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Television review: Heroes, or is it just hero-worship?


Illustration by Jim Cogan

Illustration by Jim Cogan

Illustration by Jim Cogan

The Cambridge dictionary online states that the definition of a "hero" is a person who is "admired for having done something very brave or having achieved something great". Its competitor at Oxford adds that "it [hero] is usually a man". Indeed.

To indulge in "hero-worship" is slightly different; Cambridge says that it is "a feeling of extreme admiration for someone, imagining that they have qualities or abilities that are better than anyone else's". And most certainly, one man's hero is another man's fool - or tyrant or even just too bloody clever for their own good. Which is what came across from a bitter Bertie Ahern during last Tuesday's RTE documentary A Legacy about the life of the late Brian Lenihan Jr. "The more intellectual they are, the more work they don't want to do", scoffed Ahern. Olivia Leary filled us in on why Bertie had a chip on his shoulder where brainy Brian was concerned: "He didn't like the fact that he [Lenihan] played Wagner in the car and knew about art," she said. "It was one of the reasons he didn't promote Brian earlier." No doubt Bass-loving, bookies darling Bertie feels a growing injustice as he watches the legacy of Brian Lenihan outstrip anything he could hope to ever achieve, despite the fact that both were leading members of the government which, arguably, led the country to economic destruction.

Poignantly, we see how important being the first Fianna Fail speaker invited to speak (his father was the first to attend) at the annual Michael Collins commemoration at Beal na mBlath in August 2010, was to Lenihan. He seems conscious of the unique history of the moment as he tells the crowd a story about a room in the Department of Finance where he has spent much time looking at the "pictures on the wall of previous Ministers of Finance. The picture of Collins regularly catches my eye: he is the youngest and, I daresay, the best-looking of us all."

Within one year of his speech at Beal na Mblath, Lenihan had passed away, a casualty of severe illness, which was more than likely exacerbated by the extreme pressures on him in his previous position as Finance Minister - in arguably the most challenging period of Irish history since Collins' time. Whatever the legacy of his economic decisions, there's no doubting that Lenihan's bravery, his battle to do his very best for a beleaguered country right up to the time of his premature death, puts him in the pantheon of Irish heroes - a place Bertie Ahern knows is out of his reach.

Meanwhile, over on BBC1 Irish comedian Dara O Briain who studied mathematics and theoretical physics at UCD, got to meet his own hero, Stephen Hawking, during a charmingly gauche series of intellectual vignettes. After bursting into Hawking's suite at the Savoy, O Briain is then flabbergasted at the actual fact that his hero is there, in all his physical and mental extraordinariness. Embarrassingly for all, O Briain drops to his knees, and after a mangled introduction, stays there, as he waits for Hawking to respond to his effervescence. As Hawking suffers from motor neuron disease, this takes some time, as he produces - via facial muscles which activate his voice machine - an average of one word per minute. It makes for great telly though as the awkwardness of being in the presence of a real hero - who also happens to have a disability - are treated with raw, embarrassing honesty. For the next meeting O Briain has cottoned onto what is needed and sends his - surprisingly challenging - questions to the physicist in advance. By their third meeting, O Briain had it down pat. He would lob a question at Hawking, and then read the paper until it was answered. "I say, I say what's a black hole?" asks the man who discovered pretty much everything we know about them. Poor Dara - despite all his high falutin' education is dumbfounded. "A black hole is what you get in a black sock", answers the genius, much amused at his own comedic contribution. When comedians venture into science it seems only fair that scientists return the favour.

Irish hero Arthur Wellesley - otherwise known to us as the Duke of Wellington, has yet to get a look into the near hagiolotry historian Andrew Roberts ascribes to that great believer in the Rights of Man - Napoleon Bonaparte. In a week when we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Dubliner's troops triumph over the French at Waterloo, one would hope that this admission is corrected in next week's final instalment of BBC2's series Napoleon, but on last week's offering it didn't seem likely. Roberts has a dose of hero-worship which makes O Briain look positively critical. "Impossible Sir?, I do not know the word", he quotes Napoleon as saying when met with opposition to his invasion of Britain. "It is not in the French language. Erase it from your dictionary". (Wellington proved him wrong !). But what seems to be "impossible" is an honest, critical analysis of the Corsican from a hopelessly besotted Roberts. This isn't history - it's hero-worship dressed up as serious revisionism.

Declan Lynch is currently on holidays

Sunday Independent