Sunday 23 October 2016

Eoghan Harris: Michael Ryan and his team deserve the season's best

Published 25/12/2011 | 05:00

DR Johnson said that if he had no duties he would spend his life "driving briskly in a post-chaise with a pretty woman". In the same situation I would write every week about wandering around West Cork, or studying the Sunday market in the People's Park, Dun Laoghaire, with Posy and Dolly.

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Posy, a pure-bred West Highland terrier, has long been part of the family. Two years ago we adopted Dolly, despite protests from Posy.

Dolly's dilemma was well described by Eamon Kelly's story of the young bride sharing a small farm with her mother-in-law: "Every time she put her hand in the tea canister, the mother-in-law's hand was there before her."

Let me contrast their characters. Posy is a mature West Highland terrier of dignified Presbyterian stock, slow to make a friend, slow to make an enemy, slow to -- well just slow. Dealing with her reminds me of dour days with Northern Unionists.

Dolly is very different. A lapsed Roman Catholic cross between a French Bichon Frise and a Westie, she has the flashy brains of her French ancestry and the cheap beauty of a British dollybird. This makes her a magnet for muppety males. But those who forget to pat Posy have a curse put on their careers.

No, I do not jest. A few years ago, after a clash with me on The Late Late Show, Donncha O'Connell, Professor of Political Correctness in UCG (he might have been Dean of the Law Faculty too) made a facetious remark about Posy's menstrual cycle on a radio show.

Retribution came in recent days. In spite of cheerleading by Carol Coulter of The Irish Times, O'Connell was not appointed to the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture. The post went to Sean Aylward who, significantly, never said a bad word about Posy.

Christmas Day will see Gwen striding down the West Pier while I lean back lazily on a bench in the People's Park. Flanked by Posy and Dolly, I will look back over a long year of exits and entrances. No exit will be more mourned than that of Michael Ryan, anchor of Nationwide who stepped down last week. Let me tell you why.

* * *

Contrary to the distorted impression deliberately fostered by Trotty partisans, I did not spend my days in Montrose deep in Workers Party plots. I spent them making programmes, three of which went on to win Jacobs Awards.

Michael Ryan and myself worked on one of them: the controversial Dublin Bay Oil Refinery documentary of 1975.

Controversial, because we considered the case for a national oil refinery which an Irish consortium wanted to site in Dublin Bay near the Kish. Naturally this proposal caused consternation in Dublin 4 circles -- including many of our colleagues in Montrose.

Leeson Street Residents Association turned up in fur coats, emoting about the environment. Sean Dublin Bay Loftus went into orbit. But Dublin Bay residents were also driven by more material concerns.

They feared property values would plummet. More powerful forces, were at play too, in the background, and not for the first time.

Charlie Bird, the researcher, revealed that back in the Thirties the big three oil companies had blocked a plan to build a national oil refinery on the site of the Dublin Gasworks. Among other ploys, they manipulated trade union fears about "foreign workers".

Something to remember next time a taxi driver starts a rant.

* * *

Michael Ryan's Nationwide knew the most fascinating stories are not in far foreign fields but right under our noses. He and Mary Kennedy specialised in speaking to those who until recently had kept their historical heads down: rural communities of the Church of Ireland, relatives of RIC men, families of those who fought fascism in British uniforms.

Download the programme of December 12 for a perfect example of Nationwide's brand of pluralist broadcasting. The team visited three rural Church of Ireland communities: Fethard-on-Sea, Co Wexford, scene of the famous boycott of Protestant shops; Wilson's Hospital School, Co Westmeath; and Powerscourt parish and its rector, Archdeacon Ricky Rountree

My own links with Fethard-on-Sea go back to 1985, when I received a letter from Eileen Cloney, who had been the little girl at the centre of the boycott controversy. This lit a burning fuse which I passed on to Gerry Gregg. He blew it to a flame until it exploded on to our screens as the film A Love Divided.

Likewise, I have links with Wilson's Hospital School. My friend, Sean T Kelly, who taught there, told me its stirring history. When I spoke there some years back I was struck by the school's simplicity, seriousness of purpose, and practical school motto: res non verba, deeds not words.

Nationwide showed the staff and students of Wilson's Hospital School are what Thomas Davis called "racy of the soil". There were none of the posh pretensions of some wealthy Catholic boarding schools.

Wilson's takes boarders because it is the best way the small and scattered Protestant rural population can preserve its identity.

Like all Protestant schools, Wilson's subsidises poorer pupils.

So if Ruairi Quinn really respects the rural Protestant tradition in the Irish Republic, he should make special financial arrangements for its boarding schools. Right now.

* * *

For all his laid-back style, the reporter in Michael Ryan was never afraid of the rough stuff. That is why, some years ago, I called him about another story in Fethard-on-Sea.

It involved the infamous sexual abuser, the late, and not lamented, Fr Sean Fortune.

Fortune had not yet been found out. As curate of Fethard-on-Sea his facile charm had fooled many locals. But not Sean Cloney, the Roman Catholic husband who had stood by his Protestant wife during the Fifties boycott.

Forty years on, Cloney's clear-eyed scepticism helped him see through Fortune's facade. Although this corrupt priest was perfectly happy to abuse boys, he was fanatically against abortion. This culminated in his bizarre attempt to use the Christmas crib to make anti-abortion propaganda.

Fortune bought a plastic baby doll, daubed it with red paint like blood, and placed it in the Christmas crib of the local Catholic church, with a slogan saying abortionists were murderers of baby Jesus. But Sean Cloney felt Fortune had gone too far. He sent me a message which I passed on to Michael Ryan.

An RTE camera team arrived soon after to film the foul display. From a window, Fortune spotted the crew taking out the camera.

He burst from his house, the skirts of his soutane lifted high, raced them to the church and snatched the bloody doll from the manger before the RTE team could record the evidence of his latest bit of evil.

All these memories mean that this Christmas weekend I wing good wishes towards Michael Ryan in Wexford. And hope for his happy return to RTE.

Some broadcasters -- Gay Byrne, Mary Kennedy and Brendan Balfe also come to mind -- get better as they go on.

RTE should give them life contracts and coax them to shuffle off their mortal coils on camera. That's what I call public service broadcasting.

Eoghan Harris

Readers responded strongly to the story of Joe Harris in last week's Sunday Independent. Many were particularly interested in his free Money Advice and Debt Service (MADS). Regrettably, while the email address for MADS was correct, a digit was misplaced in the contact phone number.

The correct number is 087 112 3543 from 9am to 9pm, seven days a week. Apologies to readers for the error.

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