RTE journalist was not only a great talent, writes Emer O'Kelly, he was a generous, remarkable man and a hero
Published 23/10/2011 | 05:00
There was a time when young men and women starting out in journalism looked up to the older members of the trade, regarding them as role models, even as heroes. The nicer ones among the older generation responded by being endlessly helpful and encouraging to the neophytes. For me, Cathal O'Shannon was one of those heroes: funny, nonchalant, taking the job seriously, but never himself. (Nowadays there is no room for heroes: starter journalists are schooled more in 'self-belief' than respect for experience and regard themselves as qualified to teach the oldies. Cathal was frequently explosive on the subject.)
The director general of RTE Noel Curran paid tribute to him yesterday by saying he was one of the foremost talents of the first 50 years of RTE. Glen Killane, managing director of television, said he will be "fondly remembered". I'm sure they feel that even such generous tributes are inadequate; because they are.
But then, Cathal O'Shannon was a remarkable man as well as a luminous journalist. For a start, he had experienced life: as 16-year-olds in 1945, he and the late Fred O'Donovan (former chair of the RTE Authority and director of the Gaiety Theatre) ran away to Britain and enlisted in the RAF by means of forged papers.
Training as a rear gunner followed, but the war ended in Europe and Cathal was posted to Burma, where the action the adventure-seeking teenager had sought was horribly adulterated by the slaughter he witnessed, and never forgot.
Cathal settled in London after the war, where he met and married Patsy Dyke, who many years later was also to become a luminary on the Dublin journalism scene. When they returned to Dublin after the BBC axed the Tonight programme, he worked in The Irish Times but it is as a TV journalist that he is remembered and revered. In a perhaps more courageous era, his attitude was "f**k the libel actions" and his employers gave rein to that attitude when the cause seemed to merit it. (Admittedly it was before a time when the victim and confessional culture became triumphant, with subsequent ludicrous awards being made by juries.)
The documentaries for which he is best remembered set out to upset the smug apple-cart of national consensus, and usually succeeded much to his combined glee and satisfaction.
Even the Olives Are Bleeding, his 1976 work on Irish participation in the Spanish Civil War, forced official Ireland to face its consuming passion for right-wing authoritarianism, the form of nationalism which continued in popular, if not official attitudes, during the Second World War, and the open welcome we gave to fleeing, suspect Nazis following that Holocaust. It took the tenacious Cathal O'Shannon a while to be allowed to turn over that particular stone, but he did so in Ireland's Nazis in 2007, naming people to whom official Ireland had given status and a damn good livelihood while ignoring their unsalubrious origins and reasons for settling here. In between, he had left RTE to work as public affairs director in Limerick for the American firm Aughinish.
The trigger, he said at the time, was "looking at my 12-year-old car and realising it was going to be my f**kin' 20-year-old car if I didn't do something". It was the money. Although he had the honesty never to whinge about the move out of the trade he was passionate about.
And when he reached 'retirement age', he began anew in television journalism, with much more devastatingly good work still to come.
His early years saw a lot of wild drinking, and a fair amount of womanising, although his devotion to Patsy never wavered. She died in 2006, and he was devastated. But despite their inseparable lifestyle, I wondered (now it can be written) if he knew that Patsy too had been unfaithful? If he did, he never said so publicly.
But right into old age, he was an outrageous flirt: I said to him only a few years ago how flattered I had been that such a god-like senior figure had paid attention to me when I was starting out. "For Chrissake," he exploded "I wanted to get into your knickers; we all did. And I still do." And he roared with laughter.
His and Patsy's house on Anglesea Road in Donnybrook was a haven of laughter, good company, and good food and wine. He was the cook, and he was also a keen wine buff: he chaired the wine committee in the St Stephen's Green Club for years. And it made him extremely grumpy to find after cancer surgery that he could no longer digest wine: he took to a lethally strong lager, although only in small quantities, as small as his appetite for food after the removal of most of his stomach.
The surgery also had the effect of making his bird-like frame seem almost transparent in the last years of his life.
But he retained his spirit: one of his favourite stories was about the night before major surgery, the result of which was entirely uncertain, and the (uninvited) priest who came to his room asking if he'd like to receive "the sacrament of the sick". He agreed, although he pointed out that it was many a long year since he had practised any religion. "Jaysus," he said, "next thing I knew I was getting the bleedin' last rites. They were lucky I lasted 'til morning, I was so petrified!"
But it was Patsy's death that "finished" him as he said, sadly and flatly. Her death took all the joy out of his life. Always "a crotchety bugger" as he said himself, grief now seemed to weigh him down, and he became disinclined for company, even suffering panic attacks if he went out in the evening, even in the company of good friends.
It took his close friend the RTE producer Paul Cusack to persuade him to talk about himself for a documentary in 2008. Paul hoped it would preserve Cathal's spirit for posterity; it did, but only part of it, because it is overwhelmingly sad, and it seems not to have been possible to shake him from the lethargy of regret, which after a lifetime when he seemed eternally young, now reduced him in only his early eighties to what seemed like extreme old age.
I don't want to remember Cathal that way: I want to remember sitting at my own dining table with him on one side of me, the artist Louis Le Brocquy on the other. Two incredibly different people, the former young airman and the committed pacifist, the elegant, reserved troubadour and the mischievous, foul-mouthed raconteur: and across the table amid gentle chuckles from Louis and raucous laughter from Cathal, they exchanged hours of reminiscence of the Dublin they had known in the 1950s. It was unforgettable.