O’Mahony has written a meandering, jumbly peregrination through his eventful life. His journey started out in rural 1930’s Ireland and took him to the Sorbonne, Harvard and Washington DC. This is the true story of O’Mahony, and Ireland’s, intellectual awakening after discarding the heavy vestiges of Catholic Ireland. We did this by being open to new ideas outside our religious scope at the time. In some ways, “Creating Space” is a paean to books themselves. The narrative is not linear and often confusing. Although, that may be precisely the point. He is at his most incisive when dissecting his area of expertise: broadcasting.
There is a great story about O’Mahony’s initial interview with RTE. He was waiting patiently for his interview and noticed another man listening, with ferocious intensity, to the news headlines that were playing on the radio in the background. He was blown away by this young man’s dedication to focusing on every syllable that was uttered by the newsreader. It was none other than Gay Byrne.
When O’Mahony joined Radio Eireann, he “developed a routine of meeting every other morning for a cheese sandwich and a Bovril (with Terry Wogan) on Abbey Street”, rubbing shoulders with the Irish broadcasting elite from the outset of his career.
The book daintily walks a threadbare line with dewy eyed recollection on one side and a critical, thoughtful evaluation of the big questions on the other. It frequently descends into name dropping mawkishness.
O’Mahony was a news reader during the era when JFK, Martin Luther King were assassinated. Bloody Sunday too. He focuses less on the experience of relating the news and more on what he thought of it. Which would be wonderful, if he had anything to add to the matters.
When articulating his thoughts on the Irish media, he is thoughtful: “planning and spontaneity are the two key coordinates of great broadcasting”.
O’Mahony represents Ireland’s great laicisation, from the 1950’s onwards. We still have not managed to disentangle ourselves completely from our theocratic past and O’Mahony’s journey mirrors the Irish path to a secular society.
He cites Dick Walsh in the Irish times on mid Twentieth Century Ireland: it was a time when the Church, Fianna Fail and the GAA were the most important institutions in the country. The Irish media played a key part in dismantling two of these, our national sport being here to stay.
His view on Ireland’s future direction is interesting: “The way forward is to work out an identity for ourselves that involves an exploration of our Gaelic, Christian, Graeco-Roman and British past. To my mind, it was not simply enough to acknowledge whatever benefits the British had brought us, we eventually needed to move to a point where we could assess the British experience as a phenomenon in itself, regardless of how the British interacted with us. Therein would lie true freedom”. As well as divesting ourselves from the tight grip of the church, we also had to escape the clutches of the British imperialists. Two enormous cultural changes that we are only now starting to come to terms with. The problem with the book is that it is part history, part personal, part philosophy, and part politics. Fair enough, like life itself. Yet, it just read like a miasma of half ideas to me.
There are not enough books about books so I loved this theme. O’Mahony was not a rare book collector but dipped in and out of that world. He slowly built up his collection before buying – and specifically designing one – to fit his five thousand strong collection. He converted his staircase to a bookshelf!
I felt he was at his best pontificating about books that he had read and studied. He is honest about the classic books that he never got around to – “War and Peace” etc. The honesty is appreciated too, with there being a lot of snobbery and superciliousness in this sphere.
It was the ideas in books that led him away from religion. Initially he had thought that studying would confirm his Catholic world view, but was happy to welcome the opposite effect.
Just think, this he studied at a time in Ireland when he had to get permission from the Catholic Church when he wanted to study in Trinity College Dublin. When he began studying philosophy at University College Dublin, it was run by the Catholic priests. It is amazing really. I took a BA in Philosophy in UCD in 2000 and cannot imagine this happening less than a generation before me. On this topic, O’Mahony is clear: “The control that the archbishop, Doctor McQuaid, sought to exercise over the department was regrettable”. O’Mahony must have caught the tail end of this absurd level of theocracy in UCD. Thankfully, we have moved past this particular episode in our history.
What I appreciate most about O’Mahony’s life is his constant quest for learning, taking new courses, pushing himself. He seems to adhere to a quasi-meliorism type set of beliefs. The only way that I personally judge any set of ethics is to view what kind of world we would live in if we all lived that way. If we all took O’Mahony’s approach to lifelong learning, there is zero doubt that planet earth would benefit. His inquisitiveness is contagious and inspiring.
The other main take away from the book is the current state of conversation on the Irish airwaves. He nails the issue when he says that the “rise of current affairs to (a) hegemonic position” has stymied many other important aspects of broadcasting. He gets to the nub of it: “Another defining feature of today’s talk show is the absence of writers, artists and thinkers”. Exactly. Where are they and have we lost our love of ideas? It would seem a terrible shame if we had. Look at the amount of vacuous nonsense on television in 2017. A work colleague was telling me about “Love Island” recently. We must make room for talking about ideas and art. Especially when you think that we only now just finding our feet as an independent nation and are still defining the characteristics that define us. This is the country of James Joyce and Patrick Kavanagh. Art and ideas are deeply embedded in our DNA. Free of Religion, free of the English, let us discuss our ideas. How else will we make the next great leap forward?