Why it matters that Terry Wogan was Irish
In the flood of , many of the late broadcaster’s enduring qualities have been remembered: his seemingly indestructible niceness, his mischievous wit, his relaxed professionalism at the microphone, his gift of connection with his listeners. The today summed them up: “Thank you for being our friend.”
Yet, with the occasional exception, few of the British tributes lingered long, or at all, on what was surely one of Wogan’s most interesting other qualities – his Irishness. Perhaps this was so obvious as not to require comment or deconstruction by his legions of British admirers. Yet it was an odd omission, given the scale of the tributes, and it was not one that was missed in itself, where the president, Michael D Higgins, and the prime minister, Enda Kenny, were quick to celebrate the Limerick-born broadcaster’s role as “a bridge between Britain and Ireland”, as Kenny put it.
Wogan rarely drew explicit attention to his Irishness. And yet, although he lived, worked and died in Britain, was knighted by the Queen, and was never reluctant to wave the union jack when the needs of the BBC required it, his Irishness was there whenever he opened his mouth. For more than 40 years he was probably the most prominent Irish person, and certainly the most familiar Irish voice, in Britain, rivalled for fame only by George Best and Bono, neither of whom could match Wogan’s length of time in the spotlight.
Yet those four decades coincided with some of the darkest of times in the British-Irish relationship. They were the years of the Troubles, of internment, of the Provisional IRA’s bombing campaigns and of Britain’s first anti-terrorism laws of the modern era, directed explicitly against Irish republicans.
They were also years in which anti-Irish prejudice in Britain was often not far from the surface, especially while Wogan was beginning to make his name.
So, whether he liked it or not, Wogan was a significant Irish presence in Britain right through the era of Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley. To some Irish nationalist eyes that may perhaps brand him as someone who made dubious accommodations with Britishness at a sensitive time. To his British listeners, however, and possibly to many of his Irish ones too, Wogan was a reminder that there was also much more to the British-Irish relationship than nationalist and loyalist politics, and that people on both sides of the Irish Sea have more in common than some of them sometimes like to pretend.
In this respect, Wogan was of course a prominent part of a long and continuing tradition. The old crack that says Britain gave Ireland its language and that in return Ireland gave Britain its literature may be false in many ways, yet remains absolutely true in others.
But Ireland, north and south, has also given Britain many of its most familiar microphone voices too, from This Is Your Life’s and chatshow host to sports commentators and .
Not all great Irish broadcasters are lured to Britain, of course, as the career of exemplifies above all others. Yet it is hard to think of one who reached across the political and cultural barriers to the extent that Wogan did.
To reflect on Wogan’s Irishness is neither to extol nor exaggerate his influence. However popular Wogan may have been, and however much he may have been a kind of cultural bridge – even a very important one – it would be hard to argue that he changed the British-Irish relationship in any significant way. What he did, perhaps, was to use his personality to ensure the relationship didn’t get worse at a time that it could easily have done so.
Wogan was indeed “our” friend. Like all those whose lives and examples strengthen friendships across divisive borders, he deserves honour and praise.
But sentimentality on this count at least is out of place. Ignorance about Ireland remains appallingly widespread at the time of Wogan’s death. A tomorrow, but it will be largely neglected in Britain.
The centenary of the Easter Rising in April has generated little interest on this side of the Irish Sea, even though, as in the Guardian today, it was a foundation event not only of modern Ireland but also of a United Kingdom that sometimes feels close to collapse.
There are no firm plans yet for , set at the time of the Easter Rising, to be shown in the UK. Wogan’s Irishness was a reminder of how much these two islands share, but also of how closed the British mind can still be to many of the realities of modern Ireland.