Whelan's wheel of fortune
Published 02/10/2005 | 00:11
MARTY Whelan and I are out for a late afternoon walk. The Eden-like splendour of St Stephen's Green is broken by the apparition of a young heroin dealer doing brisk business in broad daylight.
Perhaps, in some ways, the shock of seeing smack on sale in the park is nothing compared to the shock of my walking companion being properly returned to the nation's wirelesses after an abominable absence of over a decade.
Uncle Gaybo put it best in a recent 'Log' in this paper: "Marty Whelan has returned in triumph from his RTE Radio purgatory, which is a place or state of punishment where some souls suffer for a time before they enter the heaven of Montrose, on account of they had the brazen cheek to have left the place for Century Radio, 87 years ago."
The rise and fall and rise again of Marty Whelan is one of the great stories of these days. It is a tale laced with public humiliation and schadenfreude, huge successes and mystifying rejections, loss of face - and finally redemption in front of the whole nation.
It is the story of how Marty Whelan survived virtual ruin - and friends turning their backs on him - to come back from a decimated career and become the housewives' favourite, the nabob of gob on afternoon telly and a post-modern Terry Wogan for the Noughties.
Now safely ensconced in the Unicorn, Marty tries to explain his baffling radio exile from RTERadio.
"You'll notice how I am returning to radio after a slight absence of 1991 to 2005. That's 14 years. So there's been no rush on anybody's part - apart from mine - to get back. It was probably people who just felt bitterness, or didn't want to allow me back in because they felt that I'd walked," he says. "There were people like that."
Indeed there were.
When Century Radio went bust in 1991 there was, he says, that awful period when he agonised over whether the people he knew in RTE would take his calls anymore. Some didn't. Whelan's arse was left hanging in the wind for two years. Some appeared to revel in his discomfort.
Did you think there was an element of 'f*** him'?
"Inevitably there was an element of that for a while. I mean, let's face it, there are people who live their lives like that too. I don't let negativity near me. I just don't like negative people - I walk away.
"I don't like confrontation. I don't like to fall out with people. By the way, I don't always want to be liked, either. But I like the ideaof getting on with people."
When the binmen cleaning up Chatham Street issued their 'Howiya Martys' from the back of their rubbish vans, it was easy to see why RTE returning him to the nation's wirelesses after over a decade was such a popular choice. This empathy with people was possibly oneof the reasons John Clarke, headof 2FM, offered Marty his new daily show.
"I don't have any notions about myself, because I'm actually quite ordinary. I just happen to have something that's not that ordinary. What's the point of pretending? And maybe part of that is because I know what it's like when it doesn't happen any more," he says.
"I'd like to think that people generally believe what they see is what they get."
And what do people see?
"I think people see somebody who is quite ordinary in myself. I don't do the airs and graces." His wife would describe him as "warm, generous, caring, loving" - or so he hopes. "I'd like to think she'd describe me as a good father, a good husband and hopefully a good lover - but that's up to her, not me. One can only dream!"
He is self-deprecating and opinionated ("Reality TV is shite! I hate it. I'd go to watch Jane attempt to shag Roger? Why? I can't abide it"). In person, he is hugely endearing - as he proved over the four hours we spent in the Unicorn, The Clarendon and beyond.
When I tell him that the Irish people like him because he has gone through so much pain in public in his career, that they identify with him, he smiles.
"Maybe that's it."
When I tell him that the big job on morning radio is a vindication of sorts - Montrose brought him back because they needed him and he is popular - Marty takes the compliment with a pinch of salt.
He is not frightened it will go wrong anymore, because he can deal with it now. "Or I feel I can."
Judging from what he has been through, Marty's character must have been forged from the toughest metal. He isn't gnawed through with regret. His life could in some ways be summed up by Nietzsche's famous maxim: 'What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.' And Marty's trials and public tribulations have made him stronger.
His life has not followed an easy course. He took the biggest risk of his life in 1989 when he left the security of being a star on RTE for the uncharted waters of Century Radio. Less than two years later, that risk backfired disastrously when the station closed.
Eventually, he pulled his career back together and not only survived but prospered. Though he didn't get any work on radio, he has presented Fame and Fortune on TV every summer, and did the afternoon show Open House for years.
Then, last year, his paymasters in RTE prematurely yanked the plug on Open House, his hugely successful show with Mary Kennedy. Some thought this was done with indecent haste, not long after RTE handed Marty's job as compere of the Rose of Tralee to Ryan Tubridy.
When Century went bust in 1991, he says he was "absolutely isolated, because I had no way of knowing what way I was going to go, or what was going to happen. It was quite a lonely time".
Did he ever feel suicidal at that point?
"No. Why would I do away with myself? What's the point? There were times when the mortgage had to be paid and I found myself thinking: 'My God, there is nothing coming in here.' I was living on my wits, but I never lost faith."
Did you quickly find out who your real friends were?
"Without question, without question. I won't name them, but let's put it this way. I would have had a number of friends in the music business and RTE that I lost along the way. When you aren't of any value to them any more, they disappear.
"I suddenly realised that they weren't friends, they were acquaintances. They disappeared - and some with alarming speed - once I wasn't of any use to them any more."
He and his wife Maria were wondering what they were going to do. "You worry that you have burnt the bridges," he explains. They were, he says, on their "own-ios" with daughter Jessica only one-and-a-half (her brother Thomas arrived in 1993).
An indication of how long ago those bad times were is seen in the fact that Jessica is now 15 and is going to her first disco tonight. She got seven honours in her Junior Cert and is off to celebrate.
This historic occasion has Marty slightly on edge. For Jessica, he says, "this is the real 'growing-up' moment. As her parents, we feel that maybe it's just about us, maybe it's just caution. She's going to a disco tonight where there is no alcohol - but there is outside - and there are the lads. So your mind races. There is that sense of paternal concern, but there is nothing more than that - because she's bright and she's no fool."
THE nation's most popular personality since the aforementioned Gabriel B jokes that he is frightened that Jessica might meet "someone like him". Were that to happen, Marty needn't lose any sleep.
When he met his future wife Maria Dent in 1974, it took him "forever" to ask her out on a date to the Grove in Clontarf. She wasn't his first girlfriend but "pretty close to it". There were, he says cagily, possibly two or three before her.
At 19, he was a year older than she was. Marty nods his head when I ask him was he a virgin when they began dating. Marty might instead have thought of Johnson's saying - that a man is not obliged honestly to answer a question which should not properly be put.
Imagine then, when I ask how it makes him feel that Maria is probably his first and last sexual partner. "Happy out. I'm mad about her, so it's okay. She's the love of my life."
Marty and Maria courted for 10 years before marrying on August 13, 1985. They were both living at home - Maria with her parents Tom and Kathleen in Beaumont, and Marty with John and Lilly in Killester. This made certain physical needs . . . problematic for the young couple.
"They just wouldn't have countenanced it," he says, "either of us coming back to stay in either house for the night together."
So how did you manage the relationship?
"There's always trickery, isn't there? There's always ways." He smiles, but refuses to be drawn. "I don't want to give my children any ideas. Let's just say that the years passed blissfully without any problems in that regard."
It would appear so. They've just returned from Verona where they celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary. The secret of their success, he says, is "there is no secret. You make mistakes, you do the right things. You don't pay attention when you should, you row - you row about mainly silly things.
"We're just happy. We're not happy all the time though. We don't laugh all the time. You don't close the door all the time and go: 'Ha, ha, ha.' Life isn't like that," he adds. Not when you've got two children and a Collie dog named Buddy (Buddy Collie? Don't even go there).
"We're a family that has had ups and downs - and that probably helps bond you too."
His own family bonded for different reasons. He was an only child. But when growing up, he didn't think of himself as lonely. Instead he felt lucky. "You put your toy down, and you came back an hour or so later and it was still there. There wasn't a brother or sister to wreck it, or rob it," he says.
Grounded and at peace with himself, Whelan gives the lie to Freud's claim that only children were likely to have problems with their identity. "Being an only child never caused me - as far as I can tell - any problems," he says. "People would ask if I was lonely - but how would I know? I surrounded myself with a lot of friends. I had a lot of pals at school. So I didn't think of myself as lonely because I didn't have brothers or sisters."
His lone status wasn't for want of trying, as far as his mother Lilly was concerned. She told him years later that she had "lost" babies after him. "I think in my 20s I probably started to ask real questions about how come there is only me. I have no recollection of my mother being down about it, because I have no memory of it happenning, or of there being a loss in her life."
He believes she had three miscarriages, adding that they must have happened in very quick succession and during the years when he was very small. "Otherwise I would have had some memory of it. I am an only child and quite happy in my own company. I can take myself out of situations."
He reflects on whether him being an only child gave him the inner strength to stand alone when Century Radio collapsed and he lost his job on Open House.
"It's like anything else: you don't know you have it until you need it. I suppose I did pull on that - or on any strength I could find . . . "
Whelan had to find all the strength he could when his dear old dad died on August 11, 1998. "I miss him terribly," he tells me. When his father died, Marty played the Enlightenment album by Van Morrison (another only child) all day and night to help him get through it. He always took solace in Morrison's music and quiet contemplation. He even recited See Me Through as a verse by Van Morrison at his dad's funeral:
"See me through one day at
See me through when things
get heavy on my mind
When I'm already gone (my
cup is full)
You can get me through
Bright lights, big city
You can see me through
When I wake up in the
morning I'm gone
And I need a friend to lean
Why don't you see what you
See me through"
Ten days after his dad's funeral, Marty was presenting the Rose Of Tralee - and Van was a guest on the show. The singer came back to the hospitality room and Marty says he thinks he "bored" Van for an hour. They sat and talked about being only children.
"It was one of the most special meetings that I ever had with anybody. I have never forgotten it. I am a respecter of his enormous ability to make me feel a whole range of emotions. I told him about how his music had got me through the death of my father."
Marty reflects for a moment. "The interesting thing Van said at the end of the conversation was [adopts gruff Van voice]: 'You're not a bit like I thought you'd be.'"
I second that emotion.
Marty in the Morning, 2FM, 7am-9am Monday-Friday