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The Critic as Colleague

John Swift

Creating Space: The Education of a Broadcaster, by Andy O’Mahony, The Liffey Press, 370 pp, €22.95, ISBN: 978-1908308931

What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.
Francis Bacon
... the current, not the froth
Paul Valéry

Creating Space is an account of Andy O’Mahony’s effort to make sense of his life and of his own mind. It is written in a chatty, informal style and is jargon-free and accessible. This may reflect O’Mahony’s background in radio and television, and perhaps also his distaste for the “multisyllabic pidgin” used by many academic sociologists, psychologists and literary critics. The lively nature of his presentation is enhanced by a plentiful sprinkling of quips, quotes and anecdotes, many of which are fresh and memorable. The seriousness with which he presents his own views and that of others on a variety of complex issues is not affected adversely by this approach.

From what I know of his broadcasting, and on the evidence of this book, Andy O’Mahony is a scholar, a seeker after truth; the sub-title is the record of a lifelong quest. It is no accident that he was above all else an interviewer, an asker of questions. He possesses the quality he ascribes to Bernard Lonergan, the disinterested desire to know, what Lonergan called the “Eros of the mind”.

Partly by chance, partly by a quiet doggedness, O’Mahony has been more successful than most in marrying his interests to his employment. Born in 1934, he joined RTÉ in 1960 after a brief period in a bank, and remained in broadcasting, on and off, for the rest of his working life. In the late 1950s, he studied economics, statistics, commercial law, economic geography and German at Trinity. In 1962, he started a degree in philosophy, metaphysics and ethics at UCD. By the early 1970s, he had moved on to the philosophy and psychology of education and especially self-development, psychological growth and optimal functioning, on which he worked for a doctorate in Trinity under Derek Forrest.

In 1982, he decided to cut down on his broadcasting work for RTÉ and the BBC, and the offer of a sabbatical year at Harvard provided the opportunity for a break. At that stage his interests were shifting towards societal issues, including social and organisation theory, historical sociology, political economy and international relations. The break was radical and fruitful; at Cambridge, Massachusetts, he started to keep a daily journal, met his partner of thirty-five years, Irene Goodman, was stimulated by a new set of colleagues and began the habit of spending up to a third of each year in the United States; his one-word description of that year is “rejuvenating”. At the end of it, he was happy to return to his broadcast journalism.

The author Andy O’Mahony is fully aware that he has a well-stocked mind. In reaction to a comment from Roy Geary, he once described himself as “no more than a well-read critical reviewer, reaping the benefits of the hard-earned, front-line research of others”. Fair enough. While the word “intellectual” (mostly adjectival rather than substantive) is prominent in his narrative, he conveys no impression of personal vanity. He is not often referred to by his doctoral title. As his brief pen-picture of Daniel Bell makes clear, he is sensitive to the perils of ego inflation: Bell is described as “courteous, not particularly warm, with just the slightest undercurrent of self-importance”.

Most of O’Mahony’s judgements are sane and well-balanced, and he comes across as a generous and humane person. As regards his politics, he is a supporter of welfare state capitalism, the post-World War II consensus on protecting the more vulnerable members of society through direct state action. He questions what he describes as the unprecedented levels of social inequality delivered by the finance-led, hands-off capitalism now dominant. His publishers state that he finds himself drifting leftwards as he grows older, not in an activist sense but in how he understands the world. In philosophy, he is a religion-oriented agnostic, both as regards the existence of God and as regards the mediation of Christ and the role of the Catholic Church. He continues to examine “the traditional Catholicism he accidentally inherited”, and says he remains open to reintegrating his own experience with that inherited tradition.

Among the most enjoyable sections of the book are O’Mahony’s description of social and intellectual life in UCD and Trinity in the 1960s and 70s; US academia in 1982/83; his views on Irish history and on what he considers the optimal attitude of Irish people to Britain should be, as detailed in the second portion of Chapter 17; the pen-pictures he draws of Seamus Heaney and Edward Said, based on personal friendship and meetings, and of Henry Kissinger, based on his reading; and especially the final chapter on trends in modern broadcasting.

On almost every page of this memoir there is food for thought, stimulation or provocation, in the form of questions, comments or quotation. While not necessarily agreeing with all the examples given below in summary form, I list them to show the wealth and variety of what is on offer. The list could easily be extended.

In music, do particular note combinations and harmonies have specific emotional referents, directly or by analogy?

In culture generally there is no replacement activity, unlike in technology, where the more efficient replaces the less efficient; there is no question of Boulez or Berlioz replacing Bach.

Some of us had no problem in justifying violence elsewhere in the world in the 1960s and 70s (e.g. in Africa or Latin America) but when violence erupted on our doorstep as the NI conflict intensified, we began to see the strategy of violence in a different light.

Remnants of economic and/or cultural slavery remain in Ireland to the extent that we Irish refuse to define ourselves other than in terms of the oppressive behaviour of our former colonial occupiers. In this sense, so-called songs of freedom are often songs of slavery. True intellectual freedom and psychic health consist, inter alia, in acknowledging whatever benefits the British brought us, and in seeing British history in global terms, not just in relation to us. (O’Mahony also comments that Irish identity in South Boston often consists in not being black, Jewish or WASP /Yankee; Irish identity in North America is often negatively derived.)

[The historians] Acton and Collingwood are quoted on the desirability of studying problems, not periods. O’Mahony’s take on this is that periodisation in history can be fruitful when questioned, for example. “the ending of the classical world”, as studied by Henri Pirenne and his followers.

A key feature of modern democracy, he argues, is that intelligent people of good will often disagree about crucial matters like the meaning of the common good. This means that differences have to be accommodated, that procedural rules have to be worked out first and that the ideological horizon cannot be the ultimate one. O’Mahony takes John Rawls to task for being too optimistic in this regard. Writing of religious belief, O’Mahony observes: “A genuine agnostic has to be open to the possibility that he may one day acknowledge the existence of an ‘ultimate source’, and even that [his] inherited tradition is the correct one.” In reporting on a seminar at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society, O’Mahony notes: “There is an irony in the fact that in all processes of transformation, whether in therapy, education or religion, persons and institutions whose guiding purpose is human liberation can so easily inhibit that process. The reason is that relationships in psychoanalysis and education or whatever are fraught with power/control implications.”

On broadcasting, he obviously has a wealth of experience to draw on and clear views as regards what improvements are needed. Although there is more than a touch of nostalgia in his analysis and wishful thinking in his recommendations, it is hard to disagree with his principles. His main points are: radio and television producers have five categories of material to work with, viz events, information, issues, people and ideas. The programmes that generate most heat and audience involvement are those dealing with issues. The most neglected of the five categories is that of ideas. Programme items that aim to generate understanding of our world are few. A defining feature of today’s talk shows is the absence of writers, artists and thinkers. Thirty and more years ago, this was a regular feature of such programmes from Johnny Carson to Michael Parkinson to Gay Byrne. “It seems to me not unreasonable to invoke a rudimentary economic explanation for this to the effect that this is what the current markets ordain.”

In relation to the most important elements they have to manage ‑ finance, technology and content ‑ networks pay lip service to content but increasingly ignore it. The rating system is important but it cannot be the only criterion for judging what makes a good programme. There is more to it than the numbers watching or listening and the happiness quotient of the advertisers. Like the universities and the arts, broadcasters have had to narrow their horizons; their challenge is to survive commercially without a total surrender of vision.

O’Mahony believes that the BBC, multi-channelled and funded exclusively by government, has done better than most in maintaining broadly-based cultural programming, and in providing a sense to its audiences of who they are, where their society has come from and where it is going. By contrast, he thinks that RTÉ, with dual sources of funding from the public purse and from commercial advertising, has failed in recent years to achieve a comparable coherence in its programming philosophy. The solution has to lie in restoring programme content to a primary position.

O’Mahony uses his personal story to argue that it is possible to survive commercial pressure. “I had the freedom to read for programme purposes what I myself wanted to read. The result was book-based discussion programmes that explored whatever ideas were found to be animating economics, politics, religion and culture at different periods.” He goes so far as to use the word “educate” in this connection.

This is the story of an intellectual journey, and the author keeps his private life, his birth family and personal attachments, separated from it. He is not as focused in choosing for treatment themes and priorities from within his interests. A number of sections have too many names, places and topics, treated fleetingly and without depth; they run the risks of degenerating into mere lists and of exposing O’Mahony to accusations of name-dropping. For example, in the latter part of Chapter 13, Friedenreich Hundertwasser, Anne Madden, Serge Lifar, Colm O’Briain, Ted Dolan and John Arden make cameo appearances and then vanish; Tom Naughton and Francis Stuart are treated more fully, but even here, Stuart’s benign view of Hitler as a Samson pulling down a corrupt bourgeois order surely merits more detailed treatment; and in the next chapter on Beckett, instead of some relatively trivial anecdotes, I would have preferred to have a clearer explication of O’Mahony’s view, shared by Tom Murphy, that Beckett’s plays are not up to the high standard of his novels.

This, of course, is a counsel of perfection. It almost amounts to saying that the book is poorer because it covers so wide a field; the inverse is obviously true about O’Mahony’s life. The author might share the nice line in self-deprecation of the psychologist and educational theorist Howard Gardner, “I’m a man of breadth, not depth”, but his readers can appreciate both sides to the full.

In spite of the broad variety of subjects covered, and the astonishingly wide range of persons met, interviewed and quoted, some of the omissions are still striking. Locally, the political scene is scarcely sketched. There is nothing of substance on Northern Ireland issues, no mention of O’Mahony’s charismatic colleague Liam Hourican, who was RTÉ’s Northern correspondent in the bad years of the early 1970s, and no reference to Ireland in international affairs. CJ Haughey as taoiseach merits a brief description and a characteristic quote, but Garret FitzGerald is absent. (O’Mahony presented a series on the Irish taoisigh in 2001).

In the wider context, I was surprised that the Catholic existentialist philosopher Gabriel Marcel did not figure in the discussion of the UCD scene in the 1960s; that later references to the Postmodernist movement and its spokesmen, Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard, Lacan and Fredric Jameson, were so cursory; and especially that Clive James, the O’Mahony’s equivalent in the UK as broadcaster and cultural commentator, is referred to only in relation to the quality of Terry Wogan’s speaking voice. The hundred essays of James’s Cultural Amnesia (2007) constitute an impressive intellectual autobiography and a confrontation with the culture and history of our recent past; his books are an attempt at a crash course in civilisation; he too writes about Dick Cavett in addition to Flaubert, Freud, Kolakowski and Said.

It is hardly surprising that O’Mahony, born in 1934, makes no mention of the electronic age, the internet, smart gadgets or social media; but to scarcely mention computers and their effects on our work habits, language, research capacities and mental processes, when dealing with cultural development, communications and the evolution of the modern mind and sensibility, is to leavea large gap.

O’Mahony believes that Seamus Heaney is a perceptive literary critic as well as a brilliant poet. He uses the term “belle-lettrist” to describe the tradition to which Heaney as critic belongs. That label does not do justice to Heaney, nor indeed to O’Mahony, as cultural critic. I believe a better approach is that of the US novelist Cynthia Ozick. In her essay, “The Boys in the Alley”, she pleads for a critical method which is ceremoniously slow: unhurried thinking, the ripened long (or sideways) view, the gradualism of deliberate shading. And on the standing of the critic she quotes Adam Kirsch: “The critic participates in the world of literature not as a lawgiver or a team captain for this or that school of writing, but as a writer, a colleague of the poet or novelist. Novelists interpret experience through the medium of plot and character, poets through the medium of rhythm and metaphor, and critics through the medium of other texts. This is my definition of serious criticism, that which says something true about life and the world.”

Like Seamus Heaney, Andy O’Mahony is a serious critic. Like Cynthia Ozick, he believes in taking time and creating space for thought; and like Valéry, he is preoccupied with the broad sweep of history rather than the froth of “current events”. He invokes Wittgenstein and Phillipa Foot against too much stress on cleverness and speed in philosophical thought, and in favour of taking the necessary time for mature rumination. “The former may dazzle but the latter is more likely to deliver.” By the time I had finished Creating Space, I had decided to tackle ER Dodds on The Greeks and the Irrational and Henry Kissinger’s 1957 study A World Restored – Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace. What could be more serious or more likely to stimulate rumination than that?


John Swift retired from the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs in 2006. His last posts were as ambassador to Cyprus, ambassador to the Netherlands and permanent representative to the UN (Geneva).