Eamon Dunphy: ‘I’m not part of official Ireland’
Interview: The pundit and podcaster talks Celtic Tiger, family and his ‘Buddhist’ outlook
“I should have called it Roy Keane House”: Eamon Dunphy at home. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
“That was a cakewalk for Liverpool last night,” says the photographer.
“It was, but they’re still dodgy at the back,” says Eamon Dunphy.
“And Klopp’s delighted, of course,” says the photographer. “What did you say about him on the panel?”
“I said, ‘I want to be on whatever he’s on,’” says Dunphy.
This is the kind of conversation Eamon Dunphy has all the time. I observe it slightly nervously, knowing nothing about sport.
I know a bit about Dunphy, however. He’s a roguish pundit, writer and broadcaster who has walked a line from panto villain to Celtic Tiger apologist to leftist man of the people, and currently hosts a podcast, the Stand, which features sports punditry, journalistic reports and entertainingly in-depth interviews.
He’s seated in a book-filled room of the beautiful house he shares with his wife, RTÉ’s commissioning editor of drama, Jane Gogan, in Ranelagh, in south Dublin.
“I should have called it Roy Keane House,” he says. He bought it after ghostwriting the former Manchester United and Ireland captain’s autobiography. “I got lucky, because Saipan blew up just as the book was published. I made quite a few bob.”
There’s a gas fire on. Dunphy is seated on a special ergonomic chair, his laptop on a sort of TV table, facing a flat-screen television. (“My curious sitting arrangements are to do with my bad back,” he explains.)
Both The Irish Times and the Racing Post are on the floor beside the chair. A book of poetry by John Betjeman is “within reach”. He quotes Betjeman twice. Behind his head is a framed photograph of Castletownshend, in Co Cork, where the couple once had a house.
As we talk he gets two phone calls, one from the writer Frank Connolly, “the best investigative journalist in Ireland”, the other from his now retired panelmate John Giles. “He just wanted to know how the panel was last night,” says Dunphy. “I think he misses it,” he says later.
He refers to one public figure as ‘particularly friendly . . . when he’s on ecstasy’. Another story concludes with a famous person punching someone in the face
When I first asked him about doing an interview about his life and career he said, “I don’t know about my life and career, but I’ll talk about my podcast.” In reality he chats about everything. He’s warm and entertaining, although some of his stories are, sadly, unrepeatable.
He refers to one public figure as “particularly friendly . . . when he’s on ecstasy”. Another story concludes with a famous person punching someone in the face. “You probably can’t use that,” he says accurately at the end of such stories.
Would his parents have predicted him living in a house like this back when they all lived in a tiny flat in Drumcondra, in north Dublin? “No,” he says. “No chance of that . . . My father was a builder’s labourer who bought broadsheets – not The Irish Times, because it was not the paper you’d buy in the 1950s if you were a working-class man, but he’d buy the Independent, the Evening Press . . . a really good newspaper. Noël Browne” – the late progressive minister for health – “was a hero of his. He hated Fianna Fáil.”
Did the young Dunphy understand class? “I ran up against it. You knew you weren’t going anywhere.”
He was at St Patrick’s national school in Drumcondra when he got a “cruel” one-year scholarship to Sandymount High School before getting a job as a messenger. What he didn’t want, he says, was his father’s life as a labourer. “I wasn’t constitutionally able to do that.”
His options were the British army – “A couple of guys in the neighbourhood had done it and came back tanned, with pound notes falling from their pockets” – or soccer.
“We didn’t have anything else to do. No television. No computers. No radio. [So] by 14 I was a very accomplished street footballer . . . I was very, very lucky, Patrick. You have to be lucky . . . I was scouted by a man called Billy Behan.”
His footballing years, beginning with Manchester United, are well documented in his books Only a Game? and The Rocky Road – another memoir, Wrong about Everything, is nearly complete – but his interests were always wider.
“Football’s very conservative,” he says. “It’s totally unconcerned with what’s happening in the world at large. I was in the anti-apartheid movement. On Bloody Sunday I wore the black armband . . . I campaigned for the Price sisters [Dolours and Marian] with Mary Holland, a very good friend of mine. They bombed the Old Bailey and wanted to be repatriated.”
My parents didn’t like me becoming notorious or controversial, and from day one in journalism I was out saying things that were challenging
His outspokenness cost him, he thinks, and is the reason he could never get into soccer management when his sporting career ended, in 1977. Instead he became a journalist, writing for the Sunday World, Sunday Tribune and Sunday Independent.
His parents never understood that world, he says. “When I started out in the Sunday Tribune my da used to go down O’Connell Street on a Saturday [to check] how many were being bought.” He sighs. They “didn’t like me becoming notorious or controversial, and from day one in journalism I was out saying things that were challenging.”
He proved adept at attacking Irish sacred cows. We go through some of his greatest hits. Why did he attack Seamus Heaney in print? It was in response to a “eulogy” Fintan O’Toole wrote for The Irish Times after Heaney won the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1995. He laughs. “I said to Aengus Fanning” – late editor of the Sunday Independent – “ ‘This is shite.’ And I savaged O’Toole, Heaney and The Irish Times.”
Why? “It was ‘official Ireland’. He’d been canonised now, like Henry Kissinger, by the Nobel people. And I was against that kind of mindless nationalism, that Irish thing of, ‘Oh Jesus, we’re great, because Heaney is one of us and someone in Sweden thinks he’s great.’ ”
Dunphy had previously become a national hate figure when he criticised Jack Charlton, the Republic of Ireland manager, during Italia ’90. “I went to Palermo for the Egyptian match after the alleged pen-throwing incident,” Dunphy says, referring to the time he supposedly threw his pen in disgust during an on-screen assessment of the Ireland team. “Aengus Fanning sent Colm Tóibín with me to mind me. There were all these big banners: ‘Dunphy is a pig’.”
And he has no regrets about a written attack on Mary Robinson either, he says. “I wrote about her when she got the presidency, about the bullshit rhetoric . . . I remember driving down the country with Jane, and the Marian [Finucane radio] show came on, and there was howls of indignation, ‘How can this man be allowed to write?’ There was f***ing murder.”
John Hume had a plan to wean these guys off terror. I did a piece. It was savage. But journalism is of its day. It’s of its hour
He gets more philosophical, if not regretful, when talking about John Hume. “That was in 1983-84, in the Tribune,” he says. Vincent Browne, the newspaper’s editor, “went apeshit, because Hume was untouchable . . . History will judge John Hume very, very kindly, but journalists can’t be historians.
“He was talking to Gerry Adams at the time of Enniskillen and Warrington,” he says, referring to the IRA bombings of 1987 and 1993. “I was looking at this through Protestant unionist eyes . . . But that’s to miss the point, in a way. Hume had a plan to wean these guys off terror. I did a piece. It was savage. But journalism is of its day. It’s of its hour.”
By the 1990s Dunphy’s reputation preceded him. He met Gogan in the Horseshoe Bar of the Shelbourne Hotel, in Dublin, the night he published A Strange Kind of Glory, a book about the Manchester United manager Matt Busby (his favourite of his books). He was with Paul McGuinness, the U2 manager, PJ Mara, Charles Haughey’s political adviser, and Tóibín, and she was at the bar with a friend.
“I thought she was beautiful. My relationship was breaking up . . . I left the big shots and went over to her and said, ‘Would you like a drink? I’ve just published a book,’ and sat down . . . We got on quite well. But there was a bit more wooing to be done. She thought I was a blaggard, because I was writing all this stuff.”
On the stairs of their house, a little later, I notice sheet music in a frame, a gift from Phil Coulter. The lyrics read, “Congratulations and celebrations. We think Jane deserves a birthday song. Congratulations and celebrations. Especially because she stuck with Eamo for so long.”
“And she did,” says Dunphy. “She’s a rock. She stuck with me through the whole De Rossa thing.” He’s referring to the successful libel case that Proinsias De Rossa, the former Democratic Left leader and Labour MEP, took against Dunphy and the Sunday Independent in 1997.
“That was the most traumatic thing of all. A £300,000 defeat . . . We have a picture somewhere of the two of us standing outside the courtroom, and it’s f***ing harrowing. I look skeletal . . . I said to Aengus, ‘I don’t think I’m credible any more. I’ve blown it’ . . . It was a long ordeal for me. I was broke. I’d been divorced, and my career prospects at that stage were dim.”
Our bet with ‘The Last Word’ was that there was an intelligent audience out there who didn’t just want soundbites, and the bet paid off
He left the paper afterwards but got lucky again, he says, with The Last Word, his drive-time show on Radio Ireland. He and his team, including his friend the Love/Hate writer Stuart Carolan, turned it into the first success of what is now Today FM. “We saved the radio station . . . Our bet was that there was an intelligent audience out there who didn’t just want soundbites, and the bet paid off.”
The Celtic Tiger was in full swing, and, by his own admission, “I was in there.” His reputation for partying was somewhat overblown, he says, but he was caught drink-driving and it made the papers – he says gardaí were leaking stories in response to his coverage of the Donegal policing scandal that led to the establishment of the Morris tribunal – and he was also the subject of a sort of newspaper sting.
The Last Word team “went out for dinner, and a girl from [the newspaper] Ireland on Sunday said to me, ‘You’re not doing any coke?’ And I said, ‘You can’t get good coke in this town, baby.’ ” He laughs. “And that was the headline.”
If anyone was to deconstruct me politically they’d come to the conclusion I was a total fraud. But I can explain it all
Dunphy’s politics were hard to grasp at this point. He had been a supporter of Labour, the Communist Party, Fine Gael – “I was pro-Garret FitzGerald” – and the PDs. “If anyone was to deconstruct me politically they’d come to the conclusion I was a total fraud.” He laughs. “But I can explain it all.”
The consistent thread, he says, was impatience with “official Ireland – RTÉ, The Irish Times, the great and the good, the Maurice Mannings who rise without trace and form a consensus about who we are and what’s just and unjust and are quite unforgiving of people who are radical or difficult.”
His conception of ‘official Ireland’ involves a form of censorious, banal respectability. It takes in Fine Gael but not necessarily Charles Haughey. Is he not part of official Ireland himself?
“No. I’m not, because . . .”
But he just told a story that involved him hanging out with PJ Mara, Paul McGuinness and Colm Tóibín. He laughs. “Okay, yes. I would have socialised with ‘official Ireland’. When Blondie played for [the property developer] Sean Mulryan, at his 50th birthday, I was at the top table. He’s a friend of mine . . . Brian Cowen was there. I was in [the developer] Sean Dunne’s house with Bertie Ahern. But if I was going to those places it was on my own terms, I would argue.”
Did he give Charlie McCreevy, then minister for finance, an easy ride when he was a guest on The Last Word?
“I stood at the dole queue with my father, and I remember how good people were humiliated by that. So full employment and a dwelling for everybody seemed to be thanks to this form of economics, this tax-friendly . . . Reaganomics. It was a dream. It seemed like we’d solved our problems. It shows how shallow and dumb I am, but I believed in that . . . So, yes, I’d give McCreevy blow jobs whenever he’d come on.”
After he left The Last Word, in 2002, he had a run of similarly high-profile broadcasting gigs, including an ill-fated television chatshow, on TV3, and radio shows on Newstalk and RTÉ. His second stint at Newstalk, after returning to the station in 2009, ended with him criticising the station’s proprietor on air for his treatment of a fellow journalist.
“I called out Denis O’Brien when Sam Smyth got sacked.” Smyth “lost his newspaper job and his radio show”, Dunphy says, referring to the journalist’s roles at the Irish Independent and Today FM, which O’Brien partly or wholly owns. “I don’t think journalists should stand idly by and let that happen, but nobody said a word.”
He still worries about O’Brien’s media ownership. He started the Stand because he missed radio but wanted to be independent. “I’ve seen what happened to other people in the business when they get to a certain age. I’m fit as a flea. I’m not going to stop.”
I should have asked Kevin Myers, ‘Why did you write this about Travellers? Why did you write that?’ I was ripping myself afterwards. I didn’t really put it up to him
He funds it himself. He says it had 35,000 listeners the week before we met, and he’s proud of it, but he’s also self-critical. When I note the lack of women guests he agrees and says, “It is shocking. We’re making a concerted effort now.”
He says that a recent interview with Kevin Myers, which aired shortly before Myers was ousted from the Sunday Times over a column that contained anti-Semitic comments, could have been better. “I should have asked, ‘Why did you write this about Travellers? Why did you write that?’ I was ripping myself afterwards. I didn’t really put it up to him.”
But he also feels a bit sorry for Myers. He spoke to him recently. [He wrote “racist, dog-whistle stuff . . . but I don’t like to see any human being destroyed.”
Is Dunphy led by his emotions? “I’m certainly not an aggressive person or interviewer . . . There’s a difference between aggression and passion.”
He laughs. “Your colleague Brian O’Connor called me ‘the famously lachrymose Eamon Dunphy’. . . I do trust my gut, but I can be very impulsive. I believe in going with it. I have a Buddhist view of things . . . Jane is very Zen in her character. That’s why we’re perfect partners in a way. I’m hot and she’s cool.”
How does his career affect his family? He has a great relationship with his children, he says, but regrets the way his career affected them over the years.
“My daughter was chased in off the street after one of the Jack Charlton things,” he says. “Ireland had won a penalty shoot-out. All the kids were out in the jerseys, and they ran her into the house and she was in a terrible state. That is the downside of notoriety – even small, local notoriety. Can you imagine having a father like me?”
I think the capitalists have won big time, game set and f***ing match, and they’re rubbing working people’s faces in it
Later he says that the only opinions that matter to him, ultimately, are those of his family. “The rest of it is just bullshit.”
He’s tender-hearted. His politics have skewed leftward since the recession, and he worries about the rise of the European far right. In 2011 he and some other high-profile people considered running for office (“We couldn’t get our shit together”).
He is disgusted by homelessness and the state of hospitals. “I think the capitalists have won big time, game set and f***ing match, and they’re rubbing working people’s faces in it.”
And so he spoke at the Sinn Féin Summer School in 2013 (although he says he’s currently “on the outs with them”); is complimentary of politicians like Clare Daly and Mick Wallace, the Independents 4 Change TDs; and supported the accused during the Jobstown trial, which tried the Solidarity TD Paul Murphy and five others earlier this year on charges of falsely imprisoning the former Labour Party leader Joan Burton and her assistant during a water-charges protest in 2014. (All six were found not guilty.)
“Jobstown was disgraceful,” he says. “They criminalised a young boy of 15, and the charge of false imprisonment was a scandalous use of the courts, sanctioned by the DPP and, presumably, the Government.”
His return to left-wing politics also seems to have caused him to reconsider his place in the world. “Where you start in life, particularly if you start in a tough place, has lasting effects that you can never overcome,” he says. “Where you’re born defines you until you die. You never catch up on the privileged, even if you are ostensibly successful.”
And yet he seems content. “Nothing is ever as good as you think it is, and nothing short of death and cancer is ever as bad as you think,” he says. “There aren’t many advantages about being 72, but one of them is that your expectations are . . . reasonable. You learn to appreciate a normal day.”
Eamon Dunphy on the Taoiseach and how he’d like to die
What advice would he give Leo Varadkar?
“Get out and meet a few people. Stop spinning.”
What is his death-row meal?
“Plaice and chips with mushy peas.”
What is the trait he most deplores in himself?
“Impulsiveness . . . I’m very selfish, too, in certain ways. Selfish with my time. The whole room is full of books I haven’t read . . . I’d be happy to sit here and play the horses, which I can do all day . . . Sport is an escapist thing. And that’s the selfish thing – escaping from stuff instead of facing up to stuff. I’d be kind of well into escaping.”
The trait he most deplores in others?
“Acquiescence in the face of wrongdoing.”
What single thing would improve his life?
“I feel blessed to be sitting here in a lovely home. My kids are all right. Jane is all right. I don’t want for anything. Would that be a horrible answer to give?”
How would he like to die?
“In my sleep, the way Bill O’Herlihy died. Though I wouldn’t want to go to the Iftas before I died . . . Bill went home and died in bed, and his wife woke up in the morning, got him his cup of tea and only then realised. He died in his sleep having been out the night before. I’d like to die like that.”