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Des Cahill’s return to his roots evokes memories of the past

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*Photograph: Martin Connolly

Returning to Clare for a signing in Ennis Bookshop was a sense of coming home for RTÉ broadcaster, Des Cahill.

On Monday he was in Ennis signing copies of his autobiography ‘Play It Again Des’. While promoting the book, he has opened up on a family tragedy that saw his father Patrick’s first wife Norah and two of their children, Michael and Joan drown in June 1957. Patrick subsequently left Corofin with his surviving children, Eileen, Brian and Una for Dublin to teach where he remarried a lady called Nora and they had four children, Brendan, Des, Declan and Pat who now lives in Miltown Malbay.

“We’re a Clare family”, Des said as his sit down with The Clare Echo began. He’s proud of his roots and told of how his journey evoked plenty memories of old. “I was here as a child, my granny had a house in Ennis and I came past it there, I remember being there for a Presidential Election in 66 and de Valera came up the road with a huge palaver of cars beeping and that came into my mind there, that’s going back fifty years. It’s strange I should have been back a lot more and my dad used to bring the three surviving kids back down to visit the graves but I wouldn’t have been brought”.

Talking and writing about the tragedy has helped not just Des and his family but the wider community affected at the time. “It was tough for the family not talking about it, now that I’ve talked about it it’s much more open for everybody. I got a lot of letters from Clare people, a lot of people remember it. I was doing a book signing in Grafton St on Saturday and two people who came in were in class with Michael and Joan that drowned, they came in separately. They said they have vivid memories of the children and it must have had an impact on all of them when two of their classmates drowned. You think it’s just your family but it obviously had an impact on a lot of people in the area”.

He first found about their death when he came across two schoolbags in the attic which led him to asking questions. “I wasn’t alive and yet it weighed heavily on me. It weighed heavily on me for what the others went through, some kind of empathy on my part, it probably weighed more on me than it should have and that could have been because we didn’t talk about it as much and therefore you think inaccurately. My mother said to me recently ‘what age do you tell a child’, I think some people are saying ‘oh they didn’t tell you’, I think they were just waiting till I was the right age to tell me. If a kid is happy strolling through life what age do you hit them a bolt of the blue, I had no issue not being told”.

At present he is not the only member of the RTÉ Sports Department with strong connections to the county and Des has a fear that Marty Morrissey is at risk of being over-exposed. “Everyone wants Marty on their programme and my concern for Marty is that I’ve seen it happen to other people and producers go ‘oh we’ve had Marty get someone else’ and that was my concern for Marty that if you’re over exposed people backfire and it can go the other way, that’s in relation to producers in the business so someone needs to mind Marty. I was in a similar position fifteen or twenty years ago, I presented the Gerry Ryan Show, you just need to be very careful”.

On radio he worked alongside both Ian Dempsey and Pat Kenny during their days with RTÉ 2FM and Radio One respectively. Having built up a rapport and friendship with both he was sad to see them depart Donnybrook especially considering they were among the first to introduce a light dynamic between sports journalists and presenters on air. “They both went into private business where they were offered big money and big contracts, you can’t blame a fella for doing that. I was surprised with Pat, Ian was relatively young mid career and Pat was in the latter part of his career and had been with RTÉ all his life, he’s happy with it. Sometimes it’s good to change, it’s much easier to stay where you are and be comfy, it takes a bit of guts to step out and go somewhere else”.

A significant move this year saw Michael Lyster sign off from The Sunday Game for the final time, Des is happy to continue presenting the night time version with his radio co-presenter Joanne Cantwell given the nod. “The boss said to me from the start we’re not taking you out of the night time, it would be nice to finish at 6pm in the evening. Joanne and myself present the radio and we discussed it beforehand and all the papers were mentioning me so I was saying should I want to be doing this, the night time covers all of the matches and has a much broader range, it’s far more challenging in that you’ve far more matches but it tends to have more talking points for the week coming up so from a journalism point of view it has more to get my teeth into”.

He is in agreement with RTÉ Sport “pushing a gender balance” but struggles to see how the prime time show can expand on what it is currently offering on its coverage of camogie seeing as TG4 have the rights to broadcast ladies football. “We did the camogie quarter-finals, semi-finals and finals live, there was one weekend we went to two hours and forty minutes with the programme at night and people were going ‘seriously you’re putting a match on at twenty to twelve’. You can’t make the programme four hours long, we’re squeezing more and more and I don’t know if we can squeeze some more and keep the content. We’re doing the camogie live which is unbelievable”.

In 2009, Des celebrated twenty five years of broadcasting and also began presenting The Sunday Game. In the nine years since, he points out a correlation that goalkeepers are proving to be the best analysts. “Donal Óg was brilliant, Brendan Cummins is big into it too, if Davy Fitz was on it more he’d be great, he would be a brilliant analyst for showing you because he has the ability to explain and advise some people can see it but can’t explain it, I do think it’s a goalkeeper thing, they’re watching from a perspective and they see where gaps are appearing”. His dream analyst would be Dublin netminder, Stephen Cluxton who he states is “a brilliant speaker” despite his public perception.

Davy Fitzgerald in his own autobiography highlighted how he feels caricatured on The Sunday Game when they show a forty second clip of him getting wound up as opposed to the shots of him being calm on the line. “I would accept it as a fair criticism but then he goes running on against Jason Forde, it’s just in him and sometimes you get stuck with clichés but I love Davy, he is absolutely one of my favourites in the GAA because we need characters and personalities. I can’t imagine in twenty years GAA players writing books because their lives aren’t as interesting, they’re leading such a good healthy lifestyle, they don’t have some of the back stories, I don’t think they would be as fascinating whereas Davy’s passion just comes across and they love him in Wexford for that. I’d much rather if the GAA had more Davy’s than the quieter managers,” Cahill said in response.

Clare’s Munster breakthrough in 95 stands out as one of his sporting highlights and it is in his current role as a selector with the Cuala senior footballers gives the fifty five year old an edge over other members of the media in understanding players and the game. “I think it’s really important but I think I’m the only one who is involved with a team, how can you be involved with a team and be in journalism it’s very difficult, I stopped playing at nineteen or twenty because I was covering matches.

“At our level we’re Division 1 senior football in Dublin and we’re the hind tit compared to the hurlers but the standard of our team is very high, we’ve a young team we were beaten in the league semi-final last weekend by St Vincents. We’ve four on the Dublin squad, two starters, Con O’Callaghan and Mark Fitzsimons and two subs Mark Schute and Conor Mullally, it’s a very high level but even when a fella is getting dropped because I’ve seen the effort they’re putting in, it helps me when I’m presenter because I understand how devastated they are if they get dropped, it makes me more aware of what it must be like at intercounty”.

Play It Again Des is available in all bookshops now.

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