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Friday 21 October 2016

Eddie Holt: the real deal

A tribute to the journalist, critic and lecturer who died last week and whose stock-in-trade was a love of people and absolute honesty

John O'Sullivan

Published 28/06/2015 | 02:30

Eddie Holt: The defiant enemy of guff, and of its peddlers
Eddie Holt: The defiant enemy of guff, and of its peddlers

In the stand-off between the grandees of EU-IMF and lower-scale Greek pensioners, which side do you think Eddie Holt, who died last week aged 60, would champion? For anyone who read him or met him, there are no prizes for knowing the answer to that one.

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Looking askance at those who, in her viciously excluding phrase, Christine Lagarde considers 'adults in the room', Eddie would negotiate past the markets' house ideologues, the spin doctors and the chancers, to extract the essential truth from that scene, exposing the rest as, to use one of his most deliciously wielded words,'guff'.

Because Eddie was the defiant enemy of guff, and of its peddlers, and a friend of people. Not 'ordinary' people, or 'little' people, as some would term them, but just people, and the commonweal, often in contrarian opposition to the interests of concentrated power.

These days, there's a lot of guff talked about the ideals of journalism, the cliche count in inverse relation to declining investment in its public aims, and in step with commercially-driven, neophile delirium around news technology.

But Eddie, sans Twitter account or iPhone paraphernalia, was the real deal. Armed with a native killer app whose functionality comprised language of deft purity, a brilliantly curious mind and uncompromised honesty, he embodied all of what the press should be.

To read Eddie as he skewered dogma and cant from the blithe defenders of injustice, greed and insatiable consumption in our primitive polity, was a joy.

No one else in newspapers could match the ferocity, focus and clarity that he brought to the job. Perhaps it was the dogged Drogheda in him, but he had a knack for afflicting precisely the right people, hitting his targets with a wicked economy of words.

No one else had you mouthing "Yes! Yes! Of course!" as you tripped from one exquisite passage to the next, each like a defence-splitting pass or a 30-yard belter in his beloved game, also the people's game, of football.

At first, he was supposed to be writing a TV column, most of the time, but he created something bigger, and his slot, first in the Irish Independent, and later in The Irish Times, became a like-it-or-not must-read for every sentient citizen.

In the mid-80s, working in a particularly dismal section of the old Indo building, above the entrance to which someone had inscribed, "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here", he lit up all our lives. He was quiet but opinionated, polite but no-nonsense, serious but mischievously and hilariously funny. You could see it in his eyes, and he saw through everything.

They say these days that an arts degree is useless, but this philistine commerce head counted his blessings as the properly humanities-educated Eddie moved conversation naturally and unpretentiously from writing to football to politics, and then perhaps to Orwell, Beckett, Berlin or Yeats - the latter was later to become his scholarly focus - in between the sharing of stories, frightening and side-splitting in equal measure, of Christian Brother-schooling atrocities.

He was the master and I was the pupil, not much separated in age. Then, and for the rest of the time I had the unforgettable privilege of calling him my friend, I, like many others, lapped up his generously-given, golden wisdom.

Eventually, he was too hot - and too right - to handle for the Indo, and later for The Irish Times too as in the mid-Noughties it shrank into a neo-liberal straitjacket.

But Eddie, always with a portfolio of activities, was acquiring a new audience of admirers in academia, where his waffle-busting classes were a favourite with students, a rare achievement, given that journalism staff often have to break it to folks that they are not yet the next Woodward or Bernstein.

Somehow, he could balance that with remaining supportive, puncturing a rough trade's myths with down-to-earth, 'just turn up' inspiration and a special kindness to those who struggled.

Still today, in the midst of some impressive company, he draws spontaneous admiration from former students. He never did the greasy pole, and, perversely, it occurred to no one to promote him to professor, but DCU journalism and communications in large measure owes its standard-setting reputation to him.

Eddie was devoted to his partner, Dympna, an RTE news director, and to his son, Joe, whose considerable academic and footballing exploits he indulgently related without false modesty. It was typical of him that when he became a father he quietly remarked that it made him feel mortal, yes, but that, "it takes you out of yourself".

I remember my brother-in-arms, mentor and hero, in sadness at his cruel illness and now his passing, but also with pleasure in his achievement, alongside lingering bewilderment at the number of times this player, who told me he had turned down a trial with Manchester United, nutmegged me in seven-a-side.

On Friday night, at Dalymount Park, Drogheda United and Bohemian FC fans joined together to celebrate the life of their fellow lover of the so-called garrison game. I think he would have appreciated that.

The number applauding him there perhaps equates roughly to the number of students, who, like me, learned so much from him, and who I imagine also are applauding him this weekend. I hope that, however high he set the bar, some of them will take up his mantle. If we are going to level the playing field, we so desperately need people on the pitch, and in that room, of the integrity, honesty and beautifully bloody-minded courage of Eddie Holt.

Sunday Independent

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