Wednesday 13 November 2019

Brendan O'Connor: 'Let's not be too smug: Gay's work is not finished'

We think we've fixed everything but, to the end, Gay Byrne knew there were always more conversations to be had, writes Brendan O'Connor

Farewell: The coffin of broadcaster Gay Byrne is brought to St Fintan’s Cemetery in Sutton on Friday. Photo: Mark Condren
Farewell: The coffin of broadcaster Gay Byrne is brought to St Fintan’s Cemetery in Sutton on Friday. Photo: Mark Condren
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

We're on our own now. There has very much been a sense over the last week that the nation has lost its father confessor. Or just its father. There has been a wider sense too that, as we look back, Gay Byrne was a man in the right place at the right time, that he didn't change the nation, but that he was clever enough to spot what was going on and that he surfed that wave. To suggest that Byrne got lucky with his timing is to do him a disservice. And it does us a disservice as a nation to look back on those times, and see a nation in need of transformation, and then to sit smugly here, looking down on what we once were, and to think that our process of improvement is complete.

There was almost a feeling at times over the last week that Gay Byrne's death was the last time we would come together like this. We live in a much more fragmented time now, was the narrative, and the nation no longer gathers around the same fireside. And besides, it seems we have no need to. We have apparently completed the difficult process of growing up. The implication was that we have no Gaybo-style radio or TV any more and that we have no need of it. This is a trap that nostalgia can make us fall into - the notion that ''back then'' was a more innocent time, a more ignorant time, that we were more incomplete back then, but that now is normal, now we have it sorted, now we are complete. And with our gay marriage, our gay Taoiseach, with having finally solved the issue of abortion that had torn previous generations apart, we have finally got it right in this country. And we look back pityingly on the past and thank Gaybo for saving us from ourselves, and wisely say that there will never be another one of him, because he could only have existed in that time of transition.

The truth is that we will never have another Gay Byrne simply because Gay was special, and a one-off. Gay was the master, and no one else comes near. But the notion that we will never have another Gay because we will never need another Gay is not true. And the notion that there is no such thing any more as the society that Gay presided over is wrong too. Yes, things are more fragmented. Yes, if the nation is gathered around the fireplace these days, one of them is possibly on Netflix, another has headphones on and is playing a videogame against a guy in China, and someone else is catching up with old school friends on Facebook. But the collective consciousness and the need for the collective consciousness did not die with Gay Byrne.

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If Gay were here for the festival of nostalgia over the last week, you suspect he would tell us to stop wallowing in the past, and to look to now, and the future instead. Many people who knew him and worked with him mentioned how modern Gay was. Gay was always looking for the next thing: the next topic, the next taboo. Gay knew there was always another conversation to be had. And he knew it was vanity to think we had ever perfected ourselves to the extent that there wasn't. Gay kept having these conversations after he had left the national fireside. Think about his thoughts on Europe. He didn't like the EU and he didn't approve of our membership. He thought joining the euro was a ''disaster'' and he said, "I sincerely believe we are headed for a totalitarian state of Europe, and nothing will stop them." After the Brexit vote, Gay argued that Ireland should leave the EU on the same date as Britain left.

It doesn't matter whether you agree with this or not. The point is that Gay kept asking new questions, and kept refusing to accept the status quo, to go along with the crowd. He was alert to the danger in this country that we might feel there aren't any more questions to be asked - that we had won the battle for modernity and enlightenment.

The national fireside and the need for it are not gone. Funnily enough, that was proven by how we came together over the death of our father confessor, and how we talked incessantly about what he meant, what he said about us, while admittedly, some people talked really about what it said about them.

But we have come together in other ways in recent weeks too. The sentencing of the killers of Ana Kriegel brought us together, albeit not in ideal circumstances. But the national consciousness was almost at one on her murder. Horror, yes. Sadness too for her parents' story. How they had this joy brought into their lives against all the odds, and how it gave meaning to their lives, and how awfully that was snuffed out. And how do they go on now?

And then there are the questions. There is the question of what actually happened, which the two killers have refused point blank to answer. There is the question of how two boys from functional family backgrounds could do something so horrific. Then there is the broader question of there being something wrong with our young people. There seems to be an epidemic of anxiety among them, and their capacity for relationships, empathy and joy can seem to be badly damaged, perhaps connected to things like the infinite amount of hardcore porn available to them. Sometimes it seems that it is modern life that is making them sick.

We were united in horror and outrage too at the attack on Kevin Lunney, at the way he and his co-directors at QIH have had to live in recent years. In this State, with its hard-won peace, these businessmen, who support thousands of jobs in an economic blackspot, have had to face down serious threats and intimidation, and for years, it seems the State could do nothing to offer them any security.

We came together too in our horror at the deaths of 39 migrants in the UK, and a certain shame that there were Irish people involved. This echoed another dark corner that was bubbling up here and there around the country, a suggestion that neo-Nazi types were gaining a foothold in Ireland through social media and by egging on well-meaning people in various towns to come out and physically block refugees from coming into their communities.

There were worrying threads, as the Taoiseach came out with comments on migration which might have been rational things to say at any other time, but seemed a bit incendiary at a time when emotions were running so high. In fairness to Leo Varadkar, he cleared up any confusion a few days later. But, still there was a sense that something ugly was stirring in the national psyche. And in fact, it was being fed by a lack of conversation, even down to a lack of consultation between the State and communities.

It was a week too in which we were forced into an existential discussion around the national broadcaster that provided Gay's firelight, and RTE's place in the modern Ireland which it and Gay helped to usher in.

The coming together of this nation to have difficult conversations is not, as you might have thought from the talk last week, something that is in the past. It's a constant necessity in a republic in a fast-changing world.

Gay Byrne may be gone, but the national fireside he occupied should not be allowed to go with him. He hadn't finished the work. We're not perfect yet. There are more battles ahead.

Sunday Independent

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