Described by Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh as ‘A perfect specimen of the West Awake’, a thoroughbred tribesman, despite having been born in the sunny south east, Michael Lyster has become an iconic and intricate cog in RTÉ’s GAA machine. After 35 years of service he is hanging up his boots and bidding farewell to his established role as the first man of The Sunday Game. Rebecca Reilly and GALWAYnow caught up with the beloved broadcaster to reminisce on his remarkable career.
After relocating to Barnadearg, his father’s homestead, at the tender age of three, Lyster soon became integrated into the ways of west, and sport was an intrinsic component of life in the family household. “In small parishes like that, especially as a kid, you play ball – whether it’s football, or soccer, or whatever. My father was a huge sports fan, and the GAA pitch was right across the road from the house. Sport was always very important to us.” Following a secondary school education in the athletically influenced St. Jarlath’s in Tuam, it was media that beckoned, and Michael jumped in response. After a brief stint in a laboratory, the budding journo answered an ad in provincial newspaper, The Tuam Herald, looking for a junior reporter. Much like several situations Lyster has found himself in, it took a dash of luck and plenty of nerve. “There was a career there for me in the lab in the sugar factory, there was no doubt about that. I did always have an interest in writing, and the media, but I couldn’t say I set out with a career ambition. I saw an opportunity and chose to have a go. That’s what life is about, sometimes you just have to be brave. There’s only one way to find out.” That can-do attitude and fearless spirit soon flung open the doors of the national broadcaster. After a successful music column (despite admitting to playing the stereo better than any instrument!) and covering everything from court cases to football, it was onto the airwaves as part of the sports unit on the then newly opened Radio2.
PACE AND POTENTIAL
As the young sports reporter blossomed on the radio, his talents were not going unnoticed elsewhere. “The thing is, back then, radio and TV sports were completely independent departments in RTÉ. People in radio didn’t want their folks going into television and vice versa. But in order for me to do the TV jobs, I was obliged to fulfill my radio commitments – it was like you were doing two jobs for the price of one! 1984 was an industrious year for the talking head of GAA as he cut his teeth on his first Sunday Game. Often pulling 14-hour days, sometimes seven days a week, when TV sport made their full time offer, Lyster jumped at the opportunity. But it was not without its sacrifices. “When I took the offer of The Sunday Game, because of the way things were back then, essentially radio sport turned their back on me,” he recalls. “It would be years before I did radio sport again.” The divide didn’t stop Michael endlessly dominating the world of sporting television though. The award-winning presenter has featured heavily on the Olympic circuit as well as the All-Stars and Sports Person of the Year Awards. This year sees him relinquishing his throne to Joanne Cantwell, a well-deserved successor. Yet, rather than mourning what is gone, the father of four is thankful for what has happened. “There’s a convoluted scenario, because despite having done my last Sunday Game, I don’t retire from RTÉ until next year. I haven’t really broken those ties yet. I’ve had a fantastic career, and a great time. Because of what happened to me health-wise two years ago, I missed about five Sunday Games and there was no guarantee I was ever going to get back there, or back to normality. I’m just thankful I’ve seen it to the end of the road.”
A LUCKY ESCAPE
After suffering a cardiac arrest in 2015, the sports anchor’s attitude seems to have turned to one of a thankful sense of awareness. Although by speaking to him worry is not something that would strike you as one of his pastimes, Lyster has certainly awoken to the frailty of life. “It should have killed me. Most people do not recover from it. But at the end of the day it hasn’t left me an invalid, I’m not coping with a disability on a day to day basis. You just get up and get on with life. I’m lucky I know what I’m dealing with. How many people are out there with underlying issues they don’t even know about?” Currently working with the Irish Heart Foundation, creating awareness is paramount. A thimbleful of knowledge can be crucial in a situation such as a heart attack or cardiac arrest, as Michael’s other half, Anne, has proven. “You can learn everything there is to know about cancer, but the fact of the matter is, it’s incredibly unlikely you will be able to stop someone from getting it. But in situations like mine, you can save a life by intervention. Anne performed CPR on me, without any real medical knowledge, and kept me going until an ambulance arrived. She fulfilled the first rule – do something. If a person is in cardiac arrest, they are already dying, you cannot make the situation worse. I’d rather a couple of broken ribs as opposed to brain damage, or inevitably, death.”
With retirement around the corner, the GAA shark was lucky to have witnessed the crowning of his homestead as All-Ireland Hurling Champions in 2017, and, sadly, their title being snatched away just a few weeks ago. But his predictions for next year are as good as anyone’s. “It was great for Limerick, I think it was a little like Galway winning last year. Galway hadn’t won since the 80s, so we understood those feelings. I feel like Galway never sparked properly this year. I come from the football side of the county, but in my opinion, hurling is the best field game in the word, the speed and skill of it is just amazing. Who will win it next year – who knows? I would never have predicted Limerick for this year. Dublin obviously have been dominating in the football, but like everything that will pass too. I can give the usual suspects, but who of those will take it is another question!” Despite giving up the day job, Michael’s diary is still jam-packed, with a future full of possibilities. Whatever pursuits he chases or avenues he pursues, the godfather of GAA has an endless amount of gratitude for his career, and what it has meant to the people of Ireland. “I have a lot of leeway with the next chapter of my life, whether it’s back to Galway or if a job came up in the Bahamas or the Seychelles, that would be alright too! But really it’s been a privilege to have a career that has put me so in touch with people. It’s a very lucky place I’ve been in, but your time passes and sports keeps going on. The All-Ireland won’t stop next year just because I’m not doing The Sunday Game! It might be strange for me seeing Joanne in the seat next year, it’s a different scenario, but that’s ok too! As every chapter ends, another one must begin.”