Thursday 27 April 2017

Brendan O'Connor: Carved out of true Kerry rock was he

Brendan O'Connor finds it hard to believe that a man so elemental and powerful could die

Aengus was one of the few sane men I knew. A lot has been said and written about my boss and mentor and maybe even friend over the last few days, and it is hard not to take the hump with some of the characterisations of him as being slightly eccentric or flaky.

Because he wasn't. Indeed, this is how sane Aengus was: he was sane enough, when what was happening to the country and what Germany was doing to us hit him, a long time before it hit anyone else, he would question his sanity to us in the meetings. "I don't know lads. Am I going crazy here?" he would ask. But of course he wasn't going mad. He was just ahead of the curve. Again.

Aengus's wide range of interests, the cricket, the jazz, the passion for entertaining people, have also been presented as quirks maybe unbecoming of a newspaper genius. But as he would have said himself, appropriating CLR James's quote about cricket which paraphrased Rudyard Kipling -- what knows he of newspapers, who only newspapers knows. That Aengus had a sense of fun, an interest in life outside of politics and media and news, was probably what kept him so sane all these years. They were the mark of a balanced man rather than the mark of some kind of eccentric.

There has also been a vague suggestion that the kind of newspaper Aengus produced was in some way superficial. The incredible popularity of this newspaper has been offered up as proof of that. The Sunday Independent is the biggest communal experience in this country. Week in, week out, a million people share the experience. It is more than watch any match or any television show, bar, perhaps, the Toy Show or the Rose of Tralee on occasion -- big annual national events. Except the Sunday Indo happens every week. This kind of popularity, it has been implied, can only be bought by being "populist", by having an eye to the market, by having a feeling for what Middle Ireland wants to hear.

Let me tell you a few things. People who use the phrase "Middle Ireland" generally don't know anything about Middle Ireland. They use the phrase in a slightly condescending way that belies the incredible sophistication of the average Irish person. Dumbing down doesn't sell papers in this country. And in fact, rather than doing focus groups or trying to think what people wanted to hear, Aengus furiously read and thought hard to come up with what he thought this mythical Middle Ireland needed to hear.

Aengus was fanatical about selling papers, yes, but what he was really fanatical about was telling the truth, taking nothing at face value. I learnt so much from Aengus over nearly two decades, but I think the most important lesson all of us who had the privilege of serving under him learnt was to go beyond the obvious, to go beyond the spin and the conventional wisdom and to ask: what is really going on here? Where is the truth?

And, in fact, it didn't matter if that truth was inconvenient for this so-called Middle Ireland. He wanted us to tell it anyway, even if it was going to piss them off. He would have pooh-poohed you if you claimed that this was a higher ideal, an urge to public service greater than that of all the other lazy journalists. But in fact it was. It was a very deep commitment to telling people what was really going on, to say things others wouldn't dare say, to challenge the consensus on a particular week. We learned to try and do that and to trust him that, as lonely as it sometimes felt at the time, he, and the paper, would ultimately be proven right, and only then, when it was safe, would the others catch up.

And people responded to this earnest effort to tell them the truth, to this great integrity of Aengus's, by buying this paper in their droves, by making it the single biggest communal experience that the people of this country share on a regular basis. So it is hard to hear people suggest that Aengus bought the readers off with bread and circuses (another of his favourite phrases) and easy cheap journalism. In fact, the Sunday Independent has, under Aengus, been the most challenging newspaper in the Irish market.

Yes, there were the other aspects to it -- the glamour, the entertainment, the big- name writers with bylines, who wrote unlike any other journalists you knew. But none of these either was a superficial sop to an unsophisticated market. Aengus had more respect for his market than anyone I have ever met. And what some people last week have implied was slightly shallow journalism, was anything but. I've always thought you have to go right into the deep end and nearly drown before you emerge into the shallow end with your seemingly simple idea or truth. And Aengus was no mere song and dance man. A conversation with him on what you might think were the fluffiest parts of the paper could see him invoke the history of the Second World War, Freud, Keynes and maybe some quotes from one of the Romantic poets. One is reminded of Dolly Parton's phrase that it takes a lot of money to look this cheap. In the case of Aengus's work, it took a lot of thought to come to such seemingly simple truths.

Nothing was obvious to Aengus. The real truth only started when you had digested and disregarded the obvious, and maybe close read it to pick up on some aspect of it everyone else had ignored, but an aspect that pointed to the real truth.

And he believed firmly in the power of words and reading, and the power of truth and the immortals to console and nourish. When life happened to you, Aengus might often seem to be unaware of it initially, and then in his own good time, when everyone else was finished their consoling and emoting, he'd casually call you in to offer you the consolations of a bit of poetry or philosophy or a historical quote.

Obviously I knew he was sick and fighting and that some days were better than others. But I have to tell you, I actually never believed Aengus would die. You take in all this stuff about his health on a rational basis but, underneath that, in the subconscious gut, that place that he himself was so admirably in touch with, you just didn't think he was the type to die, so powerful and elemental and carved out of Kerry rock was he. We all miss him around here. He was the centre really, the ballast around which we all orbited. He was the one who would have told us what kind of paper to put out this week, how to treat his death. And how to get beyond the obvious. It is a sad week and kind of depressing too. Because, if ever it could be said about anyone it could be said about him that ni bheidh a leithead ann aris.

Sunday Independent

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