Survival instinct made Dunphy the establishment’s favourite bad boy
Ironically the highly-paid controversialist had way more to give than acerbic one-liners
In September 2003, when Ireland was steaming unassailably towards a gargantuan economic and moral comeuppance, Eamon Dunphy appeared on TV3 as host of his own chat show.
It was an idea befitting the times; the country at that time was showy and energetic and the RTÉ gold standard talk-show offering, The Late Late Show, was regarded as last century.
On a jazzy opening night, Dunphy shimmered into being as our very own Letterman, all but bathed in the moon-dust that Karen Carpenter used to sing about.
He began by sharing with the nation that Gore Vidal quote: “Every time a friend succeeds, something inside me dies.”
It sounded great but his friends must have been sitting there watching and thinking: wtf? After all, it was Dunphy who seemed to be powering from one success to the next. The show survived for just three months as it became apparent that the concept was flawed from the start. What’s the point in having the best talker in the room sitting there asking the questions?
The Dunphy Show, as it was called, is significant as it probably marked the apotheosis of Dunphy the television creation as distinct from the man. That division of self is a theme he has returned to over the years, telling Ryan Tubridy on The Late Late Show as recently as 2013 that “there’s the private person and the public persona, which is a confection of some kind”.
“Shouty McPenThrower sort of thing versus....,” Tubridy prompted with a helpful distillation of Dunphy’s famous football rants.
It was true that during the Jack Charlton era, when the national football team unexpectedly became a mirror through which an insecure and young Irish State sought to glimpse some sense of self-esteem and worth on the international stage, Dunphy was a compelling and singular voice.
And it was true, too, during Roy Keane’s stand-off with Mick McCarthy, Dunphy acted as strident public relations man for the Cork footballer. But over his long period as Ireland’s most beloved and parodied contrarian, it became increasingly hard to know where Dunphy’s genuine beliefs and passions ended and the talent for broadcast showbiz began.
It became hard to distinguish between the genuine flame of anger at social injustice burning within and the entertainment instinct of a highly-paid controversialist and mischief maker.
Rock the boat
The reason that Dunphy was so conscious of Eamo Public is that the concoction of that media creation was a source of tension and suspicion in the family home in the years when he was trying to find a career following his retirement from football.
Nobody was more dubious about his rising public persona than his mother, Peg, who took a fabulously dim view of the sorts who liked to appear on television, shouting the odds and Being Important. If her son was to join them, that was his look-out.
“To be famous,” Dunphy explains in The Rocky Road, the first volume of his biography, “you had to be some kind of fraud”.
It is hard not to conclude that this sentence is at the heart of the contradictions running through the Dunphy broadcast legend.
“There is a place for passionate journalism and commentary and there always has to be,” he told Ryan Tubridy on that same Late Late Show.
“I had an idea of journalism, which was to rock the boat. I don’t like this society. I don’t like the establishment. And I like to expose them, to put it up to them, to go to places other people won’t go.”
Deep down, he knows he never really did that. For instance, Keane didn’t really need Dunphy’s imprimatur in 2002; he was still at the height of his power as a footballer, had Alex Ferguson as a protector, the might of Manchester United behind him and half of Ireland ready to go to war for him.
And Dunphy’s outspoken defence, machine-gunning his friends and colleagues in the RTÉ studio, couldn’t have hurt when he was asked to work with Keane on his biography. It is right now, with his managerial career unproven, at best, and his football life behind him, that Keane could genuinely use a big-up from the Dunph’.
But in recent years, Dunphy’s observations on Keane have been withering. “I think he’s become a bore, a caricature almost,” he said as recently as this month.
No, what Keane has become is the very thing at which Dunphy proved unbeatable: a television football show man. And if it’s true that there are those of us who hoped Keane would remain ever true to his contempt for media – and the world – it seems like a hollow crack from Dunphy, who knows the score better than most.
In recent years, Dunphy’s own football analysis has come under fire. But his true brilliance was never in his ability to dissect the technical qualities of some diligent full back. It was to act as a kind of national weather vane; to spin on a gust of wind and point the nation in a definite and definitive direction, always with a spicy soundbite. The thing is, he had way more to give than acerbic one-liners.
One of many brilliant anecdotes in The Rocky Road, the absorbing first volume of his memoir, recalls his big break in the close world of 1980s Dublin journalism. His recollection of the period is razor-sharp and his account of the fear and uncertainty of trying to transform himself from an ex-footballer into a fully carded journalist is honest and gripping.
Glowing praise from Vincent Brown led to an offer from John Mulcahy to join The Sunday Tribune. After living hand to mouth for a year, Dunphy was offered a sum of £13,000 punt per year by Mulcahy. Dunphy was slack-jawed at the offer and Mulcahy mistook his expression for reluctance. He promised an upward review if it worked out. Here is Dunphy meeting Seamus Martin, the sports editor.
“An experienced operator working on a tight budget, Seamus was less than charmed with his rookie acquisition. I thought I’d won the pools. Seamus looked like a man who’d lost a winning ticket. ‘How the fuck did that happen?’ he asked, reaching for a smoke. Giving him a light, I explained about Browne’s testimonial. ‘Jaysus’, Seamus explained. ‘You’ll be the best-paid hack in the building. Can you type?’
“No,” I replied. “I decided not to tell him about the upwards review.”
When you listen to Dunphy and Giles having compelling conversations about the grim prospects for ex-footballers of their era, as they did in a recent episode of Dunphy’s podcast The Stand, you can’t but admire their survival instincts.
They used their smarts and guile and those voices to cut glittering careers in punditry. None of it was inevitable. Dunphy often gives the sense that making it as a journalist was almost as improbable and difficult as making it as a pro’ footballer had been.
If there is a regrettable slant to what has been a wildly entertaining and combustible life on RTÉ, it’s that his mother was probably right all along.
Every so often with Dunphy – in the early journalism, before he became the Sunday Independent’s hitman du jour, certainly in his two classic football books and, recently, in those long introspective conversations on The Stand, you get a tantalising glimpse of what Eamon Dunphy might have been.
It would have been a less flashy and probably less well-paid version of the pop cultural figure now known in all households. But with the energy and that spiky attitude, he could have made it as an outsider and as the true anti-establishment ideal that still exists in his mind – rather than the establishment’s favourite bad boy and raconteur.