Entertainment Television

Sunday 22 September 2019

'40 Hiroshimas in 20 hours, and 48 more tomorrow...'

  • Chernobyl (Sky Atlantic)
Nuclear fallout: Emily Watson and Jared Harris in Chernobyl
Nuclear fallout: Emily Watson and Jared Harris in Chernobyl
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

It was Charlie Haughey who told me about Chernobyl. And I don't mean that I was watching TV and Haughey came on to convey to his people the grave news from the Soviet Union, I mean that he actually told me, and a few other people about it, in a room in Leinster House.

But before you start thinking that it would be a regular occurrence for Mr Haughey to be confiding in me in this way, I should explain that this was the only time in my life I had met him, and neither of us had intended it to happen.

I was there to interview the Nicaraguan ambassador, who was being received in the House by my then fellow Hot Press contributor Michael D Higgins.

Nicaragua was uppermost in the minds of all right-thinking Irish people at the time, and Michael D was the go-to guy on this and all other Latin American matters.

Yet Nicaragua was still quite a low priority for all wrong-thinking Irish people, including many who were sitting in the Dail. Which led me to assume that this "lunch" with the ambassador would be in some sort of cafeteria in Leinster House, a modest arrangement.

In fact it turned out to be somewhat more salubrious than that and rightly so - there were several Nicaraguans among the delegation, and several Irish politicians from various parties who supported their cause, so we found ourselves in this elegant room in the House having a kind of dinner in the middle of the day, with wine. Much, much wine.

And so it was, that a few hours later, with the Nicaraguan ambassador interviewed, that a man who can only be described as Charles J Haughey arrived into the room to pay his respects to our visitors - Haughey was not Taoiseach at the time, so perhaps he had more time for issues of foreign affairs.

But before he formally welcomed the Nicaraguans, he felt obliged to bring us some grave news: there had been a fire at a nuclear power plant in the Soviet Union… radiation… too early to tell…

And that is how Charlie Haughey told me about Chernobyl. I confess that the wine was perhaps preventing me from absorbing the full implications of the matter, and in classic Fianna Fail style, Haughey was soon seeing it in much smaller terms, making some quip to Michael D about how he had been right about that bloody nuclear power stuff all the time, and would he not join a proper party where he could do something about it?

I thought of this vignette several times as I was watching Chernobyl, Sky Atlantic's brilliant five-part drama about how it happened and what happened next, around this "accident" which was described by the nuclear expert played by Jared Harris in these terms: "It means the core is open, it means the fire we're watching with our own eyes is giving off nearly twice the radiation released by the bomb in Hiroshima, and that's every single hour, hour after hour, 20 hours since the explosion so 40 bombs' worth by now, 48 more tomorrow, and it will not stop, not in a week, not in a month, it will burn and spread its poison until the entire continent is dead…"

On the upside, this was in episode two of the five, so we had to hope that they'd figure out a way to put a lid on it by the time the credits rolled - not just for Chernobyl, but for planet Earth.

And they'd have to do it operating in rooms and offices that looked alarmingly like what you'd find in run-down parts of Ireland in the 1970s.

Which reminds me of another great Hot Press contributor, Bill Graham, and his line that the old Soviet Union was like "an entire continent being run by the GAA".

He was talking about the obsession with committees and procedures, and the fact that many of the top men of the USSR and the GAA looked strikingly similar.

But it took those 40 Hiroshimas in 20 hours to really make us aware that we are all connected.

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