Sunday 23 July 2017

Obituaries: Whitney sang a final goodbye, and we saluted a great GAA hero

From the iconic pop diva to Kerry legend Páidí O Sé, Ed Power remembers those we lost in 2012

It was a year when we said goodbye to icons of screen, music, sport, literature and politics. In July, Ireland bid a sad farewell to one of its best-loved public figures, writer Maeve Binchy. A national treasure, the 72-year-old former journalist had charmed generations with her sweet, often sharply drawn portraits of small-town life, along the way selling 40 million books.

"She had time for everybody," tweeted the writer Ian Rankin when it was announced she had passed following a short illness. "Perhaps because her stories came from all of us and for all of us."

As the year ended, the GAA lost an icon. The winner of eight All Ireland senior medals, Kerry's Páidí Ó Sé was one of the greatest defenders in modern football.

In 10 All Ireland finals, the forwards he marked scored just a single point from play. He went on to manage Kerry, Westmeath and Clare. Only 57, the publican and former garda is believed to have suffered a heart attack.

In February, there was shock but not much surprise after pop star Whitney Houston (48) was found submerged in a bathtub at her hotel suite. A coroner ruled she was a victim of "accidental drowning".

It was a sorry final twist in a tragic real-life soap opera. After achieving global success as a fresh-faced soul singer in the 1980s, she had succumbed to a ruinous drug habit, and despite repeated efforts to clean up and rekindle her career, had, in the end, found it impossible to arrest the downward spiral.

Houston generated the greatest number of headlines. However, the most historically significant person to pass this year was surely Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon. Aged 82, he was recovering from a bypass when, in August, he developed heart complications.

Tremendously humble, Armstrong had always regarded his accomplishment of setting foot on the lunar surface as a landmark for humanity rather than a personal triumph. He showed it was possible to be a generation-defining figure and yet live out your days in quiet dignity.

Alongside Houston, the entertainment industry lost several legends in 2012. Having just resumed playing his most-famous character, JR Ewing, in a reboot of Dallas, Larry Hagman (81) lost a battle to throat cancer in November.

At his bedside were Linda Gray, who played Sue Ellen on Dallas, and Patrick Duffy, who became famous as his younger brother Bobby.

Adding to the roll-call of celebrities claimed by cancer was Adam Yauch of the influential rap group Beastie Boys (you may recall their early hit '(You Gotta) Fight for your Right (To Party!)'. He'd been ill several years, declining to appear in videos for the group's most-recent record because of his gaunt appearance.

Just 47, he died in New York in May. In his will, he stipulated that his music was never to be used for advertising.

We lost another pop icon when Bee Gee Robin Gibb died aged 61 after battling a long illness.

Disco singer Donna Summer died in May at the age of 63, having developed lung cancer despite not smoking. She believed she had inhaled toxic particles after being in the environs of the World Trade Centre during the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

Other musicians to pass away included 1960s crooner Andy Williams (84) and Hal David (94), the songwriter who, together with Burt Bacharach, was responsible for such classics as 'Walk On By' and 'I Say A Little Prayer'.

In February, Monkee Davy Jones had a fatal heart attack as he tended horses at his farm in Florida. The still-boyish singer was 66.

Closer to home, Irish music fell into mourning after the passing of The Dubliners' hugely influential banjo player Barney McKenna. Having lost Ronnie Drew in 2008, the group said farewell to McKenna in the middle of their 50th anniversary celebrations. Aged 73, he collapsed in his kitchen in Howth in April.

Another native icon lost in 2012 was actor David Kelly. Famous for his part in films such as Waking Ned as well as a cameo in Fawlty Towers as a stereotypically unreliable builder, he died aged 82 in February.

In Hollywood, there was disbelief when, in August, larger-than-life director Tony Scott (brother of Ridley) jumped off a bridge in Los Angeles. The initial speculation was that the 68-year-old had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, though this was scotched by the coroner. Whatever his reasons, they were likely contained in the handwritten note left for his family.

Having started directing commercials, he was best-known for guiding Tom Cruise's passage to stardom in Top Gun, though critics preferred 1993's True Romance.

Movie buffs also mourned fondly regarded character actor Ernest Borgnine (95), a staple of 1970s disaster movies and 1980s TV shows. An Oscar winner with Marty in 1955, his career would go on to span the decades. Weeks before his death in July, he was still at work as the voice of Mermaid Man on SpongeBob SquarePants.

The Los Angeles motorist whose vicious beating at the hands of police had prompted days of rioting in 1991, Rodney King, drowned in June at the age of 46. He was discovered at the bottom of a swimming pool by his fiancée. The post-mortem uncovered traces of alcohol, marijuana and cocaine in his blood.

Another controversy-generating figure who passed away was Korean religious leader Sun Myung Moon (92).

The founder of the controversial Unification Church, in the 1970s he was notorious for presiding over mass weddings, often featuring thousands of participants. He became incredibly wealthy, his religious empire worth billions at the time of his death from pneumonia in August.

In America, liberals were left rue what might have been as 1972 presidential candidate George McGovern died aged 90. Had he defeated Richard Nixon, would the ruinous 1970s recession have happened, many wondered? And might the US have exited Vietnam earlier, sparing the lives of thousands of young men?

One of the most influential figures in the fashion world was lost in May. Born into poverty in London, Vidal Sassoon was the first super-star hairdresser. Through the 1960s he wielded enormous influence – the bob cut he gave Mia Farrow for Rosemary's Baby is iconic to this day. He died in May from leukaemia aged 84.

Along with Maeve Binchy, the world of letters mourned several significant deaths. An enfant terrible of American fiction, Gore Vidal was claimed by pneumonia in July, aged 87.

Best known for When Harry Met Sally, journalist turned screenwriter Nora Ephron died in June after a long fight against cancer. She was 71.

Other literary deaths included science-fiction writers Harry Harrison and Ray Bradbury, who achieved fame with The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451, his cautionary tale against the dangers of fascism and group-think in post-war Western democracies, and Maurice Sendak, author of the timeless children's book Where The Wild Things Are.

In Britain, journalists raised glasses to the memory of Derek Jameson, the Fleet Street bruiser turned TV presenter who had a heart-attack and died aged 82.

Back home, beloved sports journalist Con Houlihan died in August aged 86. A big, gnarly mountain of a man, throughout his career he had applied his enormous lyrical powers to the great love of his life, the GAA.

There was further cause to grieve with the passing of campaigning reporter Mary Raftery. In her 1999 States of Fear documentary she had gone where nobody else had dared and exposed the litany of abuse scandals within the Catholic Church. She died of ovarian cancer on January 10, aged 54.

Across the Atlantic, feminists didn't know quite how to respond to the death of Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown (90). In the 1960s, Brown created a sensation with her relationship manual Sex and the Single Girl.

However her stint at Cosmo was divisive. She pioneered the '10 ways to drive your man wild in bed' school of magazine journalism and, depending on who you listen to, was either a fearless advocate for female sexual independence or a shameless panderer to male fantasy.

In sport, two-times All-Ireland-winning Meath footballer Paddy Meegan died at 90 and Fermanagh half-forward Brian óg Maguire was tragically killed in an industrial accident. Just 24, he'd played inter-county football for three years.

Meanwhile, Irish rugby was brought together in grief in September as Ulster centre Nevin Spence was killed, alongside brother Graham and father Noel, after they tried to save their pet dog from a slurry pit on their Co Down farm. Spence was part of the squad that had played Leinster in the Heineken Cup final a few months earlier.

In faraway Tokyo, another young Irish person was taken away before her time. Student Nicola Furlong (21) died in horrific circumstances after she was murdered by a man after a concert.

Also suffering a violent death, albeit in a completely different context, was Real IRA leader Alan Ryan. The 32-year-old was gunned down in broad daylight in September. His assassination was thought to be part of an escalating feud over the proceeds of a bank robbery.

The fatality that is most likely to resonate in the months and years ahead was that of Savita Halappanavar.

A young Indian woman quietly planning her future in Ireland with her husband, her death has reignited the abortion debate and sent people on to the streets in their thousands.

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