O’Mahony has written a meandering, jumbly peregrination through his eventful life. One that started out in 1930s rural Ireland and took him to the Sorbonne, Harvard and Washington DC along the way. The main theme was O’Mahony and Ireland’s intellectual awakening after discarding the thick vestiges of the Catholic Church by being open to new ideas. This was also O’Mahony’s paean to books. The narrative was not linear and occasionally confusing yet that may be precisely the point. O’Mahony was at his most incisive when dissecting his area of expertise: broadcasting.
There was 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 as he focused 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”. He rubbed shoulders with the Irish broadcasting elite from the outset of his career.
O’Mahony walked, oftentimes unconvincingly, a threadbare line between dewy-eyed recollection and critical, thoughtful evaluation. Sadly, it frequently descended into name dropping mawkishness. He was a news reader during the era when JFK and Martin Luther King were assassinated but focused less on the experience of relating the news and more on what he thought of it. Which would be wonderful, if he had anything insightful to add to the matters.
Articulating his thoughts on the Irish media, he had an interesting insight, “planning and spontaneity are the two key coordinates of great broadcasting”.
O’Mahony represented Ireland’s great laicisation after the 1950s. We still have not managed to disentangle ourselves completely from our theocratic past and O’Mahony’s journey mirrored the uneven Irish path to a secular society.
He cited 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. O’Mahony was part of an Irish media that played a key part in dismantling two of these cornerstones of Irish society.
His view on Ireland’s future was 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 British imperialism. We are, only now, starting to come to terms with these enormous cultural changes. 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 reading him opine on the subject was interesting. O’Mahony was not a rare book collector but dipped in and out of that world enough to provide an insight for those of us who watch with interest from the sidelines. 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 when he pontificated about books that he had read and studied. He was honest about the classics that he had never got around to, “War And Peace” etc. I appreciated this honesty too, as there remains a great deal of snobbery and superciliousness when it comes to reading.
It was ideas that led him away from religion. Initially, he had thought that studying would confirm his Catholic worldview, but was happy to be proved wrong.
Just think, O’Mahony went to University 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. Amazing, really. I took a BA in Philosophy in UCD in 2000 and cannot fathom that this was the case less than a generation before me. On this topic, O’Mahony was 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 appreciated most about O’Mahony’s life was his constant quest for learning. Meliorism is an attractive trait in a human being. 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. Taking O’Mahony’s approach to lifelong learning, there is zero doubt that planet earth would be a better place were we all to apply this technique. His inquisitiveness was contagious and inspiring.
The other main take away from the book was the current state of conversation on the Irish airwaves. He nailed the issue when he wrote that the “rise of current affairs to (a) hegemonic position” has stymied many other important aspects of broadcasting. He continued, “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 and radio 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 consider that we are only now just finding our feet as an independent nation and are still cementing 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 British, let us discuss these ideas.