Wednesday 22 January 2020

Donal Lynch: 'Remembering those we loved and lost' in the cultural firmament this year

We have lost some of the brightest stars in the cultural firmament this year. Donal Lynch pays tribute to just a few of them

Gay Byrne
Gay Byrne
Gloria Vanderbilt
Ulick O'Connor
Doris Day
Clive James
Gary Rhodes
Toni Morrison
Andre Previn
Brendan Grace
Nika McGuigan
Niall Toibin
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

There's a strange phantom grief that takes us over when a famous person dies. We project our desires and our memories onto them. And when they're gone we can demarcate the era and have the collective catharsis of crying together - for them and for our own private reasons.

Perhaps this was never clearer in 2020 than with the passing of Gay Byrne.

In November the Pope of Irish broadcasting was gathered to God at the age of 85 - and his death induced a national pageant of grief that dominated the airwaves and headlines.

Gaybo was rightly credited with having ushered in a new era in Ireland, The Late Late Show having served as a sort of town hall on social issues.

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His skill as an interviewer gave us some of the most memorable moments in Irish television - from Pee Flynn to Terry Keane - and his long- running radio programme made him the voice of the nation.

In 2011 Gay had been approached to run for the presidency and declined - despite leading all opinion polls. In death, this hardly seemed to matter as he was accorded what was in all but name a State funeral.

Two more giants of Irish stage and screen also passed this year: Brendan Grace and Niall Toibin.

Grace (68), who died in July, was a national treasure. Born in Dublin's Liberties on 1 April, 1951, he said that being born on April Fool's Day meant he was destined to be a clown.

Although probably best known for his comedy schoolboy character 'Bottler', Grace also starred as Murphy in the 1995 film Moondance and as the cleric Fr Fintan Stack in the Father Ted TV series - a role that brought his comedy to a new generation of fans.

Niall Toibin was a formidable Cork man, best known for roles in Ryan's Daughter, Bracken and Ballykissangel.

A renowned raconteur and talented comedian, his depiction of Brendan Behan on stage and screen was legendary. President Michael D Higgins said: "The depth of interpretation he brought to a wide variety of characters showed a very deep intellectual understanding and, above all, sensitivity to the nuance of Irish life." He died in November at the age of 89, just a week shy of his 90th birthday.

Lyra McKee, the Derry-born journalist, was gunned down by the Real IRA in April at the age of 29.

In her work, McKee unearthed tales of forgotten victims whose deaths had been eclipsed by larger atrocities and massacres.

She looked at the stories of young men and women alienated from peace and political arrangements designed to bring the Troubles to a lasting end. So it was a terrible irony she should have died due to the actions of some of those same individuals.

Since her death a mural featuring her image has been unveiled in Orlando, Florida, and her second book, Lost, Found, Remembered will be released next year.

Ireland lost another journalistic giant this year in Kate Holmquist. Throughout her career, the American-born features writer showed herself to be a sensitive observer of human nature.

She never shied away from difficult topics and her stories on Irish adoption rights in The Irish Times were some of the more memorable pieces of Irish journalism in the 1990s.

"At the record company meeting, on their hands at last a dead star," Morrissey sang in Paint a Vulgar Picture - and the death of Roxette's Marie Fredriksson ignited a rush of nostalgia buying that briefly pushed It Must Have Been Love back into the upper echelons of the charts.

As the lead singer with the Swedish group, Fredriksson's distinctive voice dominated the charts in the 1990s and provided the most memorable part of the soundtrack to the movie Pretty Woman.

Her health had long been in decline. In 2002 she was diagnosed with a brain tumour and it was a recurrence of that condition that eventually claimed her life in December.

In September, cult American singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston died of a suspected heart attack aged 58, while in March another music legend, Keith Flint of The Prodigy, died suddenly at the age of 49. His bandmates remembered, "a true pioneer, innovator and legend. He will be forever missed."

Clive James had a career that straddled high- and low-brow culture. The Australian journalist was a literary critic with The Observer for a decade but it was for his laconic broadcasting style that he was best remembered.

He fronted chat shows and travelogues and ITV gave him a show called Clive James on Television, which showed a series of offbeat TV clips from around the world.

A lifetime of smoking and drinking culminated in a diagnosis of emphysema and kidney failure in 2010 and a year later he announced he had leukaemia.

In a 2012 interview, he told BBC radio he was "near the end", saying: "I don't want to cast a gloom, an air of doom, over the programme but I'm a man who is approaching his terminus." In fact he hung on until November of this year.

Much like James, Ulick O'Connor was something of a polymath. His extensive oeuvre encompasses poetry, biography, history and criticism.

Several of his plays were performed at the Abbey, where he also sat on the board of directors for many years and contributed a popular poetry column to the Evening Herald, one of several newspapers he wrote for.

The death of Gay Byrne and the tributes that followed were also a reminder of a time when O'Connor seemed to have a semi-permanent residency on The Late Late Show panel.

And if Gay was all but beatified in his passing, Ulick wasn't far behind. At his funeral Mass in Dublin he was compared with Cardinal John Henry Newman, who was canonised shortly thereafter.

Like O'Connor, Andre Previn's career spanned eras and genres. He was an Oscar-winning composer equally well respected in the rarefied world of classical music. Despite receiving a knighthood, German-born Previn poured cold water on the idea that his passage through life had always been so gilded. "Those of you who think that being a conductor is a succession of limousines and mistresses - it isn't", he once said. "It's being some place not long enough to have your laundry done and having to work it out."

Some celebrities seem to go too soon. When others go, there is widespread surprise that they were still alive.

So it was with Doris Day, the box-office icon, who died in May, aged 97. It seemed scarcely credible she had still been with us.

On screen she tartly put men in their place and depicted the worldwide female march into the workplace in such light-hearted movies as Pillow Talk (1959) and Lover Come Back (1961). She received her only Academy Award nomination for Pillow Talk.

"Her persona hit a cultural mother lode, tapping into what the average postwar woman was about," Drew Casper, a film professor, told The Times. She "was way ahead of her time, a feminist before there was feminism".

Other stars of the screen to pass this year include Luke Perry (52), best known for his starring role in Beverly Hills, 90210; the charismatic star of British stage and screen, Albert Finney (82); Blade Runner star Rutger Hauer (75); and Rip Torn (88).

Peter Fonda died in August at the age of 79. The actor, director, and screenwriter was the son of Henry Fonda, brother of Jane Fonda, and father of Bridget Fonda.

Closer to home, Ireland lost two bright young stars of the acting world. Karl Shiels (47), probably best known for his TV role in Fair City, was a huge presence on the Irish theatre scene. Brigie de Courcy of RTE said: "Karl was extraordinary. He was a force of nature...he came in [to Fair City] roaring. He was a wonderful, wonderful actor."

And in July, Danika McGuigan died at the age of just 33 following a short illness. The daughter of boxing star Barry McGuigan, she played Danielle in RTE's Can't Cope Won't Cope among other well-received roles. Writer and director Niall McKay described her as "a great actress and a beautiful person".

America lost one of its greatest writers in Toni Morrison. Winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, a Pulitzer Prize and recipient of the American Presidential Medal of Freedom, Morrison spent the early part of her career toiling in literary obscurity but came to prominence in the 1970s when her work focussed on the experiences of women in the black community.

Her books The Bluest Eye, Beloved, Paradise and Love also led to Morrison winning the National Book Critics' Circle Award - and an impressive roster of admirers including Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Marlon Brando and Oprah Winfrey, who adapted Morrison's novel Beloved for the screen.

The fashion world lost Karl Lagerfeld (85), the designer who defined luxury fashion, in February. While in the world of entertainment, comedian Freddie Starr (76) died in May, and larger-than-life racing commentator John McCririck (79) died in July. Our own Arthur Murphy, for many years the presenter of RTE's Mailbag, died at the age of 90 in February. Born in Dublin, Murphy moved to London in the late 1950s to follow his dreams of becoming a pop star. In 1957, producer George Martin, who would go on to produce The Beatles, gave Murphy a recording contract. On his return to Ireland he became a much-loved fixture at RTE.

Gary Rhodes was one of a number of celebrity chefs who have attempted to make a go of restaurants in Dublin: his business opened in 2006 and closed three years later as the economic crash decimated the hospitality industry here.

In another era maybe he would have had a better chance of success - but Rhodes's timing was not always so unfortunate. A former commis chef, he was still in his 20s when he had his first big break in television and went on to front several successful series for the BBC. Several of his restaurants also won Michelin stars and he co-presented the US version of Masterchef.

Gloria Vanderbilt, a daughter of the famous American dynasty and the original Poor Little Rich Girl, died in June.

Throughout her life, Vanderbilt made a name for herself as an actress, fashion designer, artist and author, but her time in the spotlight began at birth.

She was at the centre of a torrid custody battle between her aunt and her mother - described in one report as "cocktail crazy and man obsessed" - which was eventually won by the aunt.

Still in her teens, she moved to Hollywood and dated a string of famous movie stars, including Errol Flynn. As an adult in the 1970s, Vanderbilt launched a line of fashions, perfumes and a much-coveted line of jeans which bore her name.

She was the mother of the CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, who broke the news of her passing shortly after her death

Vanderbilt's death was called the end of an era stateside but perhaps her death, like those of many prominent people, merely serves as a marker for our own lifetimes.

It is when we experience the personal grief of an empty chair in our family or circle of friends that we truly know that the loss of a well-known person, while a handy barometer for knowing where we were in a given year, can never compare to the fading of one of the stars in our own sky.

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