There was a nice line about Muhammad Ali in the New Yorker, published after the great man's death. David Remnick wrote that, like all great icons, he knew when to let the iconographers in; a reference to the myriad quality pieces written about Ali by dint of his allowing access to the great sportswriters of his age.
It was a similar case in Cork in the 1980s and 1990s. These were fecund times: Cork City were highly competitive in the League of Ireland, and took their first leaps into European football in 1989; Neptune and the Blue Demons dominated the basketball scene; Club rugby thrived, as did the GAA, culminating in Cork winning the senior All-Ireland double in 1990.
Remarkably, a low-budget, ramshackle but remarkably committed broadcaster brought it all to the people of Cork. A Cable TV provider known as Cork Multi-Channel brought TV across Britain and Europe to the county, and nestled between the RTEs and BBC One in the order of channels on the black set-top box was a show channel.
The show channel was originally intended as a rolling series of advertisements, but from 1985, Multi-Channel began broadcasting their own, locally produced TV shows. Many of the shows produced were themed magazine shows, ranging from local news to cooking and fashion shows. A huge part of the schedule were sports shows: a 30-minute preview show was broadcast on a Friday night, with an hour-long review show going out on a Monday.
Cork Multi-Channel proved to be a breeding ground for talent: Trevor Welch, Des Curran, Marty Morrissey, Michael Corcoran and Tony O'Donoghue all cut their broadcasting teeth with the channel.
Their budget was minuscule; their achievements huge: Cork Multi-Channel documented a glorious era in the county's sporting history.
As part of Cork Week on Balls.ie, we decided to take a look back at the days of Multi-Channel, and we compiled the following short, oral history of the channel's sports output. To find out what it was like to work there, we spoke to Trevor Welch of TV3, Tony O'Donoghue of RTE and Des Curran of Eir Sport. Cork native Barry Fitzgerald retells the experience on the other side of the screen.
Trevor Welch: Cork Multi-Channel was a local TV station set up in 1985 originally to film the St Patricks Day parade, the Cork 800 celebrations. It was a cable service, but they filmed the parade and put it out on their show channel.
So they decided to set up a local TV station, the first of its kind in Ireland, and they brought in a sports show in 1987. Eamonn O’Keefe was the Cork manager, the former Everton player, and Bill Haydock was his assistant. MD Jim O'Shea brought the two of them in to present a sports show. To put it mildly, they probably weren’t cut out for presenting, and they were busy with Cork anyway, so that’s where I came in.
I was on South Coast Radio at the time, and got a call from Michael McCormick, inviting me in. This is in 1988 when I was 23. I ended up staying there for ten years, in that time responsible for putting together Weekend Sport (broadcast on a Friday) and Sports Night ( going out on a Monday).
We would film Cork City matches, local rugby matches, and it was a great time for Cork sport.
Barry Fitzgerald: There’s a story too in its coverage of local GAA. That was a huge thing at the time and hugely valuable in promoting interest in Cork hurling and football at the time.
Des Curran: I worked there part time for maybe a couple of years while I was in college in UCC. Covering the GAA county championships was great - you would head off every weekend to all corners of the county then back to edit and voice the games on a Monday. I remember UCC had a great football team at the time even if 12 of the starting 15 were from Kerry!
I failed miserably to pronounce Sean McSithigh correctly, something which Eamon Fitzmaurice and Paul Galvin took great joy in in the years to follow! I had meant to double check it with the trainer Des Cullinane the week before the final but it went completely out of my head. Lesson learned!
Trevor Welch: Cork won the double in 1990, and we filmed the homecoming and we were the first to do it. We had cameras on Patricks' Street and some on the top of buildings, and I did a running commentary.
1990 was a huge year for Cork – the GAA double; Cork Con won AIL; Cork City were pipped for the league by Dundalk; Sonia was very prominent – and I think we captured it quite well. After that, we spoke to something like twenty-odd World Champions in the next eight years: Steve Davis, Stephen Hendry, Steve Collins, Bobby Charlton, Jackie Charlton, Barry McGuigan.
Des Curran: We showed highlights of Munster Senior League games which was good craic as I was playing in it at the time: a few words were thrown in my direction on the sideline!
Despite the fact that we weren't national we still got some great interviews. I remember sitting for an hour with Nigel Benn going over his life and boxing career. He was in town as part of his then new DJing career! The All Blacks as well - Tuigamala was massive at the time, as was Michael Jones.
Tony O'Donoghue: Well I used to get paid so little I could still claim the dole, so I went from being on TV to going two doors down to the Labour Exchange to stand in a queue to sign on, but I would also collect requests and dedications from the rest of the unemployed!
Trevor Welch: Oh yeah, it was a shoestring budget, to be fair. We went to Moscow in 1989 for Cork City’s first European game against Torpedo Moscow. They beat them 5-0, and I was out there with a big hat and big gloves, commentating from the stand. Jim O’Shea was the MD at the time, and I persuaded him to do it, although we had no budget.
He relented in the end. His two sons Dan and Mark were the cameramen that came with me, and that was part of the deal, so he could get good experience for his two sons behind the camera!
We were out there for five days, so I did a documentary. I remember being in Red Square, standing on the balcony, doing bits of pieces to camera about the history of the place, and standing in front of Saint Basil’s Cathedral, talking of how the different architects put together the different onion-shaped domes.
Then we went to the training ground, and filmed the Cork training session. Noel O’Mahony was the manager then, and we filmed a press conference on the team bus; did all that. Then in the ground, we had one camera on the halfway line to film the game. Now it wouldn’t be what’s used on Sky Sports today, but we got 15-minute highlights out of it.
It was late 1980s Moscow, it was pretty bleak then compared to what it is now. I don’t think they had huge support at the ground, and the chairman met with officials high up in Torpedo Moscow and asked ‘look, we’re a local TV company, can we film the game’. Because back then, you had to pay money into a kitty for UEFA, but Torpedo were very supportive of Cork City’s efforts to film a bit of history for the club.
So that’s how we went about it, and we didn’t pay UEFA a penny for it!
Barry Fitzgerald: They would sometimes be subject to jokes. Sometimes the channels would go down, and there would be messages on screen in really 1980s computer graphics and it would say ‘Apologies over the loss of service. This is due to atmospheric conditions over Knocknaheeny'.
This idea of 'atmospheric conditions over Knocknaheeny' got great coverage among Cork people.
Trevor Welch: What we got out was extraordinary... we did quiz shows live on Multi-Channel, there were good music shows, and you’d try your hat at everything. I remember one time Mary Black came in for an interview, and there was no-one there to interview her, so I interviewed her! Our offices were on George's Quay, and you'd have people from all walks of life coming in.
Tony O'Donoghue: We went behind the scenes at Pauric Ui Chaoimh when U2 played there. I had to get School of Art students to make a giant cake for Edge's wife to jump out of during the show because it was his birthday, so we got backstage Access All Areas!
Trevor Welch: One time I was in studio with Jimmy Magee and Billy Connolly, the comedian.
Billy Connolly was performing in Cork, and Jimmy must have been down in Cork for the athletics, and we said to Billy Connolly to come into studio.
I remember Billy Connolly was wearing an orange suit, and he sat in studio with myself and Jimmy Magee. Jim O’Shea, the MD, had his pants ripped that day, but he wanted to meet Billy Connolly so bad, that he came into studio in his boxers while someone was stitching his pants outside.
I remember Billy Connolly shouting “You? You’re the MD? What are you doing in studio in boxer shorts!?”. You couldn’t buy those times.
Des Curran: It was a great learning ground. You set up and carried out interviews, sat in on the edits, recorded links in studio or out and about with no autocue, so your memory got pretty good pretty quickly!
Trevor Welch: Multi-channel was a huge training ground for me, along with Marty Morrissey, Michael Corcoran, and Paul Byrne, now at TV3.
Barry Fitzgerald: Marty Morrissey is a Multi-Channel man. I don’t think he was ever involved in sports broadcasting. I remember he came to our primary school once and interviewed me, which was exciting.
It was in advance of an election, and it was a cute piece asking what children thought of the election and of the politicians. I was at the very zenith of my cuteness, in second class, I said I thought there should be a national coalition, and this was one of the cutest things ever said by an eight-year-old. I think my logic was that everybody should just get on together.
Trevor Welch: We were doing so many Cork City games, even when they were in Bishopstown, and RTE would come down the odd time. So anytime they did come down, and you know how humorous the Cork City fans are, they would chant ‘Who the fuck are RTE, who the fuck are RTE’ followed by ‘Multi-Channel, Multi-Channel”. That was the chant for years in the Shed.
Barry Fitzgerald: I do remember before Cork City moved to Bishopstown, there was a really cool terrace atmosphere and fan culture, and there was a really good fanzine called No More Plastic Pitches. There was one season in 1990/91 where they were defeated in the league by a last-gasp goal by Dundalk.
One of the frequent chants would be to the air of ‘Multi-Channel, Multi-Channel' followed by 'Who the fuck are RTE, who the fuck are RTE?’
As they’d be singing that, Trevor Welch would be in his commentary position, so there would invariably follow a chant ‘Trevor, Trevor, give us a wave, give us a wave’. To which Trevor Welch, being a man of the people, would invariably respond with a wave, to great adulation around him.
Trevor Welch: I remember doing Sonia O’Sullivan’s first TV interview: she was wearing her school uniform after a cross-country run. I gave Ken Doherty his first TV interview, he always reminds me of it. We probably gave Ronan O'Gara his first TV interview when he was playing with Con. It played a huge part in the careers of so many.What we achieved was cutting-edge, looking back.
Barry Fitzgerald: You know, when you’re from Cork you take that for granted! Ah, I’m joking when I say that. As a child, you have no critical faculty, so I wouldn’t have thought like that.
But there’s a road in Cork called the Glanmire bypass, and when I was growing up, it was known as THE dual carriageway, with the implication that it was the only dual carriageway.
It was the same with Multi-Channel. There wasn’t really a sense that this was a company, it was like the coming of the internet. Cable television was part of a technological change, with all these different providers coming in later. It felt like Multi-Channel were an established part of the scene, which is of great credit to them.
Des Curran: We had some great nights out as well - it is the real capital after all!
Trevor Welch: It was such a sad day when it came to an end in the mid-noughties, around 2005/06, so it was over 20 years. It’s a pity, but it couldn’t be sustained any longer, apparently, but they were magic times, and times I’ll never forget.
Barry Fitzgerald: I can’t remember it coming to an end. Maybe it never came to an end. Maybe in some parallel universe, it is still going on.
That’s what I’d like to think.