Máire Ní Mhurchú obituary: Award-winning broadcaster and documentary maker

Radio innovator helped to launch the careers of leading RTÉ figures including Mary Wilson, Tony O’Donoghue, Eileen Whelan, Ger Canning and Marty Morrissey

Born: August 18th, 1933

Died: January 11th, 2024

The Cork-based RTÉ broadcaster Máire Ní Mhurchú has died aged 91. Ní Mhurchú was an award-winning presenter and later head of regional radio broadcasting in Cork city during the time when Raidio Éireann offered a radio service for Cork listeners for a few hours each day.

The Echo Boys, a profile of the newspaper boys who sold The Evening Echo on the streets of Cork city and Someone To Love, a two-part radio series on the harsh life in a convent orphanage in the 1960s, were among her most celebrated documentaries. In 1969, she won a Jacob’s Award (Irish television and radio awards) for what was described as her “intuitive sympathy” for those she spoke with and her enthusiasm for broadcasting.

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She was also responsible for launching the careers of a large number of well-known contemporary RTÉ broadcasters including Mary Wilson, Tony O’Donoghue, Eileen Whelan, Ger Canning and Marty Morrissey.

Following Marie Murphy’s death (she took on the Irish version of her name when she joined RTÉ), many of her former colleagues and mentees recalled her beautiful, gentle radio voice, her quiet dignity and her elegance. RTÉ Radio 1 broadcaster and Morning Ireland presenter, Mary Wilson said it was Murphy who first hired her along with Eileen Whelan and Tony O’Donoghue. “We had the run of the Union Quay – as the HQ of the RTÉ Radio Cork opt-out, Cork 89FM was known. Under Márie’s guidance and under the direction of the station’s three excellent producers, Pat O’Donovan, Aidan Stanley and Dan Collins, we were given opportunities to report on stories the length and breadth of the country, many of them of national significance,” said Wilson.

‘... she welcomed me in and gave me my first-ever full-time commentary at the Cork County Hurling Finals between Blackrock and Glen Rovers. The day before she rang me to say, do your best, get the scores right and it will be okay’

—  Commentator Ger Canning

Reflecting back on those years, Wilson added that Máire was managing a radio station long before women were seen in such roles in Ireland. “She certainly blazed a trail for others to follow. She gave us the opportunity to break into broadcasting and I like to think that she looked at the careers we each carved out in RTÉ with some pride. She wasn’t given to micromanaging but she did tell me it was important to put ‘a smile in your voice’. Good advice that I try to follow.”

Sports commentator Ger Canning says that he owes his career as a sports journalist to Murphy. “In 1978, I trained as a newsreader in RTÉ but I declined the offer to become a newsreader as I wanted to get into sport. I went back to Cork and she welcomed me in and gave me my first-ever full-time commentary at the Cork County Hurling Finals between Blackrock and Glen Rovers. The day before she rang me to say, do your best, get the scores right and it will be okay.”

Radio presenter Alf McCarthy, who grew up close to Murphy in Cork, also worked with her and remembers the strict, hierarchical atmosphere that existed in the Cork office at the time. “Raidio Éireann was very much part of the Civil Service at that time and she brought a sense of order. When we arrived as the young and groovy presenters, there was a clash of cultures in a sense. I took over from Mark Cagney when he moved to 2FM,” recalls McCarthy.

Ní Mhurchú began her radio career in RTÉ Cork local radio in the 1950s. At that time, the Cork station was on air for a limited number of hours per week, relaying the national radio service at other times. It remained the only local radio station in Ireland until the pirate radio stations and later the independent radio stations began.

Her piece for radio on the Echo Boys was filmed for television in 1977. The boys told her how they earned tuppence for every copy they sold and how the best stand was down by Ford’s car factory

Enthusiastic right from the start, Ní Mhurchú carried the heavy Uher 4000 DS portable tape recorder to schools and homes to record hours and hours of interviews with children for several series. These included Young Munster on the Air, Munster Journal and Children Talking. She also worked with broadcaster Síle Ní Bhriain on a series entitled A Woman’s World. And, with a team of helpers, she put together the annual hour-long programme about the Cork Choral Festival, which attracted choirs from around the world for a number of years.

Her piece for radio on the Echo Boys was filmed for television in 1977. The boys told her how they earned tuppence for every copy they sold and how the best stand was down by Ford’s car factory. Remarking on the young age of some of the sellers, Ní Mhurchú was told by one of the main distributors in Cork and he, too, was selling the papers at seven and eight years of age and that the experience helped give him a sense of the outside world.

In 1989, Ní Mhurchú was promoted to divisional head of Cork Local Radio, which was rebranded as Cork 89FM when the first independent radio stations were being licensed. She retired in 1998.

The radio station was subsequently closed down as a loss-making enterprise years before the current RTÉ television and radio studios in Cork city emerged as the country’s second biggest broadcasting hub.

Marie Murphy was born in Dublin, the eldest of five children of Nora (nee McCarthy) and Lieut Colonel John Murphy. The family moved to the Cork suburb of Ballinlough when she was 13 when her father took up a role in the Defence Forces there.

His subsequent death while the children were still young meant that following her secondary school education at St Aloysius’ Girls School in Carrigtwohill, Murphy began her working life to bring income to the family. Before joining RTÉ Cork local radio, she worked with the Dutch consul for a time. She remained in her family home to look after her mother until her death in the early 1990s.

After her retirement, Ní Mhurchú stayed in Cork and at the age of 69, she married a widower, Lieut Colonel Paddy Kelly.

She spent the last number of years of her life in Bishopscourt Residential Care in Liskillea, Co Cork.

Marie Murphy is survived by her husband, retired Lieut Colonel Kelly, her two stepdaughters, Toni (Marie) and Carol-Anne and her brother, Pádraig. She was predeceased by her sister, Sr MF de Chantal and brothers John and Fr Canice (Michael) Murphy.

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