Wednesday 29 July 2015

They are gone but not forgotten

Published 28/12/2003 | 00:11

IT IS inevitable as we ease further into the 21st century that every year we lose more and more of the people who defined the latter half of the 20th. As we celebrate the birth of a new year, it is worth taking a moment out to remember this year's dead and their achievements.

The world of music lost many greats this year. 'Professor' Peter O'Brien was remembered not only as one of Ireland's foremost jazz musicians but also as a versatile performer who played classical music with equal gusto, with everyone from Mary Coughlan to Cara O'Sullivan. A classically trained pianist, he first heard the music of Fats Waller while studying in Paris, and fell in love with Harlem stride piano playing, with which he was associated for the rest of his life. As a jazzman he worked alongside people such as George Melly and Stephane Grappelli, and as a theatrical musician he worked with everyone who was anyone in Irish theatre, including Rosaleen Linehan and Des Keogh on their famous revues, Anna Manahan, and Agnes Bernelle. He was diagnosed with cancer in May and worked on until he died on October 31. He was remembered as a humorous, kind and good-natured man.

The Irish jazz world also bade a fond goodbye to John 'The Wad' Wadham, a father figure in Irish jazz who taught and inspired generations of musicians. The Wad himself was self-taught, having given up an engineering degree in Trinity to pursue a career as a prolific freelance drummer, working in the big bands of Noel Kelehan and Jim Doherty, winning best soloist at the Montreux Jazz Festival, and playing with several international legends while always choosing to stay in Ireland. Those who knew him remembered the posh accent, the whiskers and pipe, and the odd pastimes - birdwatching and butterfly collecting. He died in September, leaving behind a slim recorded legacy but a vast spiritual one.

Johnny Cash was mourned by music lovers of his own generation and of several other generations. In the latter stages of his life he had enjoyed a huge renaissance through the American Recordingsseries, four sparse, dignified albums of covers and old standards recorded, strangely, with rap and heavy metal producer Rick Rubin.

The young Cash came out of the Sun Records stable. His mentor there, the man who also discovered Elvis Presley, was Sam Phillips. Phillips died this year too, succumbing to respiratory failure in August, aged 80. While often regarded as a country artist, Cash was anything but your typical country crooner. His music of the murderous, the devout and the profane was atypical in the world of Nashville, as was his hellraising lifestyle, which involved as many amphetamines as it did bottles of whiskey. The devout side of his nature would come to the fore even more when he married his second wife, June Carter, a member of a famous, and religious, country music dynasty. Carter was Johnny's partner in music as in life, and she worked hard to clean up the Man in Black. After some years of schmaltz, bad TV movies and whatnot, Cash enjoyed a creative and critical revival in the last two decades of his life. Johnny survived June Carter Cash by only a few months. She died in May after heart surgery. Despite subjugating her career to that of Johnny for many years prior to her death, June had been a country star in her own right, performing with her famous family and with the likes of Elvis Presley. She was also an actress, a writer and a songwriter, co-writing Johnny's Ring of Fire. But inevitably it is as Johnny's wife and keeper that she is often remembered.

The word diva is thrown about rather indiscriminately these days, but Nina Simone was a true diva, worshipped by the audiences whom she lorded over. A talented pianist as a youngster, Simone originally planned to become the first great black classical pianist. However, when she furthered her classical studies at Juilliard in New York the reality of the racial homogeneity of the classical world began to dawn on her and she became a blues and jazz artist, making her name initially with haunting love songs and then, during the black civil rights movement in the Sixties, with protest songs.

In latter years Simone's behaviour had become increasingly bizarre and she was in trouble for everything from leaving the scene of a car accident to shooting off firearms in public in a scatter-gun manner. Performances became more scatter-gun too and there were rumours of drug abuse. Nina Simone died in April, aged 70.

Two disco icons of very different kinds died this year. Barry White, the so called Walrus of Love, succumbed to ill-health, leaving, they say, a legacy of a whole generation conceived to the strains of his music.

What was remarkable about Maurice Gibb's death was not that he died of a heart attack at the relatively young age of 53 but that he was still a member of a functioning and relevant pop group at that age. As a Bee Gee, Maurice enjoyed three distinct pop careers: one in the Sixties, another after the Bee Gees' reformation in the Seventies at the forefront of the disco boom, and another in the Nineties when the Gibbs re-emerged as elder statesmen of pop, and prolific producers of hits for the likes of Dolly Parton and Diana Ross. However, Maurice eventually succumbed to his longterm drink problem, one made worse by the death of his brother Andy in 1988. He died on January 12.

Songwriter Elliott Smith took his own life in October. The singer had a history of drugs and depression, and his infinite sadness was reflected in his despairing music. He had apparently been fighting with his girlfriend when he died.

The original wide boy, Adam Faith, died as he lived when he had a heart attack in March, aged 62. He died in a hotel room in the company of a 23-year-old girl. Faith's BudgieTV character practically invented the well-dressed London street hustler archetype which still endures. And his own life was no less colourful. He won and lost fortunes in pop music, TV, stage and stock market as he enjoyed success and failure as an actor, a teen idol, a music industry guru and even a financial guru. He was fondly remembered by lads, and by quite a few ladies.

We also lost many actors this year, both at home and abroad. Pat Leavy enjoyed a hugely successful stage career playing such iconic roles as the Widow Quinn. However, it is from her role as Hannah in Fair City that most people will remember her, or perhaps for her stint in The Riordans. She also appeared in such films as The Commitments and The Butcher Boy. She always said she would work till she dropped, and true to form, just a fortnight before she died in April, aged 66, she completed her final feature film, Spin the Bottle. Abbey actress Fedelma Cullen died in November, aged 55. As much as she was remembered as a prolific stage actress and for her TV and film work, she was also known as the partner of actor Donal McCann, to whose turbulent life she was said to have brought a great stability.

In Britain, former Co-op checkout girl-cum-national institution Dame Thora Hird passed away at 91, having lost none of her gumption in later life. While she will always be associated with the works of Alan Bennett and John Osborne she was well known from films and television. But she never lost the common touch of the checkout girl: her impression of Hollywood was that it was perfect for a holiday but there was no corner shop.

The world stage lost a few old troupers too. It is testament to how long Bob Hope hung in there that many of the men who had written his obituaries for major newspapers were said to have died before him. He was fondly remembered by a certain generation as America's court jester (he was a favourite and a pal of many US presidents) and as the man who cheered America up during and after the last great war. Coming up through vaudeville, Hope spent his golden years in the movies, and is best remembered for the Roadmovies with Bing Crosby. From the Sixties on he was known for TV specials and for hosting the Oscars. He died in August, aged 100.

Katharine Hepburn won a record four Oscars out of 12 nominations. But more than that, and more than the 50 movies she left behind, she was mainly remembered as being an original in Hollywood and one who inspired huge public affection. Unlike many of the starlets of her day Hepburn was tough, practical, sporty - a well-brought-up New Englander to whom politics mattered more than personal indulgence.

She was remembered too as one half of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. On screen they enjoyed huge success in movies such as State of the Union; offscreen she nursed him through ongoing alcoholism and depression. It was said, however, that the love of her life was John Ford, and she was involved with Howard Hughes for a time too. Not bad for an intelligent woman who was neither blonde nor busty. She died in June, aged 96.

Irish-American actor Gregory Peck was another uncharacteristically serious Hollywood star. Like Hepburn he was also a lover of causes, standing up against things like the Vietnam War and McCarthyism. Best known for his Oscar-winning role in To Kill a Mockingbird, Peck also starred in movies as diverse as Roman Holidayand The Guns of Navarone. He was much loved here, and in his latter years nearly became US ambassador to Ireland, but Lyndon Johnson, who had promised him the job, didn't get a second presidential term. Peck died in June, aged 87.

On a different note entirely there was Charles Bronson. In a career defined by playing red Indians at the beginning and playing the same monotonously violent and uncommunicative character for most of his successful years, Bronson was, however, hugely successful, with audiences reacting to his craggy, Neanderthal charm. He died in August, aged 81, having struggled with Alzheimer's for a while before his death.

Some of those who choose the life less ordinary choose it not to entertain us but to take other lonely paths, paths that can be selfless, inspiring and difficult. Valerie Goulding was the daughter of an English viscount and MP. She came to Ireland for Fairyhouse races when she was 20 and met Sir Basil Goulding, of the fertiliser business. She married Sir Basil and came to live in Ireland. But Lady Goulding was not content to sit around and enjoy the good life, so she began doing some charity work. With fitness instructor Kathleen O'Rourke she set up the Dublin Remedial Clinic to help in the physical rehabilitation of polio victims. From Kathleen O'Rourke's flat, where Lady Goulding would drop off and collect sick children from around the slums of Forties Dublin, the clinic grew to become a national centre for the treatment of disabled children. Lady Goulding flirted with politics later in her life but despite a brief stint in Seanad Eireann it never really took off for her. She died in July, aged 85.

It is not difficult to imagine what Dick Walsh would have thought of the recent carry-on at the Irish Times. One of the many campaigns undertaken by this fiercely committed journalist and commentator was reform of the Irish Times Trust. In a career that spanned everything from PR man travelling the country encouraging farmers to use more fertiliser, to campaigning for Irish builders in London, Walsh is best known for his fearless commentary on Charlie Haughey's Fianna Fail and anywhere else he felt corruption lived. Having suffered from a debilitating back condition for many years, Dick Walsh died in March, aged 65, and was remembered fondly and respectfully, even by some of his greatest antagonists in the Dail.

Gunnar Rugheimer was the man who brought Gay Byrne home from Britain. With Muiris Mac Conghail he also established a tradition of largely independent current affairs in RTE. As controller of programmes in the early Telefis Eireann, he introduced John Healy's Hurler on the Ditch, and Division, the first current affairs programme on which Irish politicians agreed to appear, having resisted the idea vehemently before that. Rugheimer faced opposition from churchmen and politicians as he struggled to establish Telefis Eireann as a journalistic force. It was, however, said to be resentment that a foreigner should be in charge of the new TV station which eventually drove him from the job after four years. He died on February 21, aged 79.

Christabel Bielenberg died on November 2, aged 94. Bielenberg, though English by birth, always considered herself Irish by nature, and after World War II came to live in Ireland where she wrote her celebrated memoir The Past Is Myself. The book told of her life in Hitler's Germany, where her husband was a civil servant who worked as part of the internal resistance to the Nazi regime. She herself was always vehemently opposed to the Nazis, and she sheltered Jews during the war. After the war she became the Observer's fearless German correspondent, before settling in Ireland, where she continued her political life in the peace movement.

And then of course there were the characters, the eccentrics and oddballs who brought a smile to their public though they were probably impossible to live with. Sir Paul Getty's life was proof that if money can't buy you love, it can sometimes put a down payment on redemption. The heir to some of the Getty family oil millions, Sir Paul spent much of the early part of his life as a ne'er-do-well and a hippie. The descent of his second wife Talithat Pol from society beauty to addict, and her subsequent death from drugs, seems to have marked a turning point in Getty's life. He fled America for England and spent a long time and a lot of money curing his own addictions. Phase two of his life involved becoming the quintessential English gent. A country estate dweller and cricket fan, Getty became a philanthropist, and doled out huge sums from his ever-increasing fortune to everything from the arts to striking miners. British obituaries noted that it was in becoming British that the tormented heir had finally found peace.

Major Ron Ferguson will be best remembered for the unfortunate triple whammy of being Sarah Ferguson's father, of been caught up in a very public massage parlour scandal and for well-publicised extra-marital affairs. It is unfortunate for him that he didn't live to see the final disgrace of the royal family in the latter part of this year, having died in March, aged 81.

Denis Thatcher was generally acknowledged after his death to have been a good husband to the Iron Lady and a wise counsel. Unfortunately, he will be best remembered for a fondness for the booze and for putting his foot in it; a right-wing golf-club dinosaur in an increasingly politically correct world. He died in June, aged 88, and was fondly recalled by most.

Not since the man who invented jogging dropped dead while out jogging was there such Schadenfreude as when Dr Robert Atkins, inventor of the Atkins diet, suffered a heart attack in 2002. However, Dr Atkins's detractors did not have the satisfaction of seeing him dying from his heart condition. The 72-year-old eventually died after a fall outside his New York clinic in April. It was the year in which the Atkins diet would resurface as an international phenomenon. The good doctor's death has done nothing to damage the popularity of the diet which he invented in order to lose weight himself as a portly young doctor.

Captain James Kelly was the army officer at the centre of the importation of arms for the IRA in 1970. When he died in July he finally got the vindication for which he had fought so hard, when Bertie Ahern said that "he acted on what he believed were the proper orders of his superiors." Kelly had long maintained that he was the fall guy for minister Jim Gibbons in the Arms Trial and that he was only following orders when he arranged for the arms to be imported. He was 73 and still fighting when he died.

Roy Jenkins died in January, aged 82. He was a journalist, biographer, autobiographer, a hugely successful politician in many guises and a bon vivant. The consummate left-of-centre outsider, this son of the "working-class squirearchy" was just as comfortable being an establishment figure. While he failed in many of his projects, his enduring legacy will be that he led Britain in Europe in many senses and also managed to leave a huge mark on the EU.

Beer lovers possibly mourned the passing of Joseph Coors of brewery fame in March. Left-wingers did not, however, and even in his obituaries Coors was castigated as one of the men who "bought" the White House for Ronald Reagan in 1980. He died aged 85, leaving behind a turbulent business career and his younger, second wife Anne; he had divorced his first, Edith, in 1987 after 46 years of marriage.

The grande dame of American fashion, Eleanor Lambert, died in October in New York. She is credited with selling the idea of American fashion to the world, not least with her infamous Best Dressed List. In this country she was known as the woman who promoted Irish designer Sybil Connolly. Indeed she loved Ireland, spending Christmas here for many years, when she would dine with the Iveaghs at Farmleigh before heading to the carol service at St Patrick's Cathedral. She was 100 when she died.

Paraic 'Jock' Haughey was remembered as the brother of Charlie Haughey and a fine sportsman who played both football and hurling at inter-county level, winning an All Ireland football medal for Dublin. However, he was best remembered for his role in the Arms Trial of 1970 when he was accused of being deeply involved in the plot to import IRA arms into Dublin. He brazened it out and essentially got off on a technicality. He was remembered, too, as a character, and a man who was fiercely loyal to his brother, the disgraced Taoiseach.

We lost some rather more unsavoury characters too. Idi Amin might have seemed like a cartoon caricature of an African dictator had it not been for the very real fact that he killed between 80,000 and 300,000 people during his brutal regime. Amin seized power in Uganda in 1972. He started as he meant to continue, by wiping out several leading political and social figures. Over the next decade or so he would pursue a reign of terror based on mystical dreams and Islam, reserving particular hatred for Israel and Britain. He died in August aged 78, having apparently made his way through six wives, many more mistresses and having had an alleged 32 children. Diana Mosley, the woman who went on Desert Island Discs, played Ride of the Valkyries and said she couldn't regret her friendship with Hitler because "it was too interesting", died in August. A celebrated beauty, Mosley was sister to the novelist Nancy Mitford. After a brief marriage to one of the Guinnesses she took up with fascist Oswald Mosley, whom she ultimately married. She and her husband became pals and business partners of Hitler and ended up spending the war in Holloway Prison - albeit in a little cottage in the prison, where they kept a nice little market garden. She was 93 when she died.

Leni Riefenstahl might simply have been remembered as a great film-maker if her first film hadn't won an admirer in Adolf Hitler, leading her to use the Nazi party as subject matter, most notoriously in Triumph of the Will. Thus Riefenstahl's extraordinarily powerful cinema is never mentioned without a reference to her being a Nazi propagandist, though she was never a member of the Nazi party and was cleared in court of active involvement. She died in September, aged 101.

There can't be many bank officials who go on to become hugely important artists, but Tony O'Malley, the son of a Singer sewing machine salesman and a shopkeeper from Kilkenny, did just that. After years of painting in secrecy, concerned that he'd be ridiculed by colleagues in the Munster & Leinster Bank, the self-taught O' Malley was convinced by a combination of ill-health and finally meeting some like-minded people to come out of the artistic closet fully as he hit his 60s. In the Seventies his reputation grew and he came to be recognised as one of the most important Irish artists of the 20th century. He died on January 20.

The horseracing community was deeply saddened by the deaths of two young men who dedicated their lives to bringing the rest of us joy and excitement. Jockey Kieran Kelly was just 25 when he died in August as a result of head injuries sustained in a fall at Kilbeggan races. Kelly had tasted victory at the highest level on Hardy Eustace at Cheltenham and had ridden a winner just an hour and a half before the fall that killed him. His friend Ruby Walsh summed him up by saying simply that "Kieran was a proper man and a proper jockey."

Just a few months later, 21-year-old Sean Cleary died after he sustained head injuries in an accident in a race in Galway. Cleary was one of the country's finest apprentice jockeys, and had ridden 33 winners in his short career before his mount All Heart clipped heels with another horse in Galway and went down. The tragedy was exacerbated by the fact that his girlfriend, Maggie Farrell, gave birth to a baby as the baby's father lay dying.

Another man who died doing his job, and before his time, was Lance-Corporal Ian Keith Malone of the Irish Guards, who was killed in action in Iraq on April 6. The 28-year-old from Ballyfermot was shot in the head by a sniper in Basra. He was remembered as a fine young man with a great sense of humour, a chess player and a Metallica fan. His summing-up of his membership of the British army, captured in an RTE documentary shortly before he died, was, "People go on about Irishmen dying for freedom and all that. That's a fair one. They did. But they died to give men like me the freedom to choose what to do."

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