Sunday 21 April 2019

Gay Byrne gives an interview masterclass

Illustration: Jim Cogan
Illustration: Jim Cogan
Carol Hunt

Carol Hunt

The Meaning of Life with Gay Byrne (RTE1). OCD and ME (RTE1). Abortion: Ireland's Guilty Secret (BBC3).

Unlike the Rev Ian MacNie, newly elected moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Ireland, I don't "feel sorry" for Stephen Fry because "from his position of atheism there is no hope for the future".  No, I feel sorry for him because, in the best tradition of the English upper middle-classes, he was packed off to boarding school by his parents at the criminally young age of seven.

In The Meaning of Life with Gay Byrne, we see how his exile ended in disaster. "Consistent unhappiness" is how Gay Byrne - in a master-class of an interview - described Fry's experience of boarding school. How could he have been expected to handle the loneliness of life away from home so young?

And so at his boarding school Fry articulates his distress through "compulsive thieving". "Tell me about the credit cards and the coat," asks Gay, gently, but with a firm rudder, guiding Fry through the telling of his early diagnosis of bi-polar illness, his arrest for credit card theft and his incarceration in an institution in the wonderfully named Pucklechurch, "not much difference from boarding school", harrumphs Fry drily.

Fry is a forgiving sort though, as well as being a prodigal - he gratefully describes the "deep sense of love" that his mother showed as she brought him his favourite London Times crosswords "cut out very neatly, mother style and [she] pushed them under the bars of the visitor's screen..."

Byrne's brilliance as an interviewer is sometimes dismissed because he knows his craft so well. Like a Bolshoi ballerina, it appears as if he's just nonchalantly going through the paces, yet he presided over probably one of the best interviews Fry has ever delivered. The honest, in-depth revelations about Fry's highs and lows, cocaine abuse, his suicide attempts that he insists were not "cries for help" and his bombastic views on the God he doesn't believe in, made for a tour de force of television.

The following night, again on RTE, mothers and mental illnesses were once more under the spotlight. Both Jacob, a graffiti artist, and his mother Mella, have OCD - or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. In the same way as many of us insist that we all "get depressed" sometimes, it's become commonplace to say "oh yes, I'm a bit OCD" if you like to put away the shopping before you start cooking. But of course, genuine OCD, like depression, is a very different animal.

Obsessions are defined as intrusive thoughts or images, while the compulsion is the action people take to make the thought go away. Jacob, who battles daily with the thought of contamination, is shown suffering severe stress just letting the camera crew into his home. "I'm sorry", he says. "But I can't take you up the stairs - I'm angsty now."

Even six months down the line, he says, "I could touch the place where you touched and I'll feel dirty." His mother Mella, who fears that her thoughts will lead to people getting hurt, is unable to hug, kiss or even touch her son. Over in Sligo, mothers are mentioned again as Eileen, a retired hairdresser, prays repeatedly to prevent her thoughts from harming others. "It started" she says, "at 15, when my mother thought she was going to die. One day I just put the salt down... and I thought, if I just put that down right mammy will be all right when I come home from school... It progressed from there."

We also meet Simon, a radio researcher who developed OCD during his years as a boarder in Clongowes School. The good news is that talking therapy, particularly Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, seems to work very well for most suffered. The bad news is that the vast majority of those who do suffer are so ashamed that they fear to divulge their illness.

It wasn't a mother's shame but the shame of a country who ignore the suffering of women with crisis pregnancies that was the subject of BBC3's Abortion: Ireland's Guilty Secret, last Wednesday. Irishwoman Alys Harte talked to those on both sides of the abortion debate in Ireland. Most scandalously of all - for Ireland - she travelled to London with Cork woman Tara, a pregnant 24-year-old who had not been raped, nor was she carrying a foetus incompatible with life. Bravely, Tara said publicly what so many thousands of Irish woman are scared to admit; it just wasn't right for her to go through with the pregnancy: I feel relieved" she said, when it was over. "And I feel guilty for feeling relieved".

Sunday Independent

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