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Eoghan Harris: Dick Hill: West Cork Protestant and titan of Irish television


In recent years I have tried to ration righteous indignation. But the death of Dick Hill over Christmas forces me to break out. Why did RTE, The Irish Times, and the Irish Examiner fail to mark the the passing of RTE's former director of television programmes, one of the true titans of Irish television ?

RTE News banished Dick Hill's death to the back of a bulletin, without a picture.

No official RTE representative turned up at his memorial service in Teampall na mBocht on Mizen Head. The Irish Times, tardily, carried an obituary but, shamefully, the Irish Examiner paid no proper tribute to the West Cork Protestant, who, in shows like Newsbeat, Halls Pictorial and 7 Days, freed RTE television from BBC-style stiffness and made it racy of the soil.

Laid low by a bad flu last week, my temperature rose higher as I scanned the media looking for Dick's name. Apart from a report by Ralph Riegel in the Irish Independent, I looked in vain. Arthur Miller's lines on Willie Loman ran like a refrain through my head: "Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person."

Luckily, the best broadcasters paid attention. Gay Byrne, on Lyric FM, spoke about Dick, lovingly and at length. Last Tuesday, a little band of brilliant broadcasters, led by Cathal O Shannon, set out for Teampall na mBocht on the Mizen Head to say goodbye.

So who was Dick Hill? He was born in Kinsale. His Northern Presbyterian mother gave him a gruelling work ethic. His Cork Protestant father fostered his long love affair with West Cork, its local history, its natural habitat and its rich social mores and customs.

Both his parents brought him up with a strong sense of the public good. Long before I met Dick, I remember fishermen in Kinsale talking about his legendary father, the local bank manager, who put his promotion on the back burner in order to carry the fishermen through the hard times of the Second World War.

Midleton College added more moral fibre to his son's make-up. Dick refused to join the Freemasons -- although it might have helped him find work -- an ironic bit of rectitude in view of his later falling victim to secret Catholic pressure groups who deprived him of the top job at RTE.

At TCD, Dick met his future wife, Sue Buswell. In 1966, while she was pregnant, he took a huge cut in salary to train as a producer in RTE.

That's when I first met them. They were madly in love, buzzing like bees and full of that joy that marks good people.

In 1966, I joined a tough RTE producer-training course with Dick Hill, Sean O Mordha, Brian MacLochlainn and Jack Dowling. Ireland was still a tribal society. Although I had been reared to revere the notion of abstract Protestant republicans, the complex world of real Cork Protestants was a closed book.

Two brilliant Cork Protestants, Dick Hill and Jack White, stretched my narrow notions. They neither deferred to the dominant Catholic nationalist culture by parades of pretentious republicanism -- as some Dublin Protestants did and do -- nor did they affect an indifference to Irish culture -- as some Dublin Protestants did and do.

Dick and Jack were proud to be Cork Prods (although Dick would specify West Cork Prod) and racy of the soil of the rebel county. Their local Cork pietas never left them. One of their favourite films was of a day I spent with the Fair Hill Harriers.

In 1967, Dick and myself started work as directors of 7 Days under the lightly applied lash of the legendary Lelia Doolan. We have no false modesty about our work on 7 Days. We invented Irish current affairs television. Lest you doubt that, take a look in the archives of RTE.

In one programme, the late property developer, Matt Gallagher, following a short and savage film about how he got rid of redundant tenants, is so stressed by the studio grilling that he tries to put on a second pair of spectacles over the first. These were the days, my friend.

Dick rose like a rocket-- 1970, head of Features; 1978, controller RTE 2; 1979, director of television -- and then he hit the concealed religious ceiling.

He deserved to be director general of RTE but did not get the job. Lelia Doolan and myself are not alone in believing that he was blocked by one of the secret Catholic cabals who whispered in the corridors. But there were other reasons to reject him too.

Dick was a programmes man to his fingertips. He resisted the relentless -- and reductive -- rise of the news division, with its narrow notions of what constituted current affairs; its PC politics imported from the BBC, and its moralistic pointing fingers -- fingers never pointed in the mirror.

These truths supplied the sub-text to the service at Teampall na mBocht. All who mattered were there: Sue and his two sons, Ronan and Richard; Jan Reid, his beloved partner of recent years; Tony Barry (Strumpet City) and his wife Mairead; John and Marguerite Condon (Halls Pictorial Weekly); Tish Barry (Victims), and local friends.

All week I have been replaying the shaky video of the service. Ronan recalls what "racy of the soil" really meant -- his father striding up and down the rugby touchline of his respectable school, the only Protestant parent cursing like a Cork trooper.

After that, the broadcasters whose creativity and careers he had cherished pay their debts. Cathal O'Shannon, frail at first, finds his old vigour and puts his finger on Dick's great gift -- his genius for putting a structure on creative chaos, be it a programme idea, a documentary, a series, a department, a channel or an entire television service.

John McColgan (Riverdance) speaks movingly of their friendship over 40 years. He reads hilarious extracts from the regular e-mails he received from Dick on a wide range of subjects under the working title, "Rants of a Fat Man". Publish and be saved, John.

Paul Cusack (Fair City), conjures up Dick's loving nature. John Kelleher (Even the Olives are Bleeding), talks about Dick's power to create the sense of common purpose so vital to fighting troops -- and creative people.

Ted Dolan (As the Crow Flies), recalls Dick as a raconteur with a sharp but not cruel edge.

Bob Collins, a former director general of RTE, refers to the resonances of Dick's desire to have his memorial service in Teampall na mBocht (the only Protestant church to bear a Gaelic name). And reminds us that when something that that had been shaping up badly suddenly came right, Dick would grin gleefully and remark smugly: "God is a West Cork Protestant."

I have seen many affecting films. But the ragged video of the service in Teampall na mBocht summons up what Virgil called "thoughts that do lie too deep for tears".

As did Ted Dolan's rendering of Louis McNiece's Thalassa:

Run out the boat, my broken comrades;

Let the old seaweed crack, the surge

Burgeon oblivious of the last

Embarkation of feckless men,

Let every adverse force converge

Here we must needs embark again.

Sunday Independent