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Tuesday 2 September 2014

Ireland's other big Games winner -- Jimmy Magee

"I'LL bet there's a tear in your eye, wherever you're watching this... but there's nothing wrong with tears."

In fact, Jimmy Magee sounded more than a little emotional himself as Amhran na bhFiann echoed around the ExCeL arena in London.

Katie Taylor's sensational victory has not just lifted the whole country -- it also seems to have given RTE's veteran commentator a new lease of life.

Just a couple of years ago, Magee was openly disappointed when RTE did not send him to South Africa for the World Cup finals. After more than half a century on the airwaves, it seemed that his career was finally in decline.

Now his exuberant commentary will be forever linked with one of Ireland's greatest sporting achievements -- providing the Memory Man with another moment he won't ever forget.

Magee has had a fairly eventful Olympics himself.

Last week the International Olympics Committee presented him with a replica of its torch to honour his long-standing contribution to the Games.



Critics



He also got caught up in a bizarre race row when he joked about the colour of a black boxer's luminous footwear, remarking, "One thing's for sure, if there's a blackout here in London, you'll find Warren with those boots... you might not see the rest of him!" -- although his critics were swiftly reminded that he has done sterling work for the group Sports Against Racism.

Like most commentators, Magee has allowed his tongue to run away with him.

During one World Cup, he observed, "Ossie Ardiles strokes the ball like it was a part of his anatomy," while he told viewers during an Olympics opening ceremony, "There it is, the international symbol of peace -- the pigeon."

At other times, however, he has found exactly the right words -- when Diego Maradona scored a wonder goal against England in 1986, he simply declared, "Different class!"



Childhood

Jimmy Magee was born in 1935 to Irish parents in New York, but grew up in the Cooley Peninsula in Co Louth. The sports-mad choirboy would make up teams, matches and even whole leagues in his head. He signed to Dundalk FC, but suffered a leg injury and changed direction, recalling, "I realised that the greatest players didn't last a lifetime, but commentators lasted forever."

Magee wrote his first application letter to Radio Eireann at the age of seven.

Those ambitions had to be put on hold a few years later when his father died of TB and he became head of the family. After working in a pharmacy, he became a railway clerk in Louth.

Magee's big break came when he auditioned for a new radio programme called Junior Sports magazine. Since then, he has commentated on over 200 international soccer matches, 30 European cup finals and every Olympic Games since 1968. His nickname of 'Memory Man' comes from a remarkable ability to rattle off the names and statistics from virtually every event he has ever covered.

Despite his chirpy image, Magee has had his fair share of personal tragedy. In 1989 he lost both his wife and mother within a few months of each other. A decade later, he needed a heart bypass.

However, the biggest blow came in 2008 when Magee's eldest son Paul, a League Cup winner with Shamrock Rovers, died of motor neuron disease.

"I spoke at his funeral and I hope I'll never have to do it again as it's not a natural order," he recalled.

"I knew I was going to break but I didn't allow it to happen. I looked at the coffin and said Paul, if I ever asked you for anything then I'm asking you now, and I felt the lump in my throat and I finished it."

A great love of Magee's life is music. He compiled the first ever Irish pop chart in 1962 and founded the record label that discovered Daniel O'Donnell.

Over the decades, Magee has become a national institution. He won a Jacob's Award for his radio work in 1972 and was the subject of a special tribute programme on the Late Late Show in 1989. He led the St Patrick's Day parade in Dundalk in 2009 and was honoured for his charity work at the Dublin Lord Mayor's Awards a year later.

Magee once remarked that if he has to die, he hopes it will be on the air. "If you only knew the dreams in that little boy's head all those years ago," he said. "You don't know how lucky I am. I will never retire because even if they retire me, I'll find something else to do."

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