He may well be RTE s only living intellectual but ANDY O MAHONY, host of The Sunday Show, will long be remembered by many as the man who asked Deirdre Purcell if she ever did the bold thing with Gay Byrne. JOE JACKSON gets the self-styled closet determinist to come out of the closet. Pix: Colm Henry
One suspects that even as the chattering classes gather at Andy O Mahony's funeral and argue about what exactly it was that made him such a great broadcaster, he himself will rise from the coffin and bellow, one voice, please.
But if the tabloidisation of that line, as used to silence a cacophony of conflicting opinions, will forever be certainly will be remembered as his trademark on The Sunday Show. Irish culture continues, it is possible he will be remembered primarily as the RTE presenter who asked Deirdre Purcell if she d wanted to sleep with Gay Byrne while working with him on his autobiography. And who asked Gay himself if he d ever been unfaithful to his lovely wife, Kathleen.
Not that it is time to write O'Mahony's epitaph. On the contrary. After eight years on-the-air, The Sunday Show is now more popular than ever, a perfect alternative to mid-day mass in Modern Ireland. It s a programme guaranteed to provoke debate and discussion and thus blow the cobwebs off any brain still weighed down from the after-effects of the excesses of the night before.
Of course, even the mere mention of the word brain automatically brings into focus another stereotype frequently hauled out when the talk turns to our Andy i.e. the claim that he is possibly the only intellectual still alive in RTE. Apart from Dustin. This reputation undoubtedly goes back to his original success as the presenter of the series, The Course of Irish History, in the mid 60s and subsequent radio series such as Dialogue and Books and Co, where he could slip with unselfconscious ease and erudition from discussions about religion and philosophy to subjects such as psychology, literature, social history, broadcasting and the arts. Indeed, producer Pat Leahy once said of him, he is without comparison as a broadcaster for the thinking individual.
Andy O Mahony was born in the 1930s in Clonmel and, after school, studied for a vocation in St. Clement s, a Redemptionist College, in Limerick. He later became a clerk in the Bank of Ireland before joining RTE in 1961. While working primarily as a newsreader throughout the 60s, he also studied for a BA, B Comm and, later, his MA in Trinity College, Dublin. In 1974 he got his M ed and in 1982 a PhD in psychology. The following year he studied at Harvard, partly under the moral, political and metaphysical philosopher Robert Nozick. O Mahony is single and lives alone in Dublin s Aylesbury Road in a house that probably could be best described as a book with four walls.
Joe Jackson: One voice, please , resolutely a bachelor and RTE intellectual are the stereotypes most often associated with your name. Any problems with any of those labels?
Andy O Mahony: No. There s nothing you can do about how you are perceived and nothing you can do about something like any of those labels.
But do you wake up alone at home in the morning and say, one voice, please? I m sure I recently heard you say that on The Sunday Show when there was no one else speaking!
Maybe I did! But, no, I don t wake up saying one voice, please! Yet anyone chairing a discussion has to find some formula for keeping people in line and one voice is as good as any! It s roots probably are in sing-songs, when too many people start singing at the same time.
Given the choice, if you weren t to wake up alone, who would you prefer to wake up with: Gay Byrne or Deirdre Purcell?
It would have to be Deirdre Purcell because Gay is a very difficult person to know. Whereas Deirdre is extraordinarily charming and easy and is a person I quite like.
So, did you sleep with her?
Did I? No. Never did (laughs).
Asking that question of her on The Late Late Show was widely seen as a gross miscalculation on your part.
It s a mistake to see the process of asking questions on television or radio in purely journalistic terms. Television is a form of theatre, as well. For example, on that occasion I did also ask Gay Byrne was he ever unfaithful to Kathleen. I didn t expect an answer, but the drama is in the asking of the question. So if you see such questions in a theatre rather than journalistic rubric it makes more sense. And, my understanding of that particular section of the Late Late Show is that the powers-that-be were more concerned with the question of Gay plugging his own book on the programme. That, rather than anything I said, though what I said did cause quite a stir. But, as we all know, controversy is the lifeblood of the game.
Okay, here, perhaps, is one of those theatrical questions. When the phrase resolutely a bachelor is used to describe you what does that suggest?
Cute hoor, basically! In that all of these friends say to me, My God! You ve escaped the trap. Frankly, I don t see marriage as a trap but I have quite enjoyed the life of a bachelor. I don t see it as a miserable existence.
Ever come close to being trapped ?
Yes. Once before and, as we speak. It surfaces from time to time. But the reason I never got married is probably partly because my father died when I was eight and a half and I became the father of the family. And as I saw my siblings get married I seemed to feel I had taken on that responsibility and there was the feeling of not wanting to get into that situation again. Having said that, I really don t think married life would have suited the kind of person I am, with the kind of pursuits I have, such as aesthetics.
Your brother Eddie once suggested there never seemed to be one special woman in your life.
My brother said that, inaccurately. But part of the thing is that I don t talk about my business at that level, so maybe such confusion is my own fault.
Implicit in all that resolutely a bachelor with few known women partners stuff could be the suggestion that you are homosexual.
That would not be accurate.
And what about the suggestion that you are, occasionally, not just sexist but simply unable to understand the female psyche.
I probably don t! But take, for example, Carl Jung, about whom I am reading a book right now. He had many women partners but the suggestion seems to be that he couldn t integrate - as many men can t sexuality and affection. Therefore he had difficulty seeing his wife as anything other than the mother. And I ve had a number of women partners, though not in all cases have I been able to integrate love and lust. Women seem to be able to do that more effectively than we do.
This subject also came up recently when I was talking to Michael Billington, who has done a biography of Harold Pinter. Pinter was fascinated with this dualism and seemed to suggest one way women deal with this is through fantasy. Whereas men have more difficulty with this form of integration, meaning that one corollary is that there would have to be in one s life the wife, and a number of other women.
Have you come to terms with those tensions?
In some relationships I have, but it s difficult and something that is never totally absolved, I believe.
So you do live up to that other media label: Randy Andy?
(laughs). Of course! Desire is multi-faceted!
This image of you goes back about eight years to when you took over the Pat Kenny slot on radio and suddenly seemed to become obsessed with the subject of sexuality. As in talking about, say, Gregg the stripper, who performed for a Connacht Convent audience and a well-known politician being spotted in a New York pornographic store. You also quizzed poet Sara Berkeley about her male partners and, while interviewing the compiler of the Oxford English dictionary, seemed particularly interested in the inclusion of the phrase blow job .
Again, that has to be seen under the rubric of theatre, entertaining an audience. Those questions aren t of burning interest to me, but they are to many people. Broadcasting is theatre. But it s not pandering to a populist audience. Everyone has an interest in sexuality and when you cover that subject you are going to tap into that interest. It also had nothing to do with me trying to break taboos, or anything like that. If it did it was purely unconscious, if I may use that rather ominous word!
Then what do you think Jung or Freud would have made of you claiming at the time that getting your own daytime radio show was like wearing purple underwear ?
They d both have a field day with that! But it was mauve, actually! Yet I wasn t trying to undo or disprove anything. All that was just exploring other aspects of myself.
As in your apparent obsession with the less-than-petite breasts of Toni The Exotic Dancer ? Though it was suggested that when she quipped that she didn t go jogging for fear of getting black eyes, you didn t get the joke.
It s quite possible I was obsessed, yes! I found the woman absolutely fascinating, a real charmer. She knocked me out. But, of course, I got the joke. I think I could rise to that, even as an intellectual!
Are you the kind of intellectual who, perhaps in the 1960s, used drugs as part of a process of self exploration?
No. But I did have a friend who was a therapist and very keen to get me to take LSD and the rationale was in terms of the self-insights generated. But then he later said, you re doing pretty well without LSD . But then I have always been what Neil Jordan once described as the suburban mystic . I ve always had that sense of heightened awareness, like where you are going down Grafton Street and you apprehend yourself as a camera, as it were, drinking in the real.
Then you sober up!
Yes. And then they come out with the white jacket! But, seriously, I do, quite naturally, experience what Maslow calls a peak experience and what Joyce calls an epiphany. Though I am envious of those who say they live in that mode most of the time. As in, when you are talking to somebody you suddenly find that what you are monitoring is not the content of the conversation, but the fact that they are there. In other words, say, I m talking to you now, what I become aware of is the outline, the textures and everything else is secondary.
It s like what you describe in that Hot Press interview with Christy Moore as the shock of recognition , the sense he gets when he connects with an audience, at that level. That s a sort of rhythmic thing and I presume the same is true in terms of actors. And broadcasters. I certainly get those moments.
Let s get back to the subject of drink! You now are a near-teetotaller, but was there ever a point at which you drank heavily.
I drank sizeably, in the late 60s and just stopped to see what that would be like. And, as a friend of mine said, it gives you back the mornings! Now I drink wine.
Yet I remember going to Russia in 1967 and the prime thing in my mind was, what will the drinking facilities be? Every social occasion seemed bound up in alcohol, but that, obviously, was just a phase of my life. And as for insights, the most alcohol ever did for me was make me aware of some ridiculous inhibitions I had. As in finding that after a few drinks you re eager to chat to people whereas, without it, you might be more reserved. Yet I never really drank, say, till I blacked out.
Though I do remember one drinking sessions in Galway, arriving in my room, hanging my jacket on my chair and the next moment the phone rings and someone says, your morning call, sir! Those were the days!
Some would see those moments Joyce quite accurately describes as epiphanies as epitomising a religious experience. Are you still a believer?
I m more a hoper than believer. I subscribe to a rudimentary notion of faith as consisting of an understanding that questions are worth asking. And the very fact that you engage in questions presupposes that you are drawn to something. Now, if you want to call that to which you are drawn, God, fine by me. But, beyond that, I don t have a very firm idea of faith along more traditional lines.
Originally you did, one assumes. After all, you studied for a vocation, if only for six months.
Yes. And it was a fundamental Christian belief. But the whole notion of Christianity is largely accidental for many of us. In other words, you are born into a Christian tradition and when you grow up you find that your understanding of that tradition comes into conflict with your experience. Then you ve got three options. One, is to reject the tradition. The second, even more serious, is to reject your experience. And the third is to explore the tradition in the light of your experience, which is more the option I m taking. But I think I now am much more of an agnostic than I was. And, even to begin with, I never had a very strong vocation.
Besides, vocation has a much wider resonance for me now, than simply being a clergyman. It has to do with a call to a particular kind of life that involves fulfilling myself through reading and friendship and so on. The notion has a two-fold meaning for me now, which is in terms of my professional calling, broadcasting, but also the other calling, which is to educate myself. And the key tension in my life has been between those two strands.
In that Christy Moore interview you also saw him talk about the state of confusion that is engendered in a child s mind as a result of the deity being described as God the father. Might your temporarily believing you had a vocation, in your teens, have had anything to do with the fact that you had lost your own father?
That is quite possible. But not so much in terms of seeking the deity. But there definitely was that replacement father quest in terms of authority figures. Yet, as I moved through life, the search became more, as I say, a craving to increase my understanding of the modern world. And that has taken me through many disciplines.
But more and more I ve come to believe that no matter how much you try to rationalise this, or any form of drive, we all work primarily from gut, intuitive positions. And the most you can hope for is to be able to submit that gut feeling to critical scrutiny. Those people who do that form an intellectual community. Whereas there is very little you can do about the original starting point.
Whether you are born, in Gilbert s phrase, a little liberal, or a little conservative, born socialist or a free-marketeer or whatever, what really makes growth and dialogue possible is your ability to submit those original intuitions to scrutiny. Likewise, in terms of my own base in Catholicism, or position in a particular family, or milieu, all of which really amount to little more than an accident. That you think, to me, is far more important than what you think. And I m less interested in the question of where, or who you are than the fact that we all are on a voyage. That s how I tend to see all these questions.
How else did your father s death affect you?
In my intellectual life I had to fight hard to reach what can only be described as a position of relative autonomy, particularly because the Catholic framework is so powerful. And one of the first books I bought after leaving school was Art and Scholasticism because I wanted to know what is the right way to think about art? Gradually, of course, you come to see the Catholic tradition as a wonderful resource, a body of riches, as well. But, even so, running parallel with all of this there still is the need for relative autonomy, the need to think for one s self, which, again, is related to the father quest.
But what did you feel when your father died? The only public reference you ve ever made to his death was that when you came home from school that day and he had passed away after a long illness, you wondered why the blinds were drawn. It could almost be a scene from Camus The Outsider.
Maybe I was an existentialist at the age of eight! But that is the dominant memory of my father s death. And the point is that I had always been a happy child. I remember interviewing Bernard Lonergan, the great Jesuit theologian, and he made an extraordinary statement. I asked him if he missed the life of marriage, and all the rest, and he said, Any man who is loved by his mother will be happy. That was true in my case. My mother certainly gave me a great feeling of security.
Was studying social theory, moral philosophy and so on at Harvard, partly under Nozick, a pivotal learning experience in your life?
After I finished my doctorate I spent a year at Harvard formally attached to the Philosophy department and Nozick was chairman at the time and I heard some of his lectures. But I was studying social theory, in the main, and Nozick, as you know, is a sort of apologist for libertarian thought, as with John Rawls, his confrere. But the importance of that year was that, up till then, my thinking had been very much organised psychologically whether in terms of psychology, psycho-analysis, philosophical psychology and then I began to move more towards social theory.
I am something of a closet social determinist, or structuralist, in that I ve always been sceptical about Great-Man explanations of history, or whatever. I ve always been more attracted to the idea of what s going on determining events. For example, when we get a new Pope, people tend to look at his personality and not at the social, theological trends and group factors that led to his being chosen. That s just one individual case, in relation to Church affairs. But, equally, in terms of evaluating art, or artists I think you need a balance of tensions.
Since the 19th century, the great masters of suspicion, Nietzsche, Marx and Freud, all can be seen as chipping away at the autonomy of the human subject, saying we re determined in various ways. My position would be that all of that seems to be true, but there is always a residue from previous paradigms. For example, Nietzsche s claim that the disinterested search for truth is impossible, because you are conning yourself, seems to go too far. I can happily acknowledge that a lot of the time we kid ourselves into thinking there aren t other motivations at work - such as the motivation to power, or whatever. As a closet determinist I acknowledge all this, but there are still those determinations I want to hold onto, however fragile, that give me the sense that I myself do exercise some control.
What do you think of the developing tendency to evaluate art, literature and music, more in terms of their social significance as distinct from the concept of art-for-art s sake?
If you take a poem, song, novel, whatever and look at it through a myriad of lenses political, psychological, social, anthropological that activity is legitimate, provided you are not being reductive, not saying, that s all there is to the work.
But I myself have a threefold model, when it comes to looking at art. One comes under the question of authenticity, in that I would always ask what does this guy want? How genuine is the creator of the art? How important is what they are saying to them? The second realm would be the artefact itself, which can be judged under various levels, as in how significant is it, philosophically, politically, how deep into the well of human understanding is this artist, when judged against the broader tradition, and so on. And the third level would be how well made is the object, as in formal criteria.
I also tend to agree with Platonist, Arthur Little, who said that what turns us on is not the artefact but our awareness of our own capacity to respond, so that when I hear a piece of music what really moves me is my awareness of the fact that I am moved. It s a reflexive thing.
You shouldn t have mentioned music, Andy. I know you ve studied singing, and love opera and what can best be described as classical pop singers, but Declan Lynch recently quite rightly mocked you for dropping the E from the name of Ben E. King, on radio. This would suggest that, despite all this very impressive talk about the masters of suspicion, you re basically an ignorant slob when it comes to knowing who the far more important Drifters are!
(laughs) Insult me all you like! I do stand corrected. And I would regard my lack of knowledge in relation to rock as a huge lacuna and gap in my education. It s an age thing in that rock simply passed me by, though I can remember earnestly reading The Aesthetics Of Rock 25 years ago!
Obviously because you were more interested in aesthetics than rock. But does this mean then that you dismiss the social relevance of rock?
Obviously I was more interested in aesthetics than rock but that doesn t mean I dismissed its social relevance, not at all. And even now. Brian Eno is someone I d love to meet. Likewise, David Bowie, who I recently saw in Julian Schnabel s film Basquit, Build A Fort, Set It On Fire, in which he plays Andy Warhol. He also exhibits his own work and, seemingly, has always been interested in the visual arts, though I suspect that he is the exception when it comes to rock stars.
But overall, on the question of my response to rock, if you take the Appolonian-Dionysian distinction, I remember seeing Joe Cocker in 1969 and what I ve never liked about rock was what he seemed to personify, that sense of the Dionysiac, the out-of-control, in art. I ve always been Appolonian, love control, discipline. And even in terms of music I prefer slow movements as opposed to rhythmically upbeat things.
But rock, as with jazz before it, has been credited with helping to unleash the primal, Dionysian forces within the individual and society in general, thus delivering us from the days of old as Chuck Berry once said. Many of us would see this as perfectly highlighting how rock has served its greatest purpose, sexually, socially, politically.
And I agree. It has done all that. But it s not my music of choice. And this also does, as I say, have to do with my age. I remember Bill Haley and all that starting out in the 1950s but my base was, as you say, the classical pop song, as sung by Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald and so on. That s what popular music meant to me and the rest was something I had no interest in, as with folk music, which never did anything for me. But the aspect of control in a classic pop song really fascinates me, which is why Sinatra strikes me as so marvellous, as a vocalist.
I m also fascinated by focused lives, whether that is Sinatra, Lester Piggott, Fred Astaire. As in the way their energies seem to be given to a single act at which they excel. In fact, that, to me, is the precondition of excellence. And in terms of Sinatra, L.A.G. Strong once said something about John McCormick you can apply to Sinatra: he captures the centre of gravity in a phrase. There is this feeling of total control which indicates that he could move a phrase any way. Peggy Lee has that too. It s an astonishing thing.
You also have been following developments in the visual arts since the 1960s, and clearly are conversant with the history of art, in general. So which painters still astonish you in the way, say, Sinatra does?
Right now, Matisse and Vermeer. In 1983 I saw a Vermeer exhibition and had a peak experience there. I recently read a biography of Vermeer, which seemed to miss the mark completely, because it was done purely in terms of social and psychological categories, but it seems to me the subject of Vermeer s paintings is the nature of focused perception itself. His works are extraordinary at that level. And in terms of Matisse there is a painting, The Piano Lesson, which had a similar impact on me. But I ve also gone through a great Poussin phase.
Have you ever gone though a political phase? Irish intellectuals have often been accused of being chicken-livered, living in their ivory towers, never taking to the ramparts in terms of political issues such as Northern Ireland. Is that a fair accusation?
Yes. And someone like Richard Kearney is often criticised by academics for getting engaged in social issues. As does John A. Murphy, in Cork. Among historians there also is Joe Lee. These are people who have. And that s more of a French posture, whereas Irish intellectuals, in the main, tend not to. But then again a balance has to be struck. There are limited energies an individual has.
You said earlier that your primary impulse is to educate yourself. Does it follow, then, that you are rooted in the Reithean model of radio, that tendency RTE originally absorbed from the BBC, which highlights the public service responsibility to educate listeners?
There is an element of that. But a network can have different kinds of broadcasters. You have people who are exclusively interacting with their audience and take their cues entirely from what the audience wants. Then, on the other hand, you have people who are educating, energising themselves in certain ways and sharing the fruits of that voyage with an audience. That s more how I perceive myself.
And in terms of, say, my broadcast interviews, there is another dimension to all this. As in, there are two levels of research. One is where you get the book, for example, read it, and prepare yourself, in that sense. But the more fundamental form of research, as far as I m concerned, is understanding all this in the context of what is going on in your own life, drawing on that core field of reference.That s what brings the thing to life, gives it greater depth. And keeps you alive, keeps you going.
For me, the real charge is integrating all I m doing, and reading, with the work. And how this relates directly to broadcasting, in a broader sense, is that you have to know what is good, what works. People don t seem to know, anymore, what s good. So, at broadcasting conferences everybody seems to be looking to someone else, saying, what does X or Y think? Once you lose the ability, at a personal level, to judge what is good, then you are in trouble. It s imperative never to relinquish that, which is something you see happening in the tussle been broadcasters and administrators, bureaucrats. Broadcasters should never forfeit their own sense of what is good. And one thing that can militate against them holding onto this is the market, where, for example, success is judged in terms of audience figures. These are important, but one must never relinquish that sense of being able, one s self, to decide what is good and what is not. Once that goes, there is chaos.
Do you see that happening right now, in RTE?
No. But I think it happened in the BBC, at a particular point, in terms of Arts programmes.
Nevertheless its critics both inside and outside the organisation consider RTE to be frantically pursuing the youth audience, at the moment. For example, couldn t it be said that you being replaced by Pat O Mahony, on The Sunday Show, when you took your holidays, probably had a lot to do with his perceived appeal to a younger audience?
Certainly I see evidence of those tendencies in RTE, especially in terms of the new radio station starting. And someone did say to me that they put Sean Moncrieff on in Kenny s slot to youthify that audience, though I would have to ask how many young people stay in on Saturday night to watch TV. Or, indeed, any night, to listen to radio. But maybe there was that dimension to Pat O Mahony taking my place this summer because I do think that RTE is concerned about that audience.
Some would go further and say it s obsessed with that audience, whether it is acting under pressure from advertising agencies, or whatever.
It is. But if your audience is ageing it is eminently sensible to try and get a younger audience. That said, I don t think RTE is letting go of its core values, its commitment to public service broadcasting. I think they are smart enough to know you need a balance in all this. But it will be interesting to see how the new station will interpret its public service commitment. If you remember, Century avoided speech.
It has already been suggested that there is tension along these lines in Radio Ireland, in that Dan Collins, with his RTE and Radio Kerry background, leans more towards the public service paradigm than Head of Sales and Marketing, Dave Hammond, who apparently is against plans for too many arty programmes.
Yes. I read that report. The trick is to do both kinds of programmes very well, which is an art the BBC has mastered. At least in radio, which has always been more comfortable than television when it comes to dealing with the world of ideas. But that is the challenge facing the new station, as well as forever facing RTE. Yet the people who really make shows work, or otherwise, are not so much the presenters, I believe, as the producers. Often when a show fails people say oh, so-and-so just didn t work but it s often that the producers don t know what they were doing.
Who do you reckon is the better broadcaster Gay Byrne or Pat Kenny?
Well, Pat is a very adroit processor of information, very fast. That s more his base. Gay is a relater and a creator of atmosphere. But, above all, what he has, is this ability to deploy his energies full belt, for the period he s on. That, to me, is deeply enviable and, as I suggested earlier, the essence of professionalism. As in the peaking of energy for the right time so that there is this feeling of total command, total relish for one is doing. Gay has managed to do that for over 30 years, which, to me, is the equivalent of what Sinatra does. I also think that in terms of interviewing, the Jeremy Paxman-type confrontational style can be ritualistic, isn t nearly as revealing as, say, Enoch Powell coming on the The Late Late Show and disclosing things in that more relaxed atmosphere set up by Byrne. He s wonderful at that. And Pat also does extremely well, in this respect, taking someone through a story, structuring it, within a given time.
Did you ever envy either Gay or Pat, wish you had their shows, and their audiences?
There s only one show I would love to do, which is done by Charlie Rose, on PBS. And what I like is that he mixes politics and arts. RTE divides things up, as in we have Prime Time and The Arts Show. Yet, as I suggested earlier, I believe you can t negotiate the world without some kind of model that has cultural, economic, political components. They all interact. And there is something artificial about separating them.
You took over The Arts Show from Mike Murphy during his summer break this year. Were you trying to shaft Mike? And what is your opinion of his input into that programme?
I was delighted to be offered The Arts Show. I didn t go after it, or anything like that! And I do believe that Mike does that show extremely well. The only difference I would have with Mike is that he is intent on spreading the gospel of the arts, totally committed to that, whereas I m not an evangelist in that sense at all. But Mike has the kind of strength of personality and charm that he could apply anywhere in broadcasting, and succeed.
But, as for me, overall, I m very happy with what I do on radio. RTE have always given me the kind of framework in which I can do what I do best, be who I am. So I m definitely not a frustrated television presenter, though if something interesting came along I d look at it.
But, above all else, there is this one consistent factor in my career which is that when I came into broadcasting my idea was, what scope will I have to continue my education? And that has remained. Though I also would, one day, like to write a book about that intellectual journey. I certainly was very impressed by recent biographies by Mike Murphy and Nuala O Faolain, because they were so frank. I envy their frankness and wonder could I do something like that. I m not sure I could.
When social historians dig out tapes of your broadcasts a hundred years from now, wht would you like to be their predominant perception of your life s work?
I d like them to see that here was a guy who, throughout his life, was forever reading and thinking, trying to find out what was going on in the world and sharing that with listeners. n