Monday 19 March 2018

Farewell to the great and good of this world

This year saw the passing of a host of famous names and beloved faces from all walks of life, writes Donal Lynch

From Beverly Hills to west Kerry, and from Dublin to Australia, the loss of a series of famous faces and influential figures in 2012 has left empty spaces in the worlds of music, words and sport.

Whitney Houston was the biggest star of 2012 to depart this mortal coil and her life seemed tailor-made for a tear-jerking posthumous montage. She even had an Olympic song in an Olympic year – her theme for the 1988 Games in Seoul ran on a loop after her death in February. The crisp, clear notes on that track provided a contrast to the raspy ruin that her voice later became. By that time the drug-addled diva had already given up much of her dignity (remember her telling Bobby Brown that she needed to "poop a poop" on their reality show?) but she was pop royalty to her core both in terms of birth (she was a cousin of Dionne Warwick) and talent.

With only slight exaggeration, the same could be said of Donna Summer, who died in May. The Queen of Disco had also had a troubled life – she had attempted suicide in 1976 – but shortly after recorded I Feel Love, an anthem that would influence dance music for the next two decades. She enjoyed success post-disco and unlike Whitney, lived to be a grandmother.

It could have been that there was a heavenly roll call of disco-era greats in 2012 because in May Robin Gibb died after a long battle with cancer. As part of the the Bee Gees, Gibb achieved lasting fame with Stayin' Alive, How Deep Is Your Love, Night Fever and More Than a Woman – each featuring the band's distinctive falsetto vocals and harmonies. Together with his fellow Bee Gees, Robin Gibb sold over 200 million records – a feat that is likely to remain unmatched in the digital age.

Irish music lost two of its own legends in 2012 as Barney McKenna of the Dubliners and Martin Fay of The Chieftains were both gathered to God. McKenna, the only surviving founder member of the Dubliners, was known as 'The Beethoven of the Banjo' and with his bandmates had an enormous impact on the Irish ballad tradition.

Fay had been ill for some time before his death in November and had not performed with The Chieftains for over a decade. He was a classically trained fiddler who had played in an orchestra at the Gaiety and Abbey theatres and played on the Oscar-winning score of Stanley Kubrick's film Barry Lyndon. As one of the co-founders of The Chieftains, he had performed in virtually every major venue across the world and collaborated with other greats of Irish music ranging from Van Morrison to Sinead O'Connor.

The year of 2012 was not a banner year for journalism. Most media outlets continued to haemorrhage money. The phone hacking scandal and Leveson Inquiry as well as the nude photos of Kate Middleton brought press ethics both here and in Britain into sharp focus.

But last winter we were reminded of the good that talented journalists can bring about. In January Seamus McConville, former editor of The Kerryman died in Tralee, having penned his last ever 'My Town' column just the previous Christmas. Throughout his storied career, McConville worked on all the major stories in the southwest both in his role as reporter for The Kerryman and as RTE correspondent, including the murder of Moss Moore in north Kerry that inspired John B Keane to write The Field. He was a driving force in the early years of the Rose of Tralee festival and was also a key figure in the foundation of Siamsa Tire, the national folk theatre.

Also in January we said goodbye to renowned Irish Times columnist and broadcaster Mary Raftery. She was probably best known for the 1999 States of Fear documentary series that revealed the extent of physical and sexual abuse suffered by children in industrial schools managed by religious orders on behalf of the State. The documentary led to the setting up of the Ryan Commission and to Bertie Ahern apologising on behalf of the State to the victims of abuse in industrial schools.

After leaving RTE in 2002, Raftery began writing a widely read column for The Irish Times and began teaching at the centre for Media Studies in Maynooth. In 2010 her play, No Escape, based on the Ryan Report, was put on at the Peacock theatre in Dublin. Describing her own work, she said "the most important thing you can do is to give a voice to people who have been silenced. And ... what else would I be doing?"

Padraic Fallon, a former journalist with The Irish Times, the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror made that rare transition from financial journalist to financial whizz. Fallon transformed the magazine Euromoney into one of the most respected and authoritative voices on banking and finance, and in doing so, placed himself at the centre of a publishing fortune now worth more than €1bn. The Wexford-born, Blackrock College-educated personality also wrote three novels and resigned from the board of AIB in 2007 because of concerns over the bank's reckless lending policies.

In February, the former editor of the Connacht Tribune and award-winning political commentator John Cunningham died. The Tuam native won a National Journalist Of The Year Award in 1979 and in addition to the Connacht Tribune also edited the Waterford News and Star and lectured on NUIG's postgraduate journalism course for 18 years.

So many journalists dream of making the leap from features pages to novel writing. The most successful Irish exponent of this career-leap was undoubtedly Maeve Binchy, who died in July. Her brand spanned the globe, receiving the ultimate promotional fillip in recent years after being championed by Oprah Winfrey. In her writings she examined issues such as child-parent relationships, simmering tensions between rural and urban life, and the huge changes in Irish cultural and religious life in the late 20th century.

The world of Irish sport lost several legends in 2012. In March, Jim Stynes, the Dubliner who made his name first as an outstanding Gaelic footballer and then, as a professional Aussie Rules player in his adopted home of Australia, died after a long battle with cancer. The recipient of several civic awards in Australia, Stynes was a national treasure there. His autobiography, Whatever It Takes, was one of the bestselling sports books of the year.

The Kingdom lost two of its footballing legends too soon. In April, 59-year old John Egan, six times an All-Ireland winner with Mick O'Dwyer's team of the Seventies and Eighties, died. The Sneem corner forward captained the Kerry team that came agonisingly close to winning an unprecedented five successive All-Irelands in the final of 1982. He retired two years later after winning his sixth All-Ireland medal. He was also awarded five All-Stars.

His death was followed last weekend by that of 57-year-old Paidi O Se who was laid to rest in his native Ventry, west Kerry. In a scintillating playing career, Paidi won eight All-Irelands, 11 Munster crowns, four national league titles and five All-Stars. O Se was also the patriarch of a footballing dynasty – his nephews Darragh, Tomas and Marc O Se all played for Kerry. He went on to manage Kerry, Westmeath and Clare during which he enjoyed varying degrees of success. O Se was also a popular society figure and enjoyed close friendships with former Taoisigh Bertie Ahern and Charles Haughey. Thousands of mourners paid their respects at his funeral last week.

Paidi undoubtedly has his place in Heaven but a man who made his living looking at the heavens was Sir Patrick Moore, the astronomer and eccentric who presented the BBC programme The Sky At Night for over 30 years. He was appointed an OBE in 1968, CBE in 1988 and knighted in 2001. In 1982 a minor planet was named after him by the International Astronomical Union. He also held the posts of president of the British Astronomical Association and director of the Armagh Planetarium. Yet the Royal Society refused to elect him as a Fellow – declaring that he had committed the ultimate sin of "making science popular". In 2001, however, he was elected to an honorary fellowship.

A man who went one step further – visiting the cosmos rather than merely observing it – was Neil Armstrong. In July 1969, the world stopped to watch him take his celebrated "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" on the moon. After the life-defining moment of Apollo 11, the most famous astronaut in the world was given a desk job at Nasa in Washington. In 1971 he left, bought a dairy farm in Ohio and joined the engineering faculty of the University of Cincinnati where he remained as a professor of aerospace engineering until 1979. He died of surgery complications in September.

Suicide has always been a scourge in Ireland and in 2012, headlines were made when a number of teenagers tragically took their own lives. The whys of suicide were debated at an international level as it emerged in August that the acclaimed director Tony Scott had jumped from a bridge in Los Angeles and died. The younger brother of Ridley Scott, Tony was perhaps best known for directing Tom Cruise in Top Gun. A relative latecomer to filmmaking, he became famous for his fast-paced blockbusters and distinctive style of editing and digital effects.

Scott was a relative late bloomer when it came to blockbuster movies and in a way, the same could be said of David Kelly, who towards the end of his career, appeared in Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. However, before that, Kelly had had a lifetime of memorable roles under his belt. He was one of the most recognisable voices and faces of Irish stage and screen, playing everything from Beckett to Shakespeare. He was best known in Ireland for his performance as Rashers Tierney in Strumpet City but was internationally renowned for his role in Waking Ned for which he received a Screen Actors Guild award.

Eric Sykes was one of the most popular comic actors of his generation, writing scripts for others such as Peter Sellers, Frankie Howerd and Stanley Unwin. His long-running TV series Sykes and A... with Hattie Jacques was also a massive success, attracting huge audiences in its nine series. He was awarded an OBE in 1986 and in recent years, Sykes starred in films including Monte Carlo or Bust, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and The Others alongside Nicole Kidman.

Kelly and Sykes were contemporaries of Frank Carson, who died in February. The 85-year-old Belfast-born comedian was known for his catchphrases "It's a cracker" and "It's the way I tell 'em". Carson grew up in the deprived working-class area near York Street in north Belfast known as Little Italy. The former tradesman subsequently shot to fame when he won TV talent show Opportunity Knocks. He was working almost to the end, taking part in dozens of events a year until shortly before he died.

Although not officially a comedian, Bill Tarmey – Coronation Street's Jack Duckworth – undoubtedly had great comic timing. Tarmey, a native Mancunian, started out as a builder but moved into the world of showbiz singing in working men's clubs. He first appeared in the soap in the role of Jack in 1979 and he played the character continuously from 1983 to 2010. His on-screen partnership with wife Vera, played by the charismatic Liz Dawn, created some of the soap's most memorable moments. In some ways, 2012 was a good year for Irish comedy with RTE getting uncharacteristically good reviews for shows like The Savage Eye and Irish Pictorial Weekly. Mrs Brown's Boys continued its domination of the BBC schedules. In many ways, Hal Roach was similar, liked here but loved by foreigners – nobody lapped him up quite like American tourists. He described himself as a "missionary for humour" and over the years shared billing with greats such as Frank Sinatra, Connie Francis and Vic Damone. He was known as a comedian you could take your grandmother to see. He performed for five US presidents and said he "liked them all".

Nobody could imagine Gore Vidal coming out with a line like that. The acerbic novelist and playwright was described by the Telegraph as an "icy iconoclast" and mainly focused on describing what he saw as the crumbling of civilisation around him. His third book, The City and the Pillar, created a sensation in 1948 because it was one of the first open portrayals of a homosexual protagonist. He had notable running feuds with Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, whom he called "a filthy animal that has found its way into the house". Vidal died in August after a short illness.

When Rodney King died in June, one of the phrases trending on Twitter was "who is Rodney King?" This was seen as a generation-dividing moment because nobody who was alive in 1991 could ever forget the man whose savage beating by police sparked the racially charged LA riots of that summer. After the riots and recovery from his injuries, King spent much of his life wrestling with the legal system. He fought cases against LA city to claim compensation, then against the lawyers who had acted on his behalf and had claimed large slices of the money. He was found dead in a swimming pool, aged 47.

King was, of course, much more than a piece of grainy footage and a handful of court cases. But you'd need a novel and maybe an opera to get close to the truth of his life. Obituaries don't in the end describe people but careers; fame and infamy.

Perhaps seeing our own mortality in a dead star is a form of madness. But it's only when the stars in our own skies – a relative or a friend – dies that we know true grief.

Aengus Fanning

The beginning of the year was marked by a vary sad event in the life of this paper. On January 17, Aengus Fanning, legendary editor of the Sunday Independent, died after a battle with cancer. At his funeral, his wife Anne Harris, who had just lost a partner in life and in work, summed up his singular life and storied career:

"He lived a life red in tooth and claw ... He was ever alert to conventional wisdom in order to slap it down. Aengus's boredom threshold has been much commented upon and much misunderstood. He hated what he called the 'bleedin' obvious' and loved anything original, no matter how tiny or simple ...

"His core belief, his only belief," she said, "was Kant's 'out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing is ever made'."

Aengus knew this 'crooked timber' came as much from the journalist as the subject. As editor, he assembled a broad church of writers whose own lives and personalities often became part of the story.

During his tenure, the paper challenged received truths about Irish life and shone a light on unseen corners of our society. It was an approach that inspired criticism and admiration but under his stewardship, the Sunday Independent increasingly influenced the national conversation and enjoyed unprecedented commercial success.

As tributes poured in last January, he was remembered as a wit, a bon vivant and raconteur. But these were the public faces. The private man was introspective, loving and devoted, most of all to Anne and to his sons by his late wife Mary. He is deeply missed.

Sunday Independent

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