Gerry Ryan Hysteria

by John Boland

A man dies suddenly at the age of fifty-three. He is unknown to the wider community, but he has a wife and children, parents, siblings, friends, neighbours and work colleagues. A death notice appears in the newspapers and his removal and funeral service are attended by those who knew and loved him. We all attend such funerals, and others will be attending ours one day.

Another man dies suddenly at fifty-three. He is a more public figure – a teacher, a doctor, a shopkeeper – and his impact on the community has been substantial for many years, so his passing is mourned, not just by those who knew him intimately, but also by those whose lives have been influenced by him or who have dealt with him on a regular basis throughout the years. His death merits a few paragraphs, probably in a local newspaper.

An eminent and much-loved writer, musician or actor dies in his prime. His art has affected a lot of people who wish to acknowledge what it has meant to them. His funeral, attended by his peers and by a couple of state representatives, is large and the media coverage, mindful of his stature, is extensive, running perhaps to four minutes on that evening’s main television news and to a page or two of news and appreciation in the next morning’s papers.

A “personality” dies at the same age. Because of the public’s obsession with celebrity – an obsession largely manufactured by the broadcasting and print media, which have created and nurtured a craving for ersatz fame – the response is disproportionate to any response that should reasonably be felt. But we shrug and we accept that this is the age in which we live, an age in which fame is its own justification and bears no relation to actual achievement.

None of which accounts for the hysteria with which the passing of Gerry Ryan was greeted just over two weeks ago, an hysteria that was perpetuated by the media in the week that followed and that only now shows signs of abating. This was Ireland’s version of Princess Di dementia – though with a middle-aged local DJ rather than a royally connected beauty as its icon – and those of us who instinctively recoiled from it were left wondering what on earth was going on?

The sadness of many over the untimely death of a broadcaster who clearly meant much to them was certainly a part of it, but this didn’t explain the response of RTE, which permitted its broadcasters to entirely lose the run of themselves in their headlong rush to lament the passing of one of their own. Amid all the unbridled outpourings of Joe Duffy, Pat Kenny, Ryan Tubridy, Marian Finucane, Dave Fanning, Rachael English, Derek Mooney and scores of other grieving Montrose presenters, where was the guiding RTE authority to insist that enough was enough and that the duty of a supposed national broadcasting organisation is to apply perspective and balance to its treatment of events?

On the day that Gerry Ryan’s death was announced, 900 people employed by Quinn Insurance were told that they were losing their jobs. These were 900 personal tragedies, but in the self-interested mania that swept through RTE that day, and throughout most of the week that followed, their plight was entirely sidelined in favour of one presenter’s passing. For all his braggadochio and delight in the limelight, the man himself might have blanched, or at least chortled, at that.

But it was all part of a general disconnect from the real world in which RTE was not just complicit but actively hectoring, intent on bullying its listeners and viewers into feeling what most of them didn’t really feel at all. The print media, of course, gleefully cashed in on all of this, but it was RTE which had created the demand.

A few months ago I attended the funeral in Dungarvan of Liam Clancy, a musician of enduring achievement and international renown for the last five decades and a man of great eloquence and distinction. Those who loved and admired him were there, including some fellow musicians, but there was no President of Ireland at his passing, and there were no former Taoisigh or groups of government ministers or RTE personnel there, and the broadcasting and newspaper coverage of his obsequies, though respectful, was modest.

But then he wasn’t intimately acquainted with Joe Duffy or Ryan Tubridy or Pat Kenny or Marian Finucane or anyone else in RTE who was in a position to tell you, or indeed who felt moved to tell you, what a loss he was to the country. That honour is reserved for their own.

Or at least for those of their own who they deem to honour. In 2003 I was at the funeral of James Plunkett, not just an eminent Irish writer, but also for a long period one of RTE’s own as a distinguished radio and television writer and producer. But he belonged to a generation before self-interested hype had been invented, and so the only people with an RTE connection that I saw at the church were Eoghan Harris and Liam O Murchu. Here was a man who had done RTE some real and lasting service, but RTE couldn’t be bothered turning up to acknowledge his contribution.

As I say, he was from a different age, and he hadn’t died suddenly at the peak of his career, though that doesn’t explain RTE’s extraordinary reaction to Gerry Ryan’s demise. In various careers, some of them high-profile, people regularly die untimely deaths, and there have been many such deaths over the last decade. Any such eventuality is all very sad and very unfair, but I can’t think or any musician or writer or actor or sportsperson or, indeed, broadcaster, whose passing has been afforded the unrestrained indulgence granted by RTE in its coverage of this particular death.

Yes, people around the country are entitled to mourn for Gerry Ryan in whatever way and to whatever degree they feel, but surely it’s RTE’s duty to ensure that such feelings aren’t being distortedly shaped by professional broadcasters for whom a degree of objectivity should be a basic requirement.

Such objectivity, alas, has been alarmingly absent in the past fortnight. Let’s just hope that this remains the exception and doesn’t become the new rule, though RTE has become so enamoured of its own image and so accommodating of its star performers that I wouldn’t bet on it.

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