Thursday 27 June 2019

Eoghan Harris: Hilary Rose, Conor and Jock help us laugh, cry and cope

Eoghan Harris.
Eoghan Harris.
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Dan Donovan, who died last week, was what Dr Johnson would call a man of parts: actor, producer, director. But mostly he was a brilliant teacher who left an indelible mark on those he taught.

Receiving his BAFTA award, Ridley Scott told his audience: "Teaching is the most important of all professions. Sort that out and social problems will get sorted out."

Teachers come in many guises. But all the good ones are moral mentors in the three fields that matter most: politics, society and the classroom.

Let's start with politics. The mark of a great political teacher is the power to act with good authority, to challenge the dark side of our DNA to persuade us to listen to our better angels.

Such leaders persuade us to be patriots, to tend our own garden, to be good and tolerant neighbours.

But the other side of the patriotic coin is the toxic passion of nationalism, the desire to dictate to our neighbours how to tend their gardens to suit us.

Just as in the 19th Century the acid test of any country in Europe was how it treated its Jews, the true test of the health of Irish society is whether we have a leader who can teach us to forgo the pleasures of tribal taunting and reach out to our Northern neighbours.

Jack Lynch, Sean Lemass, Garret FitzGerald, John Bruton and Bertie Ahern all promoted the patriotic coinage. In contrast, Leo Varadkar has turned the coin over, and the tribal temperature up.

Turning now to social teaching, I believe Irish television is a far more powerful force for good or evil than social media because it creates an audience that is aware of a common centre of authority and appeal, whereas social media has no centre and fosters the sense of a "war of all against all".

RTE's Love/Hate series created a common public conversation about crime. Nobody stops you on the street to talk about Twitter.

But while dark drama can draw our attention to passing problems, comedy is the most powerful force for social, as distinct from political, change.

Alan Ayckbourn, the brilliant British farceur agrees: "I don't think that I've ever been a political writer, but I think I've been a social writer."

Ayckbourn also knows why comedy is the most difficult genre of drama to get right.

He says comedy has to be serious, too. "The humour that hovers on the darkness, that walks in the shadow of something else."

That something else is the tragic dimension. Great comedy is always about making you laugh and making you cry as you do so.

Alas, I reckon there are only two Ayckbourns around. Luckily, we got the other one in the person of Peter Foott, who writes, directs and produces The Young Offenders, which makes you laugh so much you forget to protect your cherished prejudices.

Every episode in the first series has challenged some taboo or picked up a prejudice and shook it so hard the poison fell out.

So while you were holding your sides in helpless laughter the series was also dealing deftly with sexuality, race, animal rights and, of course, class.

Sex? Conor tells his mother Mairead that if he was gay, Jock was the one he'd like to be gay with. Race? Conor is in love with Linda, the black daughter of his headmaster. Animal rights? Neither Jock nor Conor are callous enough to kill a duck.

But class, above all, creates the permanent background climate of The Young Offenders. Both Conor and Jock lack that easy sense of social entitlement that marks the middle class.

But Peter Foott will not allow his characters to be patronised by pushing them into the welfare class where they can be safely pitied.

This is a drama about the Cork working class. Conor's mother, Mairead McSweeney, played by Hilary Rose, works hard in the English Market.

Although the actors who play the two adorable boys have been rightly praised to the skies, it is Hilary Rose who holds it all together.

Rose is one of the greatest actors of my generation. Like the late Donal McCann she can do more with a gaze than Gary Oldman with a day's make-up.

Jean Rice, of the National Film School, sums her up: "Hilary Rose can play hard with heart."

We see the hard when she lets Jock have it about being a useless waster and a bad influence on Conor. How will she handle his reply?

"You haven't taken the time to find out anything about me. You don't know what I'm good or bad at. You just see this face, hear my accent, see how I dress and you have your mind made up."

We watch her eyes as he approaches his awful home and abusive father and she gives us a tiny glimpse of a battle going on within her.

This shot of her conflicted face is followed by a tremendous cut to Mairead, thrusting her face at Jock's father's fist and saying: "I dare you, I f**king dare you."

As she stood facing him down, you can be sure there were tears and cheers in far too many homes in Ireland as we experienced what Aristotle calls catharsis.

Finally, a farewell to Dan Donovan, who could shy schoolboy snails out of their shell to share his joy of poetry and drama.

Years later, watching Robin Williams emoting in the film Dead Poets Society, I felt like shouting at the screen: "Dan did all that long ago - and without being so smarmy."

Dan had everything a teenage boy needed in a teacher, a passion for his subject, a tolerance of personal eccentricities, the power to make you believe you could be better than you thought you were.

Above all he gave us love. No words can convey the warmth of the way Dan used that all-purpose Cork word "boy". In the US "boy" is a term of racial contempt. Even in Cork it can convey affection or anger.

But when Dan grinned and said, "good work boy", we heard it as a term of endearment and empowerment, telling us that despite our spots and weird ambitions we were appreciated.

Little did I know that Dan's father had been a member of the RIC when, aged 14, I made my maiden speech in a school debate - a passionate polemic in favour of a united Ireland that swamped my opponent George Hook.

Dan nodded bland support but when John O'Shea in the chair later remarked, "young Harris went off like a bomb in that debate", Dan replied mordantly, "yes and he'll go on reverberating".

Later, when I left school, I followed his career as an actor and director in Everyman Theatre, the Southern Theatre Group, and Compantas Chorcai.

By bringing the best of world drama to the Cork stage, Dan helped many of us move away from a repressive Irish Roman Catholic nationalism to a European perspective.

But mostly I remember those timeless, sleepy, sunny afternoons in Presentation Brothers College, sitting beside my bosom friends, Aidan O'Shea and Pat Cradock, the torments of our teenage angsts transcended by the erotic power of Dan's rendering of the last lines of Coleridge's Kubla Khan - lines which should be inscribed on his gravestone:

"For he on honey-dew

hath fed,

And drunk the milk

of Paradise."

Sunday Independent

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