Thursday 23 February 2017

There's only two Terry Wogans . . .

Terry Wogan's Ireland BBC1
An Island Place BBC2
Bóithre Iarainn TG4
Crime In Mind TV3

John Boland

On RTE1's The Meaning of Life last autumn, Terry Wogan responded to Gay Byrne's questions about personal faith with eloquent directness. "I was born," he said, "I'm living, I will die. I don't believe in heaven, I don't believe in hell, I don't believe we're going anywhere. I think this is it."

Here was a bracingly different Wogan -- clear-eyed, unsentimental and devoid of all the expertly honed, twinkling blather that has made him a comforting household name for generations of BBC listeners and viewers. The blather, though, was well and truly back in the first installment of Terry Wogan's Ireland (BBC1).

Still, I learned much from this personal tour of the country that had bred both him and me. As he strode across a headland, sporting a tweed jacket, a tweed cap and a Rupert Bear scarf, he informed me that the island he had left behind in the late 1960s was "an isolated place" in which most of the population eked out "a meagre existence".

I deduced from this stark depiction of national deprivation that my own upbringing in the late '60s, as the son of a middle-ranking civil servant, must have been extraordinarily privileged, as must the lives of all my friends and classmates, though it hadn't seemed in any way exceptional to us at the time, and probably hadn't seemed so to Terry himself, the son of a grocery store manager and the beneficiary of a Jesuit education.

However, I learned that these Jesuits could exercise a "stern hand", that the young Wogan had frequently been "larruped" by these "hard taskmasters" and that his early experiences had left him "with no great love of religion". But never mind because there are other things to love about Ireland, though seemingly not the climate because, as Terry revealed, "nobody comes here for the weather".

But they do come here for the craic, which apparently is "gaelic for fun," and which entails going to pubs ("Social drinking has been at the heart of Irish life for centuries," Terry disclosed) and listening to people belting out Irish songs, even though "there's not many laughs in them".

In fact, not everything was positive about the country, as Terry took pains to point out. For starters, there had been a few hundred years of colonisation and religious discrimination, then there was the famine, while only recently we'd got ourselves into such a financial mess that we needed a bailout. Nonetheless, on this trip Terry had found "plenty of laughter and music and a joy for living" and this was due to the fact that "while they may be down, don't ever count the Irish out".

Terry, as you can gather, had come to praise us, not to bury us. "I want to show you the country at its best," he informed us at the outset, which meant avoiding any mention of paedophile priests, greedy developers, corrupt bankers or murderous thugs engaged in drug wars. Indeed, in the film's most touching sequence -- a visit by himself and his brother to the Limerick home of their childhood -- there was no reference to that city's ongoing problems, merely an observation that it had become "more prosperous". Tell that to the inhabitants of Moyross and South Hill, who will hardly care that the "mighty" Shannon which flows through it is "the longest river in the British Isles".

Well, as he conceded himself, "I think I've become anglicised," though this journey had served to remind him "how Irish I still am". This led him to his final revelation: "Once an Irishman, always an Irishman." Fair play to you, Terry, I'd never thought of it like that.

In BBC2's An Island Place, you really will find meagre existences being eked out in an isolated place, the place in question being Barra on the Outer Hebrides, which has a population of 1,200, nearly all of them devout Catholics -- a quirk of history that occurred simply because Henry VIII's Reformation crusade never got as far as this remote Scottish outpost.

This series of half-hour programmes accompanies a new parish priest as he takes up his duties on the island and, though hardly rivetting, it languorously captures a way of living so uncommon nowadays that it can't fail to be intriguing.

TG4's Bóithre Iarainn, meanwhile, aims to evoke ways of life that have disappeared entirely -- the country's vanished rail networks. Last week's film on long-defunct Waterford lines was full of fascinating material and so, too, was this week's programme about the West Clare Railway -- immortalised in Percy French's affectionate skit, 'Are You Right There, Michael?' which was itself made immortal by Brendan O'Dowda, one of this country's most underrated singers.

Geraldine Heffernan's film was crammed with arresting historical facts. I hope the series gets round to the Harcourt Street line, which I vividly remember from my childhood and which, like so many other railway lines, was killed off by Todd Andrews at the behest of a criminally short-sighted Fianna Fáil government.

TV3's Crime in Mind, in which two supposed experts theorise about unsolved cases, has been less than persuasive, but I watched this week's installment because it concerned Raonaid Murray, who was murdered just up the road from where I live and whose killer, for all I know, may have passed me in the street every day in the ten years since she died or may be standing beside me the next time I go for a pint or buy a newspaper.

It has always seemed likely to me, and to anyone with whom I've talked about this dreadful murder, that the victim was in some way acquainted with her attacker, but it took forensic psychologist Mike Berry and research psychologist Mary Aiken a laborious half-hour to come around to that possibility. Then, for no clearly explained reason, they seemed to favour the notion of an envious or vengeful female assailant.

The programme's third main participant was former assistant commissioner Martin Donnellan, who had worked on the case and who largely kept his own counsel amid all the speculation, though he looked as sceptical as I felt.

jboland@independent.ie

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