IT doesn’t take a lot these days to set me wandering down memory lane, with rose-tinted glasses perched precariously on the bridge of my nose and a packet of tissues at the ready to quell the sniffles.
Readers, however, will be relieved to hear that I have stopped indulging my nostalgia in public because everyone around me is glued to a mobile device with ear-phones inserted for added protection, and I end up talking to myself. Or humming ‘Oft in the Stilly Night’, the latest mangled version of which, by the way, I heard recently on the radio and it made me cry - for the wrong reason.
However, the death last week of former Taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave, did evoke a flood of memories of the 1970s. His dignified departure in particular made me wonder what on earth happened in the intervening years that turned us into a nation of ‘show-offs’ and superficial glory seekers. Personally, I blame the media and TV in particular, for our bloated image of ourselves and our second rate VIPs, without whom our lives would now be meaningless. Without them and their imaginary charisma, we wouldn’t even know how to dress ourselves, it seems.
When I heard of Mr Cosgrave’s passing, I was back again in 1973, an expectant and anxious young reporter on her first major posting, standing at the entrance to the once famous, but now demolished, O’Meara’s Hotel in Nenagh. I was waiting with a crowd of curious onlookers and a number of gardai for the new Taoiseach to arrive for a Fine Gael function in the town. Three years earlier, he had staked a claim to history after demanding action on the arms conspiracy on which he had been tipped off and which had the potential to lead to terrible bloodshed and loss of life. Now, he was the leader of the country, and television being still at the toddler stage, we really hadn’t seen that much of him.
I was still there at the front door of the hotel half an hour later, still armed with a list of questions including “who tipped you off in the arms crisis?”, when a waitress I knew came out and told me that the soup was being served. ‘I’m waiting for the Taoiseach,” I said, with a degree of self-importance that I now know Mr Cosgrave himself certainly did not possess. ‘He’s already inside, sitting down,” she told me. The banality of it nearly floored me.
It wasn’t the first scoop I had missed and it wouldn’t be the last, but I don’t think I ever missed one that walked right past me so unobtrusively that I didn’t even notice it. He hadn’t gone in the back door and he hadn’t come in disguise. He had simply walked into the hotel without any fuss or aura of importance, while I and others were waiting outside for some kind of fanfare or at least a frisson of power and prestige.
Later, at the function, I was introduced to the Taoiseach by the late Tom Dunne, who was at the time a Fine Gael TD for North Tipperary. By then, however, the wind had gone out of my sails, having failed miserably to ambush the leader. Naturally, he didn’t tell me who had tipped him off about the arms and I don’t even remember if I asked. All I can remember is that, unlike other political leaders I met afterwards in the course of my career, he was very gracious and not in the least bit patronising to an inexperienced young female provincial reporter who felt a bit cheated in the presence of sobering normality.
But, whatever about the lack of pomp and grandeur, there must have been a sense of history in the air because I proceeded to commit an unforgivable sin against the profession I represented by producing the menu card and asking him for his autograph. If it were now, I’d probably be asking for a ‘selfie’. He looked a bit bemused and abashed at the request, but complied nonetheless, saying that it was the first time anyone had asked him for his autograph. For all I know he might have thought that I had mistaken him for John Wayne and he didn’t want to embarrass me. Their accents, after all, were not that dissimilar.
I remember the hardships and the tragedies of the years that followed; the threats of State subversion and the ambivalence we displayed to IRA violence. I remember coming home from work one late autumn evening in the mid-seventies and finding what looked like a whole platoon of the army surrounding my family home which was located up a long avenue. The house and outbuildings were being searched for the kidnapped Tiede Herrema and my widowed mother was mortified that she hadn’t changed the bedclothes. But despite our penchant for drama, I think we all felt safe under Cosgrave.
I also remember with a pang how, a few years later we fell for a give-away Budget and a load of charisma and threw Cosgrave and caution to the wind, before going on a spending spree that still haunts us to this day.
Nevertheless, I am both amazed and chuffed at the regard and admiration that has now surfaced for Liam Cosgrave – the unassuming man who had no time for eulogies, who gave no thought to pomp and ceremonial and who eschewed self- importance and fame as he strove to serve his country unencumbered by personal interests and public perception.
It gives me great hope that we might be getting some inkling at last that the blatant VIP culture and personality cult that assails us on all fronts today and fuels our delusions of grandeur, may not be all it’s cracked up to be.