Tuesday 19 February 2019

Brendan O'Connor: 'Happy Leo-day to everyone'

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (Niall Carson/PA)
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (Niall Carson/PA)
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

Ireland 1979. An innocent country. There was no contraception, divorce or gays that anyone knew of, though people had their suspicions about certain members of the theatrical community. It was the kind of country where a Pope could still get a good welcome, where the currency was a pound and it was worth the same as the English pound. We thought we enjoyed slightly strained relations with the UK in those days but, in reality, we didn't know the half of it. We liked to blame them for 800 years of oppression, but we were happy we had got out from under their influence since we had joined something called the EEC, which was essentially a mechanism for foreigners to give money to Irish farmers, with no other consequences or strings attached. We were confident that whatever Britain chose to do now couldn't affect us.

1979 was the year a new radio station was born. RTE Radio 2, which was 'cumminatcha', was going to be a station for young people which would play the popular beat combos of the day. In those days, young people liked popular music, often going to a hop on a Friday night, while older people engaged in more serious pursuits, like politics. That's the way it always had been and always would be. Jack Lynch, the Taoiseach of the time, was a very old-looking man, possibly 100, with a pipe, who wouldn't be caught dead listening to pop music. He had bacon and spuds for his dinner at noon every day and he had never heard of avocados.

And it was in that year on the 18th of January, known henceforth as Leo-day, that unto us a child was born. Even as a baby there was something different about this child. He seemed slightly socially awkward and would not go around saying hello to strangers at funerals like some of the other babies, but it was generally felt he would get over that. He was also the only baby anyone knew who would visibly perk up when the new prime minister of England would come on the TV. Indeed they thought for a while that his first words would be "Margaret Thatcher", but he surprised them all with his first utterance: "I want to be the Minister for Health one day." Oh, how they laughed.

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Though his star sign was technically Capricorn, the goat, it was clear from very early on that he was a Leo.

And now, 40 years on, the whole world knows who that Leo is, and last Friday everyone joined with Ireland in marking his birthday. Inside today's paper we continue the commemorations with a 100-page supplement on his life and times and this evening RTE will bring the three days of celebrations to a close when it broadcasts Love Actually on a loop until midnight. At 6pm church bells will ring all over the country and we will all stop whatever we are doing to kneel down and give thanks for him.

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