Sunday, 28 January 2007

Eoghan Harris, Sunday Independent, 28 January 2007

In memory of Sean Mac Reamoinn

By some serendipity I was in Litchfield, Staffordshire - the birthplace of Dr Johnson - when I heard that Sean Mac Reamoinn was dead. I say serendipity because although I was sick at having to miss his funeral, I was in the right place to review my many memories of a mentor and guide. Because the figure Sean Mac Reamoinn most resembles was the benign figure of Dr Johnson, as brought to life by Boswell.

Tony MacMahon said that no words could describe Sean Mac Reamoinn. And I agree. But in the absence of a Boswell, those who knew him should share some of the fun with a new generation. Because Sean Mac Reamoinn was to Irish broadcasting - and, by extension, to Irish life - what Dr Johnson was to the world of literary London.

Back in the Sixties most producers in Irish television came from Britain or Canada. Few of them had Irish or insight into the riches of Irish culture, then going through a remarkable renaissance under the aegis of artists like Sean O Riada and Sean O Tuama. Trainees like Sean O Mordha, Brian Mac Lochlainn and myself craved role models who could combine tradition with modernity.

We found them among a group of brilliant broadcasters brought in from Radio Eireann or back from the BBC - Aindreas O Gallochoir, Brendan O hEithir James Plunkett Kelly, Muiris Mac Conghail and Donal Farmer - who were promptly dubbed the Gaelic Mafia, although some of them, like James Plunkett Kelly, had no interest in Irish.

In fact the so-called Gaelic Mafia was merely a meeting of minds among those who wanted to invigorate the Irish imagination by integrating the Irish language with the reform of Irish society along radical lines. But if the Gaelic Mafia had existed, Mac Reamoinn would have been its Godfather. In that company he was primus inter pares, first among equals.

Mac Reamoinn's pluralism made nonsense of any such name-calling. In time his wit won over many who had been hostile to Irish and made them feel at home in Mac Reamoinn's republic. And I am convinced that any future Irish Republic must look like a meeting of Cumann Merriman, where Northern Protestants will rise before dawn to roust the lazy republicans out of bed.

When it came to wit, Mac Reamoinn, like Dr Johnson, was fast on the draw. Asked about his summer, he said, "I spent it with my wife at that well known watering place, near loggerheads." Indeed his beloved and beautiful wife Pat and his cherished children were regularly used as comic feeds or to point up a punchline.

Complaining to him about an RTE colleague who briefly turned his house into a B&B. I remarked: "Imagine coming home come home to find a German hitchiker in the house." Mac Reamoinn bulged his eyes: "Imagine coming home to find your wife and family in the house!"

Mac Reamoinn's sense of humour was benign but gently barbed, and worked both at home and abroad. John A Murphy points out that most witticisms are well rehearsed, but that Mac Reamoinn's sprang spontaneously from the soil of the situation. "Mac Reamoinn redeemed the pun from its low status and made it a socially desirable skill."

As proof Murphy recalls how one morning on his way to speak in the Senate, Mac Reamoinn accosted him and asked him what he was going to speak about. Murphy said he planned to attack Haughey's thuggish style of politics and ask (again) the source of the wealth behind the lavish lifestyle at Kinsealy. Mac Reamoinn: "So you're going to denounce him brute and ranch?"

But Mac Reamoinn could be deadly serious when dealing with the armed struggle which he despised. On the day of the Mountbatten murders, Murphy remembers Mac Reamoinn, reaching for a shared reference, and murmuring softly in mimicry of Yeats: "We have disgraced ourselves again."

Abroad, his wit was accurate too. On one occasion (I cannot recall the exact date) he returned to RTE from Moscow, after attending what I think was the first mass ordination of seminarians in the Russian Orthodox Church since the Russian Revolution. Because the Soviets seemed unsure whether to harass the ceremony or parade it as an example of a thaw, the ceremony had attracted both the attention of the KGB and the international press corps, at that time anxious for any sign of a thaw.

As Sean seemed to know the liturgy of every church, and had languages, as they say in Irish, "at his will", he was able to make the correct responses to the lavish and literally Byzantine rituals. An alert agent of the Patriarch spotted his devotional risings and fallings and (to the ill-concealed envy of his English colleagues) a discreet invitation was issued to join the Patriarch of Moscow "for a coffee".

So when he came home we asked him with awe what he and the Patriarch had talked about. Sean pulled his nose and said, "Well first of all I confirmed that a cup of coffee means in Russia what it means in Ireland, that is the cup that cheers. And thanks to our sharing of bog technology with the Soviets, the Patriarch also had three words of Irish. 'Bord na Mona' to be exact."

Sean paused to pull his nose for effect. "After that we spoke about the Great Schism of 1054, which you, Harris, as an historian, will recall, centred around the doctrinal question of the addition of the filioque clause of the Nicene Creed. [Pause.] Generally I let the Patriarch know I wasn't from the Daily Express."

That reply was pure Mac Reamoinn: the lightly worn learning, the poke at the tabloid press and of the flattering implication that we young whippersnappers shared his scholarship. No wonder young men and women worshipped him. And their enthusiastic enjoyment of his company kept him boyish to the end.

But Mac Reamoinn's attraction for youth was not merely mental. Like Dr Johnson he had the physical stamina for what I call "rambling", by which I mean the ability to put cosy habits aside, and to roam out on a whim, to see what the world has to offer.

If you want to know what Mac Reamoinn in later life was like, read Boswell's account of how two drunken young dogs, Bennet Langton and Topham Beauclerc, in a tavern at three in the morning, worked up the Dutch courage to knock on Dr Johnson's door.

Johnson, who was then touching 60, came out in an old wig with a poker in his hand and instantly took in the situation. "What? Is it you, you dogs? I'll have a frisk with you." Frisk they did all that night and far into the next day, shocking the fruiterers in Covent Garden, taking a boat to Billingsgate, pausing in a tavern to listen to Johnson declaim the poet's address to Sleep, which could equally serve as an epitaph for the mighty Sean Mac Reamoinn.

Short, O short, be then thy reign,

And give us to the world again!

Eoghan Harris

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