Friday, 26 January 2007

John Cooney - Western People

Novelist Colm Toibin tells the story of inter-viewing Sean MacReamoinn, the broadcaster, Irish language and music enthusiast and leader of the Irish Catholic Church’s ‘loyal opposition’ who has died in Dublin, aged 85. The two were enjoying a good lunch in a busy restaurant when a friend of Sean’s approached the table, and politely asked “How are you?” According to Toibin, MacReamoinn’s answer deserves to be cited in any self-respecting dictionary of quotations. “I’m like a page from a census form,” Sean replied. “Broken down by age, religion and sex.”

Sean was a master of such one-liners that came spontaneously from his sharp intelligence and love of companionship. His gravel voice and bouncy personality in a small square body adorned with an impish moustache made him instantly recognisable wherever he went as the man who made the Irish language and music come to life on Radio Eireann - and as the man who introduced Ireland to the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

My own favourite MacReamoinn-ism is of his attending the Patrician Congress in Dublin in 1961 when he heard the renowned American radio preacher, Bishop Fulton Sheen, extolling “the passionate chastity of the men of Ireland”.It was MacReamoinn who introduced novel-ist Edna O’Brien to “Nescafe society” in Dublin, and of the Ireland of the 1950s he said that it was “the culture not so much of the poor mouth as the closed mouth.” "Everything in the Catholic Church is either forbidden or compulsory,” he once quipped.

To borrow the title of Leon O’Brien’s memoir, it seems “just like yesterday” that I first met Sean. This was 1971 in the Sala Stampa, the Vatican’s press room, where I was on my first foreign assignment as a raw young reporter for the Glasgow Herald.
While most journalists were hammering away at their typewriters or delivering their news copy to the telex room, Sean was always in a phone-booth either taking a call or waiting for a call. For hours, he never moved from his booth - and he never stopped talking!

Luckily for me, as I did not know anybody when I arrived in Rome and was unfamiliar with the Vatican’s communications system, I was taken under the wings of the late Joe Power, the Irish Independent’s Religious Affairs Correspondent, and T.P. O’Mahony, then the Religious Affairs Correspondent of the Irish Press and now a columnist for the Western People.

Joe and T.P. integrated me into the company of the Irish press corps who were covering the world Synod of Bishops. Both the lunch-time conversation topped up with copious carafes of wine in Marcello’s garden restaurant in the Borgo Pio and in evening exchange of gossip and stories in trattoria in the Piazza Navona introduced me to a remarkable generation of Irish journalists who were at home in Rome as if they were honorary Italians.

There, I met - and became friends ever since - with John Horgan, the Irish Times Religious Affairs Correspondent, Louis McRedmond, Des Fisher, Sean Duignan, the late Fr Romuald Dodd O.P., all of RTE, as well as Fr Tom Stack and Fr Austin Flannery O.P. and the late Gary MacEoin. And, of course, the doyen of them all, Sean MacReamoinn. They were my first teachers of the revolution which had been brought about in Catholic Church thinking by Pope John XXIII. It was Louis McRedmond who introduced me to the Italian liquor, Sambuca.

A year later, autumn 1972, I was installed in the Irish Times in Dublin through the recommendation of John Horgan as his successor as Religious Affairs Correspondent. Several mornings a week Sean MacReamoinn would arrive in the office and get into a gaelic huddle with news-editor Donal Foley and Eileen O’Brien to write the Irish language Tuarascail column. There would be gales of laughter as the trio chuckled at their rendering in Irish of modern English technical words that had no equivalent in Irish, or as they poked fun at the airs of grandeur of government ministers that would not have been published if penned in English. Often, we would adjourn for long boozy lunches, now outlawed in today’s more politically correct days in journalism. We would be joined by novelists Meave Binchy and Ben Kiely and journalist Con Houlihan . It was like being back in Rome!

These memories came back to mind when I attended Sean’s removal to the parish church of Holy Cross in Dundrum on Friday evening. There gathered well-known faces but now carrying three more decades in appearance and age. There was laughter when the parish priest, Fr Donal O’Doherty recalled how Sean had described himself as a card-carrying member of the Catholic Church, Irish Branch.

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