Friday 15 November 2019

Father and son share a love of the big picture

Celebrated writer and historian Desmond Fennell gave his son Cilian the gift of independent thinking

'We could sit there all day drinking whiskey and debating,' Cilian and Desmond Fennell. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
'We could sit there all day drinking whiskey and debating,' Cilian and Desmond Fennell. Photo: Colin O'Riordan

Andrea Smith

Cilian Fennell says he learned about the big picture and the importance of independent thinking from his dad Desmond (88), one of this country's best-known original thinkers. He also learned that you must suffer the consequences of those thoughts because ultimately, that is who you are. Desmond Fennell became known for his outspoken and controversial views, and his son worried for him at times as he didn't always have the approval of the establishment, but ultimately admired his fearlessness.

In Desmond's books The State of the Nation: Ireland Since the Sixties (published in 1983) and Nice People and Rednecks: Ireland in the 1980s (published in 1986), the author criticised what he viewed as the consumerist liberalism prevailing in the Dublin media, associated with what he perceived as the smug liberal elite of Dublin 4.

He opposed the standard divorce legislation they advocated, preferring a choice of indissoluble and soluble marriage, and objected to their soft line on abortion and what he termed their anti-nationalist historical revisionism.

A pamphlet he wrote on Seamus Heaney angered the poet's admirers because it contested his reputation as a major poet, and criticised him for ignoring the struggle of his fellow Catholics in Northern Ireland.

"There was Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour, and then there were the nutters, the Desmond Fennells, Vincent Brownes and people you would see on Questions and Answers," Cilian says. "It was fun having a well-known dad but he was well-known for unorthodoxy. When I was growing up, Ireland was rigid and things were done certain ways, so if you said differently, it made you anti-status quo and a bit dangerous. If you were intellectual, it was a bit like, 'Who do you think you are?' I remember him explaining to me that his job was to keep adding to the books on the shelf, not to please an audience, but to be true to his own craft. That resonated with me and I'm quite an independent person now who ended up doing my own thing as well."

Among his 'own thing' was Cilian's creation and production of RTE's IFTA-winning Centenary show, which told the story of modern Ireland through music, dance and song and was widely acclaimed. "He translated everything into theatrical form so wonderfully," says Desmond. "I'm terribly proud of him, not just for that but for how he has turned out in his life. I describe him as a burning flame."

Desmond was born on the Antrim Road in Belfast in 1929, and his family moved to Dublin when he was three. He grew up in Clontarf with two younger sisters and recalls being a very well-behaved child. He wasn't close to his parents, Tom and Julia. "I had a very strict father," he says, adding that they never had a good relationship. "I was very close to my grandparents and family in Belfast though."

After an excellent Leaving Cert at Belvedere College, Desmond went to UCD to study history and economics. He went on to the University of Bonn in Germany on a scholarship to do an MA in history, and was very happy there. He stayed on and worked on the German overseas radio station Deutsche Welle and was a regular contributor to The Sunday Press, The Irish Times and The Times.

After travelling, Desmond returned and got a job with Aer Lingus as a sales manager for Germany. "The sales didn't rise sufficiently, so they told me my services were no longer required," he smiles. "I went to Sweden, which had the reputation of being a mad, wild, pagan country, and then to the Soviet Union."

Desmond returned to Ireland and married Cilian's mum, the late Mary Troy, in 1963. They had their first child Oisin in Dublin and then moved to Germany for four years. Cilian (50) was named after 6th century saint from Cavan, St Kilian, who went to Germany as a missionary with two friends to convert the natives. They settled in Wurzburg, but were executed so Kilian became a martyr.

Mary and Desmond had three more children, Natasha, Sorcha and Kate. Given his own poor relationship with his father, did Desmond strive to ensure history didn't repeat itself when it came to his own children? "I just loved my children and never took example from my father," he says. "I tried to give my kids as much attention and as good a time as was within my means."

In 1969, he and Mary had the "mad idea" to move to the tiny, beautiful island of Maoinis off the coast of Connemara, which had no electricity at the time. They arrived all "flamboyant and a bit exotic" and stayed for 12 years, where they became, and remain, an Irish-speaking family. They were also involved in the beginning of Raidio na Gaeltachta.

Cilian recalls Maoinis being a wild playground, and feels lucky to have grown up in that old world, which was all about superstition and beliefs, and where every day had a meaning and every rock had a name. "All the kids used to listen to two older men, Joe O'Brien and Coilin Mhairtin Sheanin, telling us old Irish history or stories about going to America," he recalls. "They were beautifully poetic and their stories opened worlds for us."

Mary worked as a teacher on the mainland and Desmond wrote. He has now written 18 books and numerous essays, and Cilian says he can sum up entire civilisations in 10 minutes. He has just published his autobiography, About Being Normal: My Life in Abnormal Circumstances, a fascinating and revealing autobiography in which he traces his life in essay form from childhood to being, at times, a controversial commentator. What were Cilian's memories of his dad on Maoinis? "Dad was shaping the landscape around him, so he was digging ponds and sowing vegetables," he recalls. "You would hear him upstairs typing and I remember him being very industrious. He taught me to think big, not in terms of ambition, but in scope. It was always about meaning and something bigger with him."

Cilian was hugely into boats and started fishing at nine. The family left Connemara for Galway when he was 13, and he fished all the way through his marine zoology degree at NUI, Galway. Surprisingly, considering the career he went on to carve out, he worked full-time at fishing here and in the US, and in construction for two years in London. He sailed in the Mediterranean, and set up and ran comedy clubs in Dublin.

"I'm not a seaman and am barely able to swim, so when Cilian got his first currach at the age of nine, there was a long period where we moved in different worlds," Desmond admits. "When he went into the television world, I could understand that, but I couldn't connect to his life with the sea, which I regret."

Cilian believes his interest in entertainment is rooted in his father being involved in the foundation of the Galway Arts Festival, which exposed the Fennell children to art and theatre. When he started the comedy clubs, he embarked on a producer's course in TG4 and ultimately became an RTE producer. "I was lucky, because television production and storytelling suited me," he says. "I did a year with Young People's, and was asked to produce The Late Late Show with Gay Byrne. I worked on that for three years and it was brilliant. From a young age, I sought out and hung out with older, smarter men, like my dad, the islanders and Gay, and they all shaped me. I think it was because I felt like an outsider with people my own age."

While Desmond and Mary ultimately separated, they remained friends. The entire family was heartbroken when she died last year. Desmond has a long-term partner, Miriam Duggan, who is a teacher. He also has six grandchildren, one of whom is Cilian's daughter Jessica (27) from a previous relationship. Jessica moved to Taiwan and is getting married there this year, and her proud dad will be in attendance.

After three years as head of programmes with TG4, Cilian set up Stillwater Communications with his sister Natasha. Always a storyteller, he has adapted the story model to a business one and helps companies, teams and individuals to develop and deliver their story effectively.

What does he have in common with his dad? "Independent thinking, curiosity and a love of the big picture," he says. "We could sit there all day drinking whiskey and debating. We both love how words frame things, and fun, for us, is a good tussle or debate and intellectual inspiration. I'm so proud that, at his age, Dad is still doing his life's work and producing great writing."

Desmond Fennell's autobiography, About Being Normal: My Life in Abnormal Circumstances, is out now (Somerville Press, €20)

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