THERE were many big news stories in 2013 but when historians look back on the year, it may be recalled most especially for two deaths which seemed, all overstatement aside, to mark the end of a chapter in human history.
Nelson Mandela and Margaret Thatcher were former adversaries — she once branded his ANC party a “terrorist” organisation — and the way in which they will be remembered was indicated in the very different tenor of the memorial celebrations which followed their deaths.
For Madiba, there was a fortnight of joyful, often bombastic, eulogy following his death on December 5 as world leaders and ordinary people united to celebrate his extraordinary life in which he helped bring down the internationally despised Apartheid government of South Africa and became a figurehead of inspiration all over the world.
For Thatcher, the remembrances were also joyful but for more ambiguous reasons. She was a towering figure of the Right, who played a pivotal role in the fall of Communism and revived Britain’s economy after decades of stagnation. But her staunch, mad-eyed social Conservatism, bitter clashes with unions and her treatment of the hunger strikers were not forgotten either. After her death on April 8, the song Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead from The Wizard Of Oz soared up the Irish charts. For many, this was unseemly triumphalism but it could be explained perhaps as spontaneous public joy at having outlived not so much the woman herself but her rather dark moment in history.
If the Iron Lady looked retrospectively ridiculous in her appraisal of Mandela, how must Eamon Dunphy have felt with the passing of Seamus Heaney in August? In 1995, the same year Heaney won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Dunphy called the poet ‘mediocre’ and ‘a sham’ in the Sunday Independent. The criticism didn’t damage or rile the modest farmer’s son from Co Derry, who became the most loved and acclaimed poet of his generation.
Heaney first came to public attention 30 years previously with the publication of Death Of a Naturalist for which the critic Anthony Thwaite would laconically describe him as “the laureate of the root vegetable”.
In his Nobel address, he gave one of the more memorable descriptions of what we gain from poetry: “The power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness, in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it, the power to remind us that we are hunters and gatherers of values, that our very solitudes and distresses are creditable, in so far as they, too, are an earnest representation of our veritable human being”.
The conflict in the North which formed the background to much of Heaney’s work also dominated the life of Fr Alec Reid. The Redemptorist priest, who died in November after a long illness, played a critical role during the Troubles, as a secret go-between for the IRA and the British and Irish governments. Although he was an Irish nationalist who shared the republican ideal of a united Ireland, he was revolted by violent transformation of the original civil rights campaign. He was constantly asked to intervene with the IRA on behalf of those threatened by criminal gangs and as the peace process gained traction, he vociferously fought to obtain information about those people abducted by the IRA and buried without trace.
Heaney was, of course, not the only Nobel laureate who passed away in 2013. Doris Lessing, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, who died in November aged 94, was one of the towering figures of modern literature. The Golden Notebook, published in 1962, made Lessing’s name. She wrote about “new women” in a new kind of novel, one that, in the words of one critic, “stretched the boundaries of realist fiction”. In her later novels she exposed the inequities of life in Africa, where she grew up. With echoes of Nelson Mandela’s life, she was declared a prohibited alien in South Africa and Rhodesia in 1956 for her political views and 40 years later welcomed back and celebrated for those very views.
Less critically acclaimed but more commercially successful than Lessing, Tom Clancy, who died in October, dominated the bestseller lists of the Eighties with a series of novels that thrust his flinty CIA analyst Jack Ryan into situations that combined the intricacies of cold-war politics with well researched details of modern military operations. With the end of the Cold War, Clancy moved easily into the era of terrorism, with no decline in sales. In recent years, JK Rowling and John Grisham are the only other authors who warranted first print runs of more than two million copies.
‘Death of a Naturalist’ was also a phrase much used after the death of Eamon de Buitlear in January. Ireland's best-known independent wildlife filmmaker died at the age of 83 at his home in Delgany, Co Wicklow. Aside from his career as a filmmaker and broadcaster, de Buitlear was the author of several books, including schoolbooks on Ireland's natural history and a recent memoir, A Life in the Wild. He was appointed to the Seanad in 1987 in recognition of his work on environmental issues. He was also a member of the Heritage Council and the Central Fisheries Board. At his funeral, he was described as a “true patriot”.
Many of the prominent people who died throughout the year, including Mandela, had been interviewed at one point by one of the legends of journalism — David Frost. Internationally, he was best known for his famous interviews with former US President Richard Nixon in 1977. Frost had continued working on the Al Jazeera English-language station right up until his death in late August.
The world of filmmaking lost several giants of both the the big and small screen in 2013. Peter O’Toole, who divided his childhood between Connemara and Yorkshire, was variously described as “an elegant wreck” and “the last of the Sixties hellraisers”. Tall, rakishly slim, blue-eyed, and possessed of an otherworldly presence, O'Toole regularly veered so close to self-destruction that it seemed a miracle that he lasted as long as he did. He once said: “I can't stand light; I hate weather; my idea of heaven is moving from one smoke-filled room to another.” His performance in Lawrence of Arabia defined a career, which was sometimes marred by uneven over-the-top performances. His genius he saved for living and he will be remembered as one of the most charismatic personalities of his era.
James Gandolfini, beloved for his portrayal of mafia patriarch Tony Soprano, died in June while on holidays in Rome. Gandolfini was one of those unusual actors who was able to portray a violent, homicidal, serial adulterer, while simultaneously eliciting sympathy from audiences. In the eight-year run of The Sopranos, the series transformed the TV landscape and its star managed to transcend any stereotyping of Italian-Americans by showing his flawed character's vulnerabilities.
“At the record company meeting/on their hands — at last! — a dead star!,” Morrissey once sang. So it was with Lou Reed, who died in October, aged 71. Reed’s melding of the aspirations of literature with pop music had an influence on everyone from the Smiths to REM and Joy Division. Reed was one of music’s original rebels, both in his willingness to alienate an older generation and his determination to bring his young audience of outsiders along with him as he borrowed elements from jazz, visual art and poetry. Courtney Love once said of his band, the Velvet Underground that they only had 100 true fans: “But every one of those fans went on to form their own band… (Reed) was incredibly influential.”
Replace ‘record company’ with ‘film company’ in Morrissey’s lyrics and you have a flavour of the ruthlessness with which Hollywood moved on without Paul Walker, who died in a car crash at the beginning of December. Production of Fast & Furious 7, on which Walker had already shot most of his scenes, continued days after his death.
The mesmerisingly handsome Walker, who described himself on his Twitter page as an “adrenaline junkie”, did many of the stunts in the Fast & Furious movies himself — so it seemed ironic that he would die in a real life crash. He was one of the most searched internet terms of the year and the new film is expected to outdo all of its predecessors.
Suicide, bullying and the death of young people have been much-discussed themes in Ireland over the last few years. A new perspective on all of them was given by the untimely death of Kerry teenager Donal Walsh in May. Donal had been diagnosed with cancer four years ago and spent much of his last few years promoting an anti-suicide message and raising over €50,000 for charity. His positivity in the face of his prognosis was an inspiration to people across the county.
Much the same could be said of renowned broadcaster Colm Murray, who died in July, aged 61. Murray, who for many years was the face of RTE’s horse racing coverage, had been diagnosed with motor neurone disease (MND) in 2010 and had since then waged a public battle against the illness including taking part in trials of a new drug. In addition to his coverage of horseracing, the Westmeath man had presented programmes from several Olympic Games and regarded his work on the 1990 World Cup, in which Ireland sensationally reached the quarterfinals, as the highlight of his career. He will be remembered as a giant of Irish journalism.
That would also be an apt descriptor for Paddy Downey and Sean MacConnell, two stalwarts of the the Irish Times, who died this year.
For over three decades before his death in March, Downey had contributed electric prose to the paper. GAA president Liam O’Neill paid tribute to Downey’s talent: “His wit, eye for detail and clarity of prose regularly brought game incidents to life in print for those who had not witnessed them and his passion for football and hurling was evident to anyone who picked up his reports.”
Simon Coveney described MacConnell, the paper’s former agriculture correspondent, as “one of the best agri-journalists” with whom his department had worked. “He gave very straight and honest coverage of an industry that was growing in the midst of recession but also asked the hard questions of me when it was appropriate,” he said.
Trevor Danker was another legend of the written word, who passed away this year, in April. As a social columnist for the Sunday Independent, Danker was a shrewd observer of Ireland’s flourishing social scene in the Eighties and Nineties. The Belfast-born journalist dined with figures as diverse as Frank Sinatra and Ben Dunne before he became a public figure and he was credited with helping to launch the international career of artist Graham Knuttel.
Ireland lost one of its most beloved and talented stage actresses in September after Susan Fitzgerald succumbed to cancer after a long battle. Fitzgerald, who also acted in the film version of Angela’s Ashes, had a long association with the Gate Theatre, where her former husband Michael Colgan was director. The couple met during their time in Trinity College, married in their 20s and had three children, Sarah, Sophie and Richard. They divorced in recent years, but remained very close, with Colgan much involved in caring for Susan as her health deteriorated.
One of the funerals of the year was undoubtedly that of architect David Collins. Dublin-born Collins designed many of London’s most fabulous restaurants and bars including Nobu, the Wolseley, and the bar at Claridge’s hotel. His private clients included Madonna, for whom he designed an apartment, and who was also a good friend. She and television presenter Graham Norton flew in for his funeral at Monkstown Church in July and afterwards the singer paid generous tribute to Collins in a speech at the Ritz Carlton in Wicklow.
Quentin Crisp once said of Ronnie Biggs that his fame was such that only the Postmaster General would refuse to shake his hand. The 1963 Great Train Robber (the Royal Mail train was carrying millions in banknotes) was jailed in 2001 after being on the run for 36 years, mainly in Australia and Brazil. Biggs was forced to return to Britain because he needed medical treatment and came back at the age of 71, on a private jet funded by The Sun newspaper. The plane was greeted by more than 100 police.
Along with Thatcher and Mandela, the third head of state to die this year was Hugo Chavez. In March, the Venezuelan president died after a two-year battle with cancer, ending the socialist leader's 14-year rule. Chavez’s death was mourned by those who adored his charismatic style, anti-US rhetoric and oil-financed policies that brought subsidised food and free health clinics to an otherwise impoverished Venezuela. His opponents saw him as a dictator who wasted a historic jackpot of oil revenues. His death leaves a vacuum and whether his socialist ‘revolution’ can continue without his dominant personality at the helm remains to be seen. A film on his life, by director Oliver Stone, is in the works.
In October two former Fianna Fail TDs, Noel Davern and Denis Foley, died. Davern, who was 67, represented the people of South Tipperary before retiring at the 2007 General Election. Foley, who was 79, represented the Kerry North constituency for 18 years, but controversially resigned from Fianna Fail and as chairman of the Public Accounts Committee following revelations that he held an offshore Ansbacher account.
A less ambiguous legacy was left by Mayo-born theologian Sean Freyne whose funeral in August was attended by a former president, the current President and the Taoiseach. Mary McAleese paid tribute to Freyne, who was a fine footballer in his youth, as “an absolute gentleman. He was the quintessential Irishman, always asking the probing question.”
One of the most horrifying deaths of the year was that of Detective Garda Adrian Donohoe, who was shot dead during an armed robbery in January. Donohoe was the first garda to be shot in the line of duty since 1996 and was afforded a full State funeral. It was attended by over 5,000 people, including the President and Taoiseach, and was the largest funeral held in Ireland in a number of years.
Overall, 2013 was a year of commemoration of death — thousands of anniversary events were planned all around the world to mark the 50th year since the murder of John F Kennedy. The tributes paid to Kennedy seemed to highlight how unknowable he still is after all these years. But maybe that wasn’t the point of the celebrations. Perhaps Kennedy’s death, like those of many prominent people, merely serves as a marker for our own lifetimes. It is when we experience the personal grief of an empty chair within our own lives that we truly know that the loss of a well-known person, while a handy barometer for knowing where we were in a given year, can never compare to the fading of one of the stars in our own sky.