Thursday 19 October 2017

Magical, moving Mary made you want to give her a hug

Mary McAleese's current hairstyle, a severely cropped helmet, doesn't do her any favours, but she did viewers a favour this week in an engrossing conversation with Gay Byrne on RTÉ1's The Meaning of Life.

This programme has frequently transcended its quasi-religious leanings with arresting interviews, for which due tribute should be paid to its host, whose gentle prodding can lead his famous guests to reveal hitherto unsuspected aspects of themselves. I especially recall a bracingly forthright response from Terry Wogan to his interviewer's queries about the notion of an afterlife.

Not that the former President of Ireland needed any prodding. As the 14-year tenant of Áras an Uachtaráin, she had been precluded from taking any contentious stances, but her humanity and passion for justice were unmistakeable and she exuded a warmth that seemed quite beyond her admirable but somewhat chilly predecessor in the Park.

Now, though, she's free of presidential constraints and thus free to speak her mind again -- though I hadn't expected this devout Catholic to be so startlingly direct on church matters that annoyed her and church people who infuriated her.

Chief among the latter was Bernard Law, the former cardinal of Boston, who, she revealed, denounced her on her 1998 state visit to the US as "a very poor Catholic president". In what she described as a "most dreadful encounter", she told Law: "I'm not a Catholic president, I'm President of Ireland."

So which of them, her interviewer asked, won out? "Oh, I won it hands down", she replied, disclosing that Law, who had been invited by the Irish hierarchy to give a talk here, was suddenly "uninvited". She didn't mention that the Boston cardinal later had to resign amid allegations of a child-abuse cover-up, but I'm sure that gave her some satisfaction too.

She also spoke movingly of the fear and loneliness that, until recently, had been the inevitable lot of most gay people, and she was all in favour of gay marriage. Indeed, whether couples are homosexual or heterosexual, she said, "I think it's wonderful that people still want to get married."

Yet while she has problems with a patriarchal church's teachings on this and other matters and with its general "credibility" as an institution, her faith "is never in doubt".

At the end, her host put to her the corny question that he asks all his interviewees: if she got to the place known as Heaven and came face to face with God, what would she say to him, her or it?

She'd simply give a hug, she replied, adding: "I hug everybody -- I think it's one of the best things in life."

I can't imagine Mary Robinson saying that, but it made for a characteristically disarming coda to an interview that was notable for its eloquence, occasional scepticism and overall passion.

If passion won rugby matches, Connacht would be champions of Europe. Alas, there are other factors too and when head coach Eric Elwood roared "Make it happen!" at half-time in the Heineken game against Toulouse, his players simply hadn't the skills that were needed to carry out his command and were duly slaughtered by their vastly superior French opponents.

"What have we got to do to win here?" one of the forwards asked in rhetorical desperation when Gloucester hammered them in the next game.

Well, perhaps play better, but as Kieran Hartigan's film, The West's Awake (TG4), rightly noted, Connacht has never had the resources, whether human or technical, that are enjoyed by the other three provinces.

This absorbing fly-on-the-wall documentary followed the team through their inaugural Heineken Cup year and while there was no doubting the commitment of Elwood and his players, there was also little doubt that they were ill-equipped to take on the big boys of European rugby.

At the very end, in atrocious Galway weather, they eked out a result (9-8) against Harlequins, and such was the unbridled joy from coach and players you'd think they had just won the whole tournament. Mind you, so likable was the film that the viewer couldn't help cheering, too.

There was nothing cheering about the first instalment of Jockey Eile, TG4's latest attempt at a reality-show competition, This time around, the subject is racing, with 50 contestants vying for inclusion among a chosen 10, though all the jitters came from host Seán Bán Breathnach, who confessed at the outset: "I might make a complete mess of it."

Oh, the agony of being a TG4 presenter. He should have spared a thought for the viewer, who had the agony of deciding whether to endure this tedious tomfoolery or switch over to Antiques Roadshow. I must say Fiona Bruce never seemed so alluring.

What's Ireland Eating? That was the question posed on RTÉ1 by Philip Boucher Hayes, who followed it with two more questions: "What's fuelling our obesity crisis? And why is it that we just can't seem to stop?"

Philip has the look of someone who knows his way around a beefburger, but here he was a man on a mission, endlessly fretting about the stuff we're putting into our mouths and enlisting armies of experts to warn us about our culinary weaknesses. When they weren't finger-wagging, Philip was loudly hectoring, so out of sheer perversity I ordered a Chinese takeaway.

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