Life of a man who ploughed lonely intellectual furrow at RTÉ

by John Boland

Memoir: Creating Space: The Education of a Broadcaster, Andy O’Mahony, The Liffey Press, pbk, 350 pages, €22.69

At the beginning of his long and distinguished broadcasting career, Andy O’Mahony’s close colleagues included Terry Wogan and Gay Byrne, and in the decades that followed, he was acquainted with almost all those who worked in Montrose, but anyone looking for revelatory tittle-tattle about RTÉ personalities has come to the wrong book.

Wogan, he tells us, was “easy-going, amusing and charming”, while Byrne was “the most fastidious of programme preparers”, and in the book’s final chapter, he deems the latter to be “the greatest television broadcaster Ireland has produced”, but there’s a sense of professional lip service being paid to his famous contemporaries rather than anything more personal.

Indeed, there’s always been a reticence, bordering on opacity, about this most courteous of men, and the book’s determinedly impersonal title and subtitle are entirely characteristic. So it comes as something of a surprise when, as early as the first chapter, he names the “three remarkable women” with whom he has been “privileged over the years to enjoy intimate relationships”.

Mostly, though, the book is unapologetically high-minded. We do learn a good deal about his upbringing in Clonmel in the 1930s and 40s, and about his early adulthood as both a seminarian and as a bank clerk, and we also hear about a 1960s social life in RTÉ that “revolved quite a bit around alcohol”, but for the majority of the 350 pages we’re in the realm of ideas, especially those that have shaped this broadcaster’s life and career as he sought to educate himself in a “hit-and-miss fashion”. And so we hear that “the historian Hugh Thomas told me…” and that Theodore Zeldin “remarked to me” and that “the philosopher Suzanne Langer has argued…”. We’re also told that “it is hard to disagree with Montaigne…” and that “I recall surprising parallels between Tolstoy and Proust…”, while also being “reminded of a passage in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov…”

Yet while readers not conversant with the works of lesser-known political scientists, free-market theorists, welfare-state capitalists and other 20th-century thinkers may feel there’s an awful lot of intellectual name-dropping going on in a book that does not wear its learning lightly, there’s no doubting the author’s passion for what he’s relating. He admires such ardour in others, too, and in the book’s arresting last chapter, he writes approvingly of Vincent Browne’s “unwavering moral passion”, while he finds similar zeal in Eamon Dunphy and, across the water, in Melvyn Bragg and Andrew Marr. And while he’s no fan of talk shows – where “all the guests are now selling product of some kind” and where there’s an “absence of writers, artists and thinkers” – he notes that Ryan Tubridy “listens carefully”.

But he hosted an RTÉ lunchtime radio chat show for many years and he also conducted a segment of the Late Late Show in 1989, when he interviewed Deirdre Purcell about her co-writing of Gay Byrne’s autobiography. That, though, ended in controversy when an attempt at mischief led him to ask her questions about her relationship with Byrne. “I was seen to have overstepped the mark”, he writes, and “the episode gave me an insight into how sheltered a life I had been living”.

For most of his broadcasting life, though, O’Mahony ploughed a lonely intellectual furrow in RTÉ as presenter of discussion programmes about philosophy, politics, religion and all aspects of the arts, and it is to the credit of his successive radio bosses that he was allowed, indeed encouraged, to do so, even in recent years when Beyoncé rather than Beckett became synonymous with culture.

Certainly there’s no one like him in RTÉ now, more’s the pity.

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