Television is a treacherous medium. Norman Mailer wrote about his obsession with it, recalling the time he went on a talk show with Truman Capote, believing he had performed superbly, while Capote — by his own admission — had seemed a bit flat. What Mailer hadn’t realised is that while he was knocking it out of the park, for a few seconds the camera had been on Capote when Capote said of Jack Kerouac: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”
The morning after, as Mailer went out to receive the acclaim of a grateful nation, all he heard were people quoting with amusement Capote’s words: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” The TV camera had lied — or at least it had misrepresented the overall nature of the proceedings. The TV camera does that.
The morning after the third part of RTÉ’s epic documentary series Quinn Country, Seán Quinn must have been expecting an uninterrupted deluge of dog’s abuse from the ould enemy, the Dublin media, due to his almost unbelievably heartless comments about the brutal attack on Kevin Lunney.
Instead, it was Alan Dukes being interviewed by Claire Byrne about his almost unbelievably ill-judged line that “Border people have it [violence] in their blood”. Again and again, Byrne tried to get Dukes to cop himself on and apologise. But the struggle was so exhausting, it was game over by the time he conceded he “shouldn’t have said it in the way that I said”.
It wasn’t just what he said, it was the way that he looked on TV when he said it. For the few minutes Dukes was on screen, you could imagine Quinn’s people responding to his expressions of self-satisfaction in the voice of BBC football commentator Barry Davies: “Look at his face! Just look at his face!”
This is television — we end up debating whether Alan Dukes is a prat when we have just witnessed a sweeping vision of a world ruled by a character of truly tragic dimensions. Seán Quinn had wanted to “change the narrative” with this documentary, and he hadn’t done that in the way he envisaged. But he did get the bonus that it was the technocrat Dukes who was somehow the one stirring up those tribal juices that Quinn is always going to relish — it’s probably all Quinn’s got now, apart from the apparently enormous sums of money that are mysteriously supporting what is still the lifestyle of a potentate.
But the intervention of Dukes was not all good for Quinn. There are similarities between the two men, of the kind neither of them probably wants to contemplate: although they have been successful in their different ways, Quinn and Dukes are incapable of hiding just how highly they regard themselves. And when a really bad thought occurs to them, it seems they just can’t stop themselves from saying it out loud in whatever way it emerges from those fantastic brains.
Interestingly, Colm Tóibín had said something not dissimilar to what Dukes had said about the Border counties — he suggested Quinn had set up his businesses in a place where there is “no respect for the law”. But Tóibín is such a gifted speaker he can say such a thing without starting a culture war. Dukes doesn’t have that gift, though seemingly he thinks he does. And faced with the persistence of Claire Byrne, he revealed he finds it almost impossible to admit with an acceptable degree of remorse that he made a horrible mistake. Ring any bells?
Indeed, one of many triumphs of this series was to send a shiver down the spine at the thought of Quinn and Dukes at loggerheads, each convinced of his own rightness, although in fairness to Dukes, he was the one trying to chase down the wasted billions, not the one who did the wasting.
A huge ego can take you a long way, but it carries with it that infinite need to be proved right — Quinn might dismiss this as metropolitan psychobabble, but it makes him the perfect personality type for the pathological gambler.
And he evidently doesn’t understand that admitting his powerlessness over this could be liberating — perhaps if he had drunk rather than gambled away a few billion, this would be clearer to him.
Still, if this had been a two-part series and not three, it could just about have had the mythical sweep of a western, with Quinn as the flawed hero who had started a gold rush in a one-horse town and now had to deal with the dead hand of the new lawman. We would have been left with images such as the great banquets in the Slieve Russell for the happy townspeople, everyone all dolled up and Des Cahill working the room.
But there was a third part, in which the western turned into a living horror show for anyone perceived to be working against the main man.
Quinn admitted things, just the wrong things. In the end, not even Alan Dukes could save Quinn from himself.
Ringo Starr was a fine drummer, but, as the old joke goes, he wasn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles: that was Paul McCartney. Danny Simon gave masterclasses in comedy writing, but he wasn’t even the best writer in his own family: that was his brother, Neil.
In that spirit, John Creedon’s An Irish Folklore Treasury won an An Post Irish Book Award, though in his self-effacing way John might concede this is not even the best book produced by a member of the Creedon family this year.
That would be Cónal Creedon’s Art Imitating Life Imitating Death, his exploration of Guests of the Nation by Frank O’Connor. And there is so much to explore in O’Connor’s great story, but I was particularly taken by Creedon’s research into the character of Noble, one of the IRA men holding the two British soldiers.
Creedon had never encountered anyone called Noble in Cork, and was baffled O’Connor would use that name for an important character in a story rooted in Cork. But in the archives, Creedon found an Irish Volunteer application from 1914, in the name of one Noble Johnson. Astoundingly, the address given by Noble Johnson was 11 Devonshire Street. Creedon’s own address is 1 Devonshire Street.
No 11 is the premises of Pa Johnson’s pub, in which the current licensee, Barry Johnson, told Creedon that his grandfather, uncle and older brother were all named Noble.
Noble Johnson and Frank O’Connor were both members of the Irish Volunteers, both from the northside of Cork city. Not only had O’Connor not chosen some random name for his character, in all likelihood he had chosen one that was deeply embedded in his own knowledge of the place — as if it gave him some extra emotional connection to the story.
While we’re on this strange subject of well-known Corkonians whose first names sound like second names, I’m aware Roy Keane has a brother called Johnson. So we have Noble Johnson and Johnson Keane. Who are these people?
In the early stages of the 2006 World Cup, Eamon Dunphy was calling it. “Put a line through Italy,” he said, meaning Italy had no chance. Which was sad for me, because I had advised the readers of this paper that Italy would win the tournament.
“Put a line through France,” he later decreed. Fast-forward now to the final — between Italy and France.
Ah, it was a wonderful thing, that classic RTÉ panel. Like me, Eamon understood that when you call it, you’re not doing a kind of Mystic Meg act, you’re like a barrister making a compelling case in the most engaging style — though in that particular case I just happened to call it right, with Italy winning.
Bearing that in mind, I am telling you now to put a line through Spain. And put a line through France. Calling it.