Gene Kerrigan: Ryan, tripped runner in the human race
Those who denounce Gerry Ryan's drug abuse are missing two key points, writes Gene Kerrigan
Published 26/12/2010 | 05:00
Amid the joys of Christmas, for most of us there's an element of melancholy. The absence of loved ones who have died is more deeply felt at times of celebration. All the more so when the loss is recent. No doubt the grief of Gerry Ryan's family and friends will be particularly raw throughout these days. Ryan wasn't just a man, a father, partner and friend, he was a public figure. The public nature of the mourning that followed his death is echoed now in the public disapproval from those who felt let down by his cocaine taking.
At times the response to the toxicology report has been virulent. As someone who wasn't a fan of Ryan's, I've felt detached from both the extravagant tributes of last May and the recent overblown vilification. Those who heap abuse on Ryan's head are missing two significant points.
The first relates to the mixture of veneration and fear within which an RTE celebrity lives. Here's some context.
Many years ago I wrote a TV review column for the Sunday Tribune. It contained some serious criticism, even the odd constructive remark -- but mostly the column made fun of the worst of TV, simply by describing it in detail. I knew from anecdotal evidence that it thoroughly irritated some of the suits within RTE. That wasn't the point, though. The point was to entertain and inform readers. I watched a lot of crap television, so they didn't have to. (I've never understood why people in the creative business can't just shrug off the remarks of reviewers -- it's just one person's opinion.)
Incidentally, that column regularly made fun of Gerry Ryan's bloody awful efforts to become a TV star. I heard back through a mutual acquaintance that Ryan was annoyed and wanted to know what I had against him. He seemed to think the criticism was personal. I had nothing against him -- apart from his awful TV shows. But the assumption that the criticism was personal is significant.
Some years later, I interviewed a legend of Irish broadcasting, a decent and talented man who made a huge contribution to RTE. He reminded me of a long-forgotten column in which I'd praised an actor in a secondary role in a drama, a man who delivered dialogue in a subdued, convincing way. Although I'd long forgotten the column, it stuck in the legend's mind for a very particular reason.
"I assumed he was a friend of yours," said the legend. I was bemused. No, I never met that actor, I just thought his performance was very good. Why does everyone assume that reviewers praise their friends and abuse those they don't like?
Then the legend told me something I still find shocking.
Some months after that column, preparatory work began within RTE on the following year's shows. As usual, the paperwork went upstairs. When it came down, one name had been removed -- that of the actor praised in that column. "I can't prove anything," the legend said, "but that never happened before or since."
Of course, the suits could claim this was done for any number of reasons. But the legend, who had years of experience of those people, was regretfully certain it was a petty, vindictive move -- one that even he could do nothing about.
I was taken aback that an actor -- in a business where work is limited and hard to come by -- should lose a job apparently on the assumption that he was a friend of a hack whose comments in a lightweight newspaper column irritated the suits. It was a bloody awful thing to happen -- I'm not sure which is worse, if he had suffered because we were friends or the fact that we were total strangers. (All these years later, I can't even remember the man's name.) Either way, an entirely innocent man suffered collateral damage for spiteful reasons.
It's a kiss-up-kick-down world. Some people become acclimatised to kissing those above them on the ladder, and kicking those below. And it was the world within which Gerry Ryan lived. Yes, he was paid far too much money. He was hugely popular with listeners and could throw his weight around -- but there were bigger animals in his jungle. Popular broadcasters have been brushed aside before. And much as Ryan was assured that he could walk into a big job elsewhere, there was no guarantee he would be as successful. He could coast along in 2FM, but he was older and fatter, with less energy, and he had to worry if he could really go elsewhere and do it all over again.
That mixture of veneration and fear isn't healthy. You are a giant in a small world -- but it can all vanish very quickly. Maybe some new person upstairs needs to make their mark -- or maybe the public becomes tired of you. Reverence and insecurity in equal measure, huge rewards and consequent fear of the loss of those rewards.
There are people who handle this success easily, and good luck to them. Ryan, it seems, wasn't one of them.
The pressure he was under was as nothing compared to the pressure imposed on so many today -- their jobs gone, their savings gone -- living on a knife edge, forced to pay the debts of bankers and builders.
But Ryan's pressures were nevertheless real. The resulting drug abuse and arrogance perhaps emerged from a mixture of personality, the culture and circumstance.
Last May, the hype was delusional. It wasn't enough that Ryan was exceptionally successful, liked by hundreds of thousands of loyal fans and struck down at an early age. He had to be described as a genius of our time. Equated with Wogan and Byrne, not just in success but in quality. We were told he was "the nation's weather vane", and "a great analyst of the country's affairs".
Really? Is this the Gerry Ryan who in February 2008 urged his listeners to buy property? "Now is your time to go out and buy that house because they're never going to be cheaper. Never going to be cheaper."
We were assured he gave a voice to the voiceless, that he championed the "marginalised and deprived". No, he didn't. He sometimes said the things people in his position are supposed to say. And I suspect it was as sincere as his rants against drug abuse.
He loved hanging out with the wealthy, he was never done boasting about splashing out money. He wallowed in the excesses of the Celtic Bubble and was one of its most prominent cheerleaders.
That doesn't make him evil or worthless, just human -- but there's no need to portray him as a mixture of Tony Gregory and Morgan Kelly.
The second thing that's missed by those who brutally denounce Ryan's drug abuse is this: it killed him. Yes, he was hypocritical. Yes, he collaborated in a criminal enterprise, as do all who abuse drugs -- but it killed him. He paid a dreadful price -- as do so many drug victims.
Maybe a bit of common sympathy is in order, for what the late James Simmons called "another tripped runner in the human race".
Gerry Ryan was a man who had uncommon success on radio -- and had his problems and temptations, as do we all (and, no, for the record, I don't powder my nose).
Like the rest of us, he had his flaws.
Unlike the rest of us, his personal defences were torn away and his shortcomings mercilessly exposed. That is not, surely, a matter for tut-tutting, for outrage, or for witch-hunts against anyone who might have known about his habit, or who was too stunned to respond with instant condemnation.
Rest in peace. But, Gerry, no kidding, those TV shows were really shite.