The last time I'd met Eamon Dunphy was last August, when we had been booked on the same TV3 show. He and I have had our ups and downs, but have maintained an entente cordiale now for more than a decade. For several years he'd been telling me that he was writing his life story, which he had said he would call "Wrong About Everything".
On encountering him in TV3, I asked him how the book was going. He said I was in it – the second volume, which doesn't come out until next year – because of my membership of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI), although he had got it mixed up with the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland (BCI).
I was appointed to the broadcasting commission by Dermot Ahern, then minister for communications, in 2002. Ahern, whom I’d met casually on two or three occasions, said I was being appointed because of an article I’d written about a particular decision of the commission.
But Dunphy confided a different version of my appointment to the commission. Shortly before the appointment, he had attended a brunch in the Dublin 4 home of the developer Sean Dunne.
Bertie Ahern, then taoiseach, had been at the brunch, and Dunphy claimed he had suggested that the government might "do something" for me. (It was the weekend in 2002 over which I'd been briefly fired from The Irish Times, having made some adverse public comments about the then editor and the remuneration of senior executives.) According to Dunphy, Bertie had said he'd see what could be done.
This story (which I have been unable to verify but have no reason to doubt) tells us a few things about Dunphy. First, he’s the kind of guy who was invited to brunches in the homes of controversial developers. Second, he was on intimate terms with senior politicians, who sometimes acted on his proposals. Third, Dunphy, like most of us, sometimes gets things mixed up.
But at the heart of the story is an insight into Dunphy that explains why he’s held in such affection in Irish life, in spite of innumerable controversies, outrages and travails. There was no obligation on him to ask Bertie to “do something” for me, but he did it because he is prone to gratuitous acts of impulsiveness and kindness.
The story also provides a hint of the element of danger that always hangs around Dunphy. He is volatile, capricious, fickle, with a predilection for stirring things. But there’s also a softness to him that makes him difficult to dislike and easy to forgive. Despite our ups and downs, we remain friendly, even if sometimes the only evidence is the friendly fire.
No hint of ideology
There's a quality about Dunphy that is all but unique in Irish journalism: the quality of affection. By this I don't mean loyalty or sentimentality, but something deeper. It has to do with how he decides about things, people, situations. There isn't a hint of ideology in his make-up. Every conviction has been filtered through his experience, emotions and basic instincts.
Whereas most people claim to decide things on the basis of logic and empirical evidence, Dunphy acts on a combination of head, heart and gut. His responses are reasonable, but in a bigger, more extravagant way. If sometimes he appears to be inconsistent, it’s because he is – like the way he has often railed against Fianna Fáilers and yet enjoys their company far better than that of the people he would vote for.
He quotes Emerson: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
"It's the mark of someone who's not really paying attention. And not also recognising this fundamental truth: that there is no one Eamon Dunphy or John Waters. There are a number of people occupying these bodies – and at a number of different levels.
“People are many different, warring, and not-always-in-harmony personas and personalities inside. You react to different things, and then you change, because you make mistakes. You buy into things, deals, political or personal, that seemed a good idea at the time, but f*** it, it ain’t a good idea any more!”
Great personal courage
Ireland would be poorer by far without Dunphy. In the 1990s, he single-handedly opened up the possibilities of Irish public debate, by building a current affairs slot into Radio Ireland's afternoon schedule, which conventional wisdom said couldn't be done.
He gave platforms to alternative and awkward voices, including many he personally disagreed with, thereby forcing other media to follow suit. He grew up in public, changing his position on Sinn Féin, after years of excoriating Provoism. In this and other matters he has exhibited great personal courage.
He resents the “controversialist” label, in so far as it seeks to depict him as going against the grain for the sake of it.
“I think it’s absurd, because you couldn’t keep it up. People’d rumble ya. I think the mob are always wrong, so it’s not hard to be a contrarian if you’re true to your own passion, your own intellect. People often said about me – maybe you were one of them – that I was an operator, a cynic. I was not. I was a f***in’ eejit. I’d buy into this or buy into that.”
The first part of his autobiography, which has just been published, sets out the emotional landscape out of which Dunphy emerged in the middle of the last century. Reading The Rocky Road, it becomes clear that virtually everything can be traced back to his earliest days in Drumcondra, to the life he lived with his parents, Paddy and Peg, and his younger brother, Kevin.
His love of football comes from there, as does his sense of social justice – his unquestionable empathy with those whom society overlooks. His mother was an admirer of de Valera, his father of Jim Larkin.
The book carries, side by side, intimate descriptions of the reality of life in the locker rooms of Manchester United and Millwall, and denunciations of the cultural and financial corruption of “Official Ireland”. When he relates the story of how his father was laid off from his job as a builder’s labourer because he wouldn’t join Fianna Fáil, a grasp of about 50 per cent of Dunphy’s political perspective falls into place.
Beyond that, The Rocky Road is an autobiography of Dunphy's public life. There's nothing about his marriages or children, and very little of what might be called introspection. He writes of himself almost objectively, with occasional flashes of self-revelation or daggers of self-criticism.
There is an arc to the book that finally describes the consternation of someone who, steeped in soccer when it was a marginalised sport here, came full circle in the Charlton era to find himself on the outside of the game he loved.
He had paid his dues, but now, insisting on values of flair and sportsmanship, was excoriated by Johnny-come-lately fans. “The mob had taken over the game! Mary Harney rang me up and told me to stop making a fool of myself! About soccer – the thing I’d been doing since I was three! Mary Harney!”
There is a powerful description at the end of the book of his arrival back in Dublin after the 1990 World Cup, during which he had criticised the style and performance of the Irish team. He describes breaking down in tears on the Rosslare-to-Cherbourg ferry, on which he was escaping the national madness. “I’d been putting a brave face on it for several weeks, pretending not to give a f***,” he writes. “The tears told a different story.”
He relates in the book another telling incident concerning his mother and a night in the late 1970s, shortly after he had returned to Ireland. He was trying to put in place an education scheme for young players at Shamrock Rovers. Suddenly they were watching Eamon on TV.
“‘You’re always giving out, boy,’ she chuckled. ‘I think there’s two Eamons, that fella,’ she pointed at the telly, ‘and you’. At heart Peg didn’t like ‘that fella’. Although she didn’t put it into words, there was, Peg thought, something immodest about the kind of public advocacy I occasionally engaged in. Some vulgar conceit was always in play on the public square where politicians, priests and other chancers were, in Peg’s words, ‘giving out’. Later, when in her eyes I became a professonal pontificator, Peg regarded it as a bit of a joke. To be famous you had to be some kind of fraud.”
Does he recognise what his mother meant about “two Eamons”.
“I do, yeah. And I’m going to address it in the second half of the book, because it’s sad. I became estranged from . . . Someone said once: ‘Fame is the excrement of achievement.’ And it’s right. And all of that public stuff – my mother didn’t like it. And my father didn’t really like it.”
His voice begins to break. Suddenly he is weeping, head in hands. He apologises but continues to sob.
After a minute he grins and continues. “I touch on it at the end. And I feel guilty about it. They were very hurt by it. My mother told me, ‘You’re a holy show!’” He’s laughing now. “Which is about the worst thing my mother could say to you! She used to say it about someone in public life she didn’t like: that they were making a holy show of themselves. And I’d come to that, you see.”
Regrets, he's had a few
Part two of the autobiography will deal with his time with the Sunday Independent, which saw him embroiled in innumerable controversies over his trenchant and often highly personalised articles.
He regrets some of them now. He speaks fondly of Aengus Fanning, the newspaper’s late editor, but says a “cancer” entered in towards the end of the 1990s, with “all that Terry Keane s**t”.
He laments the drift of things in the present moment: austerity and what he calls “the cancer of corporatism”. He thinks politics and journalism are becoming pointless and useless.
“There isn’t a party you could join. There isn’t a newspaper you could write for. No one is taking this f***ing s**t on. And RTÉ don’t get it. So where are we? We’re wandering in a wasteland as journalists. Nowhere to write, nowhere to speak, sanitised.”
Have we failed?
“I don’t think we’ve failed.” He pauses. “It’s a good question. I think when we look back from 100 years’ time, I think we’ll see the age of free and trenchant journalism as a phase the world went through in the 20th century.”
The Rocky Road by Eamon Dunphy is published by Penguin Ireland