Dermot Morgan: ‘He would be livid that the same issues still bedevil Ireland’
Don Morgan on the life and legacy of his father, who died 20 years ago today
When my father died, on February 28th, 1998, I wasn’t with him. He was in London and I was in Blackrock, with my brother and some friends. In my mind he could as easily have popped out for a newspaper and a late-night pint as have collapsed at home in the company of family and friends. I can only assume he died, and that it wasn’t a very sick joke on his part, although I wouldn’t put it past him. He was a brat that way. Since then my relationship with him has become an irresistible detective story, where I keep looking around for the essence of him, discovering more clues. But every time I think I’m getting close to him I realise I’m not. Twenty years on, here’s what I know about the ex-Dermot Morgan, who shuffled off this mortal coil to join his heroes Dr Chapman, Dean Swift, Lenny Bruce and Marty Feldman in the choir invisible.
He was punished for being different. The Christian Brothers beat him six ways from Sunday. One story that didn’t surprise me was one particular sadist saying to him: “Morgan, you’ll never make anything of yourself.” “You just f**king watch me,” he replied, presumably bypassing whatever part of your brain deals with self-preservation. At the school he went to they still talk of him. He once referred to having been schooled in Stalag 17.
His difference was like a target on his back, and that never changed. Sure, what was he, even? He had a job that defied pigeonholing, least of all by himself: what’s your job – “breathing?”
I remember, in Irish class, my well-meaning teacher suggested maybe he was a fear grinn – a funnyman – but the term sounded accusatory; “clever” and “smart” are also pejorative terms. Despite a conventional middle-class upbringing in south Dublin, he turned out differently from every other man I know of his vintage. He didn’t even follow an English football team. His true and abiding love was Cruyff’s Ajax. He managed by being himself to be a speckled person. My brother Rob and I had to settle for the mixed identity of having a German mother.
He was a lifelong and astute reader of people. Going to Doheny & Nesbitt’s for a “teatimer” wasn’t simply a matter of finding a decent pint; he was getting and sharing gossip with journos and politicians, getting the inside scoop, finding out how people ticked; teasing out and testing ideas. He’d come out with a clutch of stories, a lot of ideas and at least one book recommendation, which he would duly buy and devour. I’m convinced Hodges Figgis struggled greatly after his death. But I was taken aback when a former colleague told me his mother thought he was the shyest man she’d ever met.
Our national inclination towards slíbhínery, nepotism and ignorance persist. Institutions prioritise self-preservation over reform
Although he was funny, that was the frill of his intelligence; he was deeply contemplative and extraordinarily well read. There were more times when he possessed preternatural calm in discussing deep topics than ones when he had me in stitches. He had the academic wherewithal, too, and was as much a student of Aristophanes and Chaucer as of Billy Connolly. An unwritten book on the humour of The Canterbury Tales is our loss. I wonder what he would have found funny today. I reckon The Trip’s lack of sentimentality would have attracted him. I’m afraid, though, that the ensuing binge of Abba and Mahler would have driven us demented.
If he walked back through his front door right now, and survived being beaten about the head with a rolled-up newspaper, he would be livid that the same issues still bedevil Ireland. Our national inclination towards slíbhínery, nepotism and ignorance persist. Institutions prioritise self-preservation over reform. Meanwhile, we ought to be good little worker bees in an unthinking republic. Unlike Sartre, my dad felt that being free was a blessing, not something to which one was condemned or which needed to be overcome – as our we-are-where-we-are helplessness enables us to do. If he were alive he’d wonder with alarm where the free thinkers are. Given that he died before Saipan, he’d have relished the clash of the genius and the machine.
He’d grab our collective hand to prise our remaining fingers from the apron strings of our churches, then slap some sense across our chops with our own stupid digits for taking so long. An innate and self-defeating conservatism still haunts the country. He’d ask why the hell the progress of the past 20 years – notwithstanding marriage equality and Ikea – was an illusion. Were we more hopeful, more creative, more progressive in the late 1990s than we are today? He might raise an eyebrow that, of my circle of friends from school, I was the only one who remained in Ireland. “Why didn’t you go?” he might ask, folding his arms. “Why did you procrastinate when you’d long outgrown your first career and you’d been banging on about the law since you were five?” I’d remind him that Immanuel Kant didn’t leave his home town either. Everyone has a comfort zone. He’d throw up his arms and retort that at least Kant thought big and I clearly hadn’t. He’d be right: he knew all about learning by doing, as part of daring to know.
His legacy permeates the airwaves, even today. From Callan and Rosenstock to Après Match and Waterford Whispers, he may not have invented satire, but he did the State some service. I hope that in time he will be remembered for his contribution to the development of Irish comedy, now a multimillion-euro industry, as well as for Father Ted. Because, after him, no one was safe and a less deferential country is an emotionally healthier one. I wonder in hindsight, though, how many politicians attended his funeral just to be sure the coast was clear. One wrote a note saying we are all still aware of his loss. It wasn’t platitudinous.
And then there’s his voyage to Craggy Island. Father Ted is as much a product of Sam Beckett as of Galton and Simpson. It makes him one of the immortals, like Manuel or Steptoe, a view I’m sure Frank Kelly, who expired uncannily on the same date, February 28th, might share. He’d be cautiously optimistic that, with shows like Derry Girls and The Young Offenders, Ireland was living up to its potential.
Each time my dad reappears he manifests himself in ways I didn’t expect. Each time he is so refreshed I can smell the newspapers and the aftershave
I hope he knows how he is still in the fabric of our modern culture and how much he still means to us, his family and his country. I once was approached late at a wedding in Roscommon where a very sober man asked me if I was Dermot Morgan’s son. I said yes. He said, much to my surprise, that my dad “was still very well thought of in the county”. I was mortified in the moment, although it was the highest praise he had.
His response to any idea, no matter how half-baked and crappy, was “write that down”. Creativity is everything. Ben, my youngest brother, is the cut of him as he careers down the stairs, holding a phone, his jacket and a pen and please God doesn’t break his neck on the way to the front door. He does stand-up, and my dad would be as proud as he’d be shocked by the high standard and shape of Ben’s own unusual mind. Ben was four when he died. I hope he knows his grandchildren know who he is and that we miss that he doesn’t get to have the crack with them. He’d have been a fantastic grandad, although he’d no doubt moan about how old he was getting.
So he hangs in the soundscape of our satire and our visual landscape, by dint of his unforgettable look and an iconic, quotable TV show. Back home he’s still as much part of Dublin as the smell off the Liffey when the tide is out. I have come to realise that I know him and don’t. Each time he reappears he manifests himself in ways I didn’t expect. Each time he is so refreshed I can smell the newspapers and the aftershave. For a moment I can forget that he’s gone.