Michael O'Hehir was born in Glasnevin, Dublin on June 2, 1920. He was educated at St. Patrick's National School in Drumcondra and the O'Connell Christian Brothers School. O'Hehir's father, Jim O'Hehir, came from County Clare and he trained his native county to win the 1914 All-Ireland Hurling Final. He also has the unusual distinction of training Leitrim to win the 1927 Connacht Senior Football Final. His father was also an official of the Dublin Junior Board.
While still a school-boy O'Hehir wrote to Radio Éireann asking to do a test commentary. The first game that he commentated on was a National Football League game between Wexford and Louth. O'Hehir commentated for five minutes during the first-half and was so good that he was invited to commentate on the whole of the second-half. O'Hehir did his first full Gaelic Athletic Association commentary on August 14, 1938 when Galway defeated Monaghan in the All-Ireland Senior Football Semi-Final at Cusack Park in Mullingar. He abandoned his engineering studies at University College Dublin after one year to become a full-time sports commentator. In 1944 he became a sports journalist for Independent Newspapers, while continuing to broadcast commentaries for Radio Éireann and the BBC.
By the mid-1940s O'Hehir was recognised as one of Ireland's leading broadcasters. In 1947 he faced his most challenging broadcast to date when he had to commentate on the All-Ireland Football Final from the Polo Grounds in New York City. Over 1,000,000 people were listening to the broadcast back in Ireland and O'Hehir was the one link between the game in New York and the fans in Ireland. The broadcast had to be finished by five o'clock, however, the match ran late. The last few minutes of O'Hehir's commentary include him pleading with the broadcast technicians not to take him off the air. His pleas were successful and the Irish people were able to listen to the game in full. By the end of the decade O'Hehir also began working for the BBC as a horse-racing commentator. In 1961 Ireland's first national television station, Telefís Éireann, was founded and O'Hehir was appointed head of sports programmes. As a result of his influence O'Hehir secured the rights of the hurling and football championships for the new station. As well as this O'Hehir continued to do his commentaries.
In November 1963 O'Hehir faced his toughest non-sporting broadcast. By sheer coincidence he was on holidays with his wife Molly in New York when US President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. O'Hehir was asked by Telefís Éireann to provide the commentary for the funeral. The live five-hour broadcast proved a huge challenge for him, as he had had no association with political or current affairs broadcasting up to that point. O'Hehir's commentary, however, won widespread acclaim in Ireland and showed a different side of his nature. O'Hehir later provided commentaries for other non-sporting events such as the funeral of Roger Casement in 1965 and the celebrations marking the 50th Anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1966.
O'Hehir also commentated many Aintree Grand National races, arguably the most famous horse race in the world. He would invariably pick up the BBC commentary at the Becher's Brook fence and take the race to the Canal Turn, a vital section of the race where many a favourite fell. Foinavon's famous victory will be remembered as one of O'Hehir's finest moments in racing commentaries. He was accompanied that day in the commentary box by his son Tony O'Hehir who is now a long-term accomplished commentator in his own right. The thrilling victories of the great Irish horses Arkle and Shergar were just some of the great sporting occasions brought into Irish homes by O'Hehir. In addition to horseracing, he also covered showjumping, including the Dublin Horse Show at the RDS in Ballsbridge.
In 1972 he became manager of the newly designed Leopardstown racecourse but left the following year to continue writing and broadcasting as a freelance journalist. This work took him to the United States where he commentated on horse-races for NBC for races such as the Arlington Million in 1981. In 1975 O'Hehir was honoured by The Late Late Show with a special tribute show. In his commentary O'Hehir aimed at impartiality but admitted that he was always blamed for being "against the losers." Similarly he was also blamed for making a game out of nothing. Shortly after Dublin defeated Galway in 1983 in a tense All-Ireland final about 30 Dublin supporters attacked him in the commentary box, and only the presence of an armed detective, there to protect the microphone, saved him from serious injury.
Two weeks before the All-Ireland Hurling Final of 1985 O'Hehir suffered a stroke which left him confined to a wheelchair and with some speaking difficulties. This illness denied him the chance to commentate on his 100th All-Ireland Final. O'Hehir was replaced by Ger Canning on RTÉ television, and on radio by Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh. He had hoped to return to broadcasting one day to complete his 100th final, however, this never happened. Before the 1987 All-Ireland Football Final O'Hehir was honoured at Croke Park. Nobody expected the huge outpouring of emotion from the thousands of fans present and from O'Hehir himself.
"And it looks like there’s a bit of a schemozzle in the parallelogram" - O'Hehir's ubiquitous euphemism for a fight.
"And if there's anybody along the way there listening in, just give us five minutes more" - O'Hehir saving the 1947 Polo Grounds Final for all the Irish listeners
"And it looks as if they were winning the way the Offaly men are dithering and dawdling...and here they go up the field" - the curse of the commentator
"A GOAL, A GOAL, A GOAL FOR OFFALY! There was a goal!" - O'Hehir's reaction seconds later as Séamus Darby scores the winning goal for Offaly, denying Kerry a famous fifth consecutive All-Ireland title
"And it is a penalty. And Paddy Cullen, heaven help him, in there in the goal"