – for St Vincent's in Raheny, Dublin, and remained a member of that club, of which his father had once been chairman. A hurling pitch at Cratloe, Co. Clare, was named after him in 1991. He neither smoked nor drank, and in 1984 he was one of the patrons of the newly founded Family Solidarity, an organisation that opposed divorce and promoted traditional family values. That same year he was named one of the People of the Year. He died at Beaumont Convalescent Home, Dublin, on 24 November 1996, drawing tributes from a huge spectrum, both in Ireland and further afield, and was buried in Fingal cemetery. Those tributes stressed not merely his professional capabilities, but also the humour, generosity, and warmth that brought him enduring popularity among his colleagues and friends. Two weeks before his death he had been honoured by a gathering of family, friends, and former colleagues hosted by President Robinson.
He married Molly Owens (d. February 2001) whom he met at Croke Park in October 1948. They lived for many years at 6 Ormond Rd, Drumcondra, and had three sons and two daughters. One of his sons, Tony, became a horse-racing commentator with RTÉ, and another, Peter, a horse-racing journalist with the Daily Mirror.