Sunday 15 December 2019

Eoghan Harris: 'Niall Tóibín - the bravest of Cork's Old Offenders'

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Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

The tributes to Niall Toibin, like those to Gay Byrne, neglected the aspect of their character I admired most: their courage, contempt for naff nationalism, and generally good politics.

Good politics was at the core of the RTE scripts I wrote for Toibin: The Testimony of James Connolly (1968) and the satirical series If the Cap Fits (1973) and Time Now Mr T (1977).

Naturally, nobody in RTE called me to share my memories of him last week - airbrushing awkward critics being part of Montrose's peculiar notion of public service broadcasting.

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Luckily, Ivan Yates of Newstalk gave me a platform to recall Toibin's contribution to good politics which I am amplifying here for his admirers.

As my generation went looking for work in the early 1960s, Niall Toibin was already a god to his circle of Cork fans, doing well in what seemed distant Dublin.

We rejoiced to hear he had met Judy, the love of his life, and was driving around Dublin in a van with the slogan, "Niall Toibin agus a Bhean".

As soon as I joined RTE, I prepared a project that was congenial to our common socialist politics and wrote a drama documentary in which Toibin played James Connolly with passion and intellectual conviction. Someone warned me that working with Toibin was like walking over a field of dreams spiked with landmines. But I loved every minute with him.

Although he never sat the Leaving Cert - just the civil service exam - he was one of the best-read men I ever met, with a disconcerting habit of dropping in lines from the Bible and Shakespeare to test my literary reflexes.

Like me, he could be as cranky as Roy Keane, but then we were both heavy drinkers. When he gave up alcohol in 1974, he set me a good example which I eventually followed.

Mostly we had a meeting of minds because we were both throwing off the chains of Cork and Christian Brother nationalism.

While making The Testimony of James Connolly, he filled me in on his political journey from nationalism to socialism which he fleshed out in his fine autobiography, Smile And Be a Villain.

Toibin grew up during World War II on Cork's northside, with no sense of political neutrality. "I remember a lot of pro-German and anti-English feeling."

He says it didn't stop there: "I wouldn't have known what anti-Semitism was but I would laugh at the Jews the same as most others."

Like most of his generation he read both English comics like The Magnet, and the Christian Brothers magazine Our Boys, "which was filling you full of Irish nationalism".

The brainwashing had an evil effect: "You praised the German treatment of the Jews as retribution for the Crucifixion."

Being Toibin, he later tried to take the poison out of Irish anti-Semitism by turning it into a black joke based on Smithwick's beer.

"Are you Dundalk people anti-Semitic? No, it's just that we prefer McArdle's so we do."

His journey from nationalism to socialism began on a bleak and snowy day in Dublin in 1947 as, without comprehension, he watched the grief of Dublin workers as James Larkin's funeral cortege passed by.

"A bus driver had left his cab to stand ankle-deep in melting slush beside me in O'Connell Street, an expression of inexplicable grief on his face."

The busman's grief became explicable a few months later when Toibin picked up a pamphlet in a Blackrock newsagent's called Connolly of Ireland.

Toibin recalled mordantly: "I assumed it would be a stirring anti-British tract, dealing yet more with the 800-year saga of outrages and atrocities perpetrated on the persecuted Gael."

Not so. "This pamphlet was about socialism. It revealed a side of 1916 that had never been brought to my attention." From then on, "my leanings were leftward". He joined the Labour Party and remained loyal to it all his life.

"I've never shaken off my early passion for socialism, nor would I like to lose that hankering after a decent welfare state."

Like his friend Brendan Behan, Toibin scorned armchair IRA warriors who played what Dominic Behan called the Patriot Game.

He rightly regarded Borstal Boy, which I saw in 1967, as his finest work. He was so good that Brendan's widow, Beatrice Behan, had to leave the theatre, shaken, so uncannily accurate was Toibin's reincarnation of her late husband.

But Toibin was also proud of the sharp politics of his two pioneering satirical shows for RTE, commonly called If the Cap Fits, produced by Brian MacLochlainn and scripted by Toibin, Wesley Burrowes, Brian and myself.

In her monumental study, Irish Television Drama; A Society and its Stories, Dr Helena Sheehan summed up how comprehensively Toibin took on religious and political reactionaries.

"He appeared as 90 different characters, encompassing such roles as Taoiseach, RTE newsreader, RTE arts presenter, IRA chief of staff, unionist ideologue, Dublin trade union leader, sports journalist, bishop, priest, nun and a host of others, leaving virtually no prototypical figure of contemporary Irish life with its comic potential untapped."

RTE's barbaric wiping of these tapes meant we have no record of how savagely Toibin treated sacred cows and IRA godfathers like Sean Mac Stiofain.

We lost other joys too. Toibin as Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave pledging to "root out the ring of shysters and shop stewards".

He also skewered Bishop Eamonn Casey (long before he was found out), spinning on a bar stool saying, "I'm as natural as yoghurt."

He played Barry Norman reviewing a pretentious Irish language film, Last Tango in Dingle, starring Gabriel Byrne, with badly dubbed English subtitles rendering "An bhfuil tu fuar?" as "Are you frigid?"

He pinned down our pride in any Irish film at the time. "Almost two of the actors were Irish and another almost Irish, another almost an actor."

The sketch that finally got us into trouble was a harmless sketch of mine. Niall, in a wig and a frock, played a Catholic activist giving advice on avoiding masturbation.

"If you feel like abusing yourself, do not do so - just go out on the road and abuse other people."

Cue outrage from clerics and county councillors and RTE promptly apologised.

Toibin felt let down, especially as he was receiving plastic packets of excrement in the post.

But all that vitriol was nullified when Gay Byrne rang and simply asked, "Are you all right?"

Comparing sour, anonymous letters, they worked out they were getting them from the same senders, the Twitter trollers of their time. Gay told Toibin: "No one knows the virulence of the Catholic lunatic fringe as well as I do."

My last memory of Toibin is of a dinner a few years ago with Gay Byrne, Mike Murphy and Brendan Balfe. As the table talk recalled the suicidal temptation to buy property as a pension during the boom, I asked Toibin, in a quiet aside in Irish, if he had invested. He shook his head, "Fiu pingin." Not a penny.

Slan abhaile, brave old offender. Ni bheidh do leitheid aris ann.

Sunday Independent

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