- 19 Nov 18
So much can change in a fortnight. Over the past 14 days, some niggling fears were thankfully consigned to the dustbin of history. Others not yet imagined were sadly realised...
When Hot Press last rolled off the presses, a feeling of anxiety was bubbling beneath the surface. For weeks, in the race to the áras, Michael D. Higgins had been miles ahead in the opinion polls. Now that we were coming into the home straight, it was impossible to entirely dismiss a niggling fear that, far from being helpful, his lead might induce a hazardous feeling of complacency among the President’s supporters.
Meanwhile, the third of the Dragons’ Den candidates, Peter Casey had snatched the spotlight from the rest of the pack.
As the Presidential race entered its final week, there was a potentially sinister aspect to what began to unfold. Hostile remarks about travellers, which were widely seen as racist, had given Peter Casey's campaign momentum, pushing him ahead of even the Sinn Féin candidate, Liadh Ní Riada. It was impossible to avoid asking an unpalatable question: is there, after all, a hidden racist underbelly in Irish society that has been waiting for its moment to arrive - and which was, right now, slouching towards the Phoenix Park to be born? And how might this be linked to the twisted worldview promulgated by the so called alt-right globally and by Donald Trump in particular? Might the repugnant US-style attack ads that had appeared on social media play their poisonous part? Could some malignant international force of racist or religious bigots, or both, be behind the late emergence of this strangest of all candidates?
A friend set out one alarming scenario for what could happen on Election Day.
Thinking a victory is assured, a lot of Michael D supporters stay at home. The resulting low turn-out suits his challengers. Sinn Féin get the vote out and Ní Riada hits 18%. Casey surges to 21%. The other three pick up 6% or 7% each. The question then would be: where are the transfers going to go? If the absurd idea that referenda and Presidential elections are a good opportunity to give the 'establishment' a kick up the arse has gained traction, how might that play into second and third preferences?
There was another worrying factor. Along the way, the media had been crassly inaccurate and opportunistic in its reporting on what had happened during Michael D's first seven years. One story was typical. On the advice of the Garda and of those in control of the security of the State, every President, Taoiseach and Minister for Justice has work done on their homes, to ensure their safety. It is obvious that this is necessary. The President is a potential target for terrorists - and the State has always covered the cost of ensuring his or her safety.
And yet this story, when it ran in The Sunday Times, was presented in a way which suggested extravagance or abuse of his office on the part of the President. It was a graphic example of fake news and how it works.
Might this, and a litany of other quarter-truths that were trotted out as fact during the election, dent peopleıs enthusiasm for Michael D? Might seeds of resentment have been sown? Might a Dragons' Den investor profit from any negative fall-out? Opinion polls have been less than reliable in recent times. Might this turn out to be another example?
Nah. In terms of ability, and suitability, we knew that he was so far ahead of the rest, that no result other than a Michael D victory would make any sense. Besides, he was and is enormously popular. But the niggling doubt would hold till the ballot boxes were opened. Then we'd know for sure.
WE ARE ALL NUMB
All of that was swirling around in the ether when I got the call. "Have you heard the news," I was asked. I had been watching the bulletins like a hawk and so assumed there was nothing my caller could tell me that I didn't know already. Wrong. "It's about John Reynolds," he said.
There are moments when time seems to stand still. This was one of them. I knew immediately. But I wanted to believe differently. It couldn't be true. It couldn't. "His body was found at his place in Milltown."
Fucking Jesus. I don't believe it. There was a moment of insistence. It isn't true. It can't be. Are you sure? What happened?
"That's all anyone knows at the moment," I was told. "But it has been confirmed. It is true."
There is a journalistic default position: no matter how baleful the news, you have to get the story done. That was the immediate challenge. A statement, issued by Marie O'Leary PR, on behalf of John's family, had landed in my inbox. It was terse but unambiguous. The well-known music promoter John Reynolds was dead. Gone. Would soon be with O'Leary in the grave. I thought of William Butler Yeats. Of Leonard Cohen. Of gigs in the Irish Museum of Modern Art and Lissadell House. I thought of all that John had seen and done over the course of the many years I had known him. Of everything he had given to the cause of music in Ireland.
I made sure that the Hot Press news machine was moving, before lashing down a few thoughts in the form of quotes. Less than fifteen minutes later, our first story, written by deputy editor Stuart Clark, announcing the tragic news, was live on hotpress.com. A second one followed a short while later. It was out there now, and the grief was everywhere palpable.
In a particularly cruel twist, John had bowed out just a day or two before the POD-promoted Metropolis Festival was due to swing into action. The statement from the family made it clear that the festival would go ahead. Where Robbie Butler, Will Rolfe, Sean Stevens, Irina Eastwood and the rest of the POD Concerts crew were concerned, hanging around wasn't an option. The old saying applied: the show must go on.
I sent a text of sympathy and support to Robbie, wishing him and the crew the best. "We are all numb," he said in response - and having had to deal with grief in the face of deadlines on a number of occasions in the past I knew exactly what he meant. You go through the motions. In a way it helps, having something to do. But with the POD chief gone, the pressure was multiplied by ten. Being ready when the doors open is imperative. Everyone quadrupled their efforts. It had to be done. And it was.
AN HISTORIC AND INSPIRING VICTORY
As the final preparations for Metropolis were being hammered into shape, the first reports were coming in from the exit polls. RTÉ had Michael D at 58%. The Irish Times made if 56%. There is no antidote to the despair induced by the death of someone you've known for the guts of 30 years. But so tragic had the previous 24 hours seemed that the news that Michael D. Higgins was destined to be elected on the first count brought a sweet kind of release. If there was a noxious whiff of racism in the election air, and a hint that Trumpism had arrived in Ireland, then it had been defeated. That was something to hold onto.
On Saturday, as Metropolis roared into life, the results poured in from around the country. For Gavin Duffy (2%) and Sean Gallagher (6.4%), it was a personal disaster. It was too for Joan Freeman (6%). But the real stories of the election lay elsewhere.
The first was the apparent collapse in support for Sinn Fein, with Liadh Ní Riada amassing a meagre 6.4% of the vote. What did this say about Sinn Fein's current standing? While the whiff of cordite remained, there was a macho aspect to their appeal. Taking on the mantle of defenders of the community in working class areas had worked for Sinn Fein. But that hard man-admiring support didn't transfer to a female Presidential candidate, with some of it at least slipping away to Peter Casey.
Sinn Féin's disappointing performance also called into question the judgement of Mary Lou McDonald as party leader. Might the fact that there is an all-female leadership, with Michelle O'Neill in charge in the North, affect them come general election time? That has to be a concern now for the party.
And what of Peter Casey? Was his surge to 23.3% all down to the anti-traveller sentiments he had stirred up, or tapped into? Or was he garnering support from the so called 'squeezed middle'?
I don't think there's the slightest doubt that his anti-traveller stance was the key to his rapid rise in support. In rural Ireland, prejudice against travellers is a potent force and that's where his support was strongest. I suspect that he also tapped into the 'disgruntled male' anti-PC vote which was a driving force behind the rise of Donald Trump. Casey took belligerent male votes from Sinn Fein. He made Sean Gallagher, and his attempts to sound statesman-like, look even more wooden.
That is not what males-with-chips want. They like brashness. A guy who stands with his legs wide apart. Who thinks he looks like Clint Eastwood. Who could wrassle an alligator. Or at least gives a passable impression that he might give it a go. The Conor McGregor vote went to Peter Casey.
But it only took him so far. In the end, Michael D swept home on the first count. He topped the poll in every constituency. Once the ballot boxes were opened the result was never in doubt. The same applied to the referendum removing any reference to blasphemy from the constitution, which was passed by a majority of 70% to 30%. As with the Same Sex Marriage Referendum and the Referendum to Repeal the 8th, the Irish people had voted wisely and chosen well.
Michael D. Higgins would be President of Ireland for another seven years. This was an historic and inspiring victory. But there was a funeral to go to.
HOW THE HELL DID THIS HAPPEN?
Rain was spitting down when I arrived at the funeral parlour in Montrose, on the south side of Dublin on Wednesday evening. Bren Berry of Aiken Promotions was leaving and we hugged before I carried on inside. In the room, there was an air of solemnity and shock, disturbed by occasional cries of pain and grief. John's brother James shook hands and looked forlorn. I spoke to Robbie Butler, stoical and reserved, a second in command knowing that the general will be sorely missed. Siobhán O'Dowd had travelled from Sligo to be there. John's old compadre Declan Forde was on hand. People stood and whispered, and exchanged embraces and condolences.
In the corner, John had been laid out. The last time I met him, I had noted his big hands, waving around dramatically to emphasise a point and then coming to rest on the table in front of him. Now these big hands were crossed below his chest, and cold to the touch.
I have kissed foreheads before and felt the breath of ice on my lips. It is a heartbreaking thing. I leant over him. It was John but not John, all the vitality, the vision, the energy, the contrariness - the argumentativeness and the passion - that made him who and what he was drained completely. Now it really is all over.
I remembered him on the pitch, playing for Hot Press Munchengladbach over a decade ago, a big, strapping centre-back with dodgy knees and a penchant for getting red cards, who was happy with the ball at his feet but even happier making crunching tackles - and occasionally running after members of the opposition who had crunched too eagerly into him.
Standing there, recalling him as he made a last ditch block, or soared to head the ball like one of his Leeds heroes, Norman Hunter, the brutal finality of it all was hammered home. This would be a last goodbye. None of us would not ever see him again, his sweat band on, pounding the pavements on a run - except in our memories, however they might be shaped or coloured. This was the end...
At 2.30 on Thursday afternoon, the church in Donnybrook was packed. People had flown in from all over the world to be there. Tributes and messages of condolence had also flooded in. Damien Rice sang a moving "So Long, Marianne". The Dublin Gospel Choir performed a concise version of Leonard Cohenıs "Hallelujah" and it was beautiful. James Reynolds paid evocative, loving and at times funny tribute in his eulogy.
At the crematorium in Mount Jerome later, his close friends and work colleagues took charge. Niall Sweeney, Robbie Butler, Gale Scanlan, Avril Stanley and David Bell told rock 'n' roll stories and paid extravagant tribute to a man they described as a friend, a visionary and a leader. I have always felt that one of the most important insights we can have into the human condition is to recognise that, in our different ways, we are all just eejits, capable of making a balls of things. And so his faults were not ignored. Avril remarked that he would be missed by the swans outside the Four Courts, and people could laugh ruefully now. They knew what she was talking about.
The most important thing, of course, is that you try to do your best to bring joy and light into the world. That you genuinely strive to make a positive contribution. That no matter how obsessive you may be, or selfish on occasion, as we all are, that your life is lit by a desire to add to the sum of human kindness, pleasure, creativity and enjoyment. That was what people would remember of John - as they shook their heads and wondered "How the hell did this happen?" - long into the night at a final gathering in IMMA, where some of his finest moments as a promoter had taken shape.
There is no afterlife, except in this one. It is what we do here that counts. And it is through what we do - what we make, give, write, say, create, share - that we leave our imprint on the community, and on the world.
With every club, and every festival, and every gig he was involved in mounting, John Reynolds wanted to paint his masterpiece. On many occasions he succeeded. And in doing so, he changed the musical landscape in Ireland. His contribution was immense. Now, may he rest in peace.
HARD WINDS ARE BLOWING
Four days later. On the balcony at the 3Arena. U2 are due onstage in five minutes. There is a flurry just down to the left, as someone takes his seat in the front row, and the arena breaks into a spontaneous round of applause. President Michael D. Higgins has arrived with his wife Sabina. The President waves to the crowd and there is further applause.
Hard winds are blowing. Darkness has been forcing itself centre-stage. There is nothing else to do but to go forward, spreading the love as much as we can. Resisting. And fighting back.
That, I can hear a voice say from just off stage, really is the spirit.