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Terry Wogan was one of the greats, a man at total ease with his Irishness

By Gail Walker

Published 02/02/2016

Sir Terry Wogan as he announced he was stepping down from his BBC Radio 2 breakfast show, he told listeners of the long-running and much-loved Wake Up to Wogan' that he would be stepping down at the end of the year to be replaced by Chris Evans.
Sir Terry Wogan as he announced he was stepping down from his BBC Radio 2 breakfast show, he told listeners of the long-running and much-loved Wake Up to Wogan' that he would be stepping down at the end of the year to be replaced by Chris Evans.
Sir Terry Wogan (second left on middle row) in 1967 with fellow disc jockeys ahead of the launch of the BBC's new Radio 1 and Radio 2 networks at Broadcasting House, London
Wogan presenting Blankety Blank in 1979
Sir Terry Wogan and his wife Helen with their baby daughter Katherine at three weeks old in 1972
Sir Terry Wogan in 1973 sampling an oyster at a reception to celebrate the opening of the oyster season at Scott's restaurant in London
Larry Hagman (left) with Sir Terry Wogan during his Radio 2 Breakfast Show in 1980
Sir Terry Wogan in 1981 with Diana Ross when she was a guest on his early morning BBC Radio 2 programme
Sir Terry Wogan (back) with Britain's entry into the Eurovision Song Contest Bardo (centre left and right), and members of pop group Bucks Fizz in 1982
Security men pretending to frogmarch Sir Terry Wogan from Broadcasting House in London as a humourous finale to his 12 years hosting the early morning BBC 2 radio breakfast programme in 1984.
Sir Terry Wogan popping up through a TV screen to the amusement of a policeman after he accepted 100 TV sets on behalf of the NSPCC from Phillips marking the making of the company's 100 millionth TV set (1984)
Sir Terry Wogan (centre) with his chatshow guests Tina Turner and Elton John in 1985
Sir Terry Wogan trying on a kilt before hitting the high road to the BBC pro-celebrity golf tournament at Turnberry, Scotland in 1985
Duke of Edinburgh (left) appearing with Sir Terry Wogan on the 'Wogan' chatshow in 1986
The interview on September 19, 1990 when Belfast footballer George Best appeared drunk as a guest on 'WOGAN'
Sir Terry Wogan (right) revealing his waxwork on his television show 'Wogan'
BBC's Ken Bruce (left) and Sir Terry Wogan enjoying an extra hour in bed before presenting their radio programmes from Millstreet, Ireland, the venue for the Eurovision Song Contest in 1993
Sir Terry Wogan meeting Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997
Sir Terry Wogan and his daughter Katherine at the Savoy Hotel in London, in 2001
Sir Terry Wogan with his wife Lady Helen, after the radio and television presenter collected his knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II in 2005
Sir Terry Wogan celebrating being given the Freedom of the City of London by single-handedly raising Tower Bridge
Sir Terry Wogan with fellow Eurovision host Natasha Kaplinsky (left) and winner Javine in 2005
Sir Terry Wogan with Pudsey the bear during a Children in Need photo call in 2008
Sir Terry Wogan meeting the Prince of Wales (left) at the Irish Embassy in London, in 2010
Sir Terry Wogan with a life-size cake replica made to mark the 30th anniversary of his presenting BBC Children in Need in 2009
Sir Terry Wogan (right), winner of 'Digital Radio Personality of the Year', with Chris Evans at the TRIC (Television and Radio Industries Club) Annual Awards, in 2010
Sir Terry Wogan with (left to right) Tess Daly, Alesha Dixon and Fearne Cotton during the BBC Children In Need Appeal 2011
Terry Wogan presents BBC One's in 2011
Sir Terry Wogan with a collection of Pudsey Bears designed by celebrities which were auctioned for Children in Need in 2013
Terry Wogan launching Children In Need on November 1, 2015 at the Landmark Hotel in London

Terry Wogan was often - half-jokingly - referred to as the Greatest Living Irishman. And you know what? He probably was ...

For someone who seemed so mainstream, so Establishment (a knighted Irishman, for goodness sake), the Limerick-born broadcaster was essentially a subversive. A gentle one, no doubt, but one who always turned - in small, but telling ways - the world upside down.

Whether referring to his older listeners as "coffin dodgers", or drolly commentating on the grotesqueries of Eurovision, Wogan pricked pomposity.

It was this sense of mischief that made him the greatest cultural ambassador for Ireland and Irishness since ... since ... well, I can't think of anyone else who comes close.

His radio shows and TV broadcasts embodied a certain kind of Irishness. Much of his whimsy and humour drew on the great Irish writers, with many flights of audio fancy reminiscent of Flann O'Brien (and his newspaper alter ego Myles na gCopleen) especially, but also Joyce, Wilde, Shaw.

Without their bite, of course. That would have been out of place over the cornflakes. Nonetheless, Wogan's whole broadcasting persona radiated a kind of Irishness - and not the Irishness of Paddywhackery, of the bar-room joke and racist stupidity.

On the contrary, his Irishness was one of quicksilver wit, a delight in absurdity and subversion, of creating word worlds slightly off kilter.

He was also capable of a more earthy type of humour. His Janet and John stories were exercises in innuendo which delighted with their audaciousness.

Wogan was Irish. But he didn't need to wave a flag or rubbish Britain and Britishness.

And because Wogan wasn't a version of Joyce's The Citizen in Ulysses, using his nationality as kind of weapon, intimidating all and sundry, the broadcaster has been subject for years to criticisms of pandering to British ideas of Irishness. In cruder terms much of this boils down to Sir Terry being a West Brit.

The truth is that Wogan - like the presenter Eamonn Andrews, singer Val Doonican and comedian Dave Allen - was one of the first modern Irish TV celebrities. They wore their Irishness naturally, drew fruitfully from the people they came from, but didn't play up to it, didn't indulge in lazy stereotypes.

When they said "Begorrah!" it was with a ironic twinkle in the eye, introducing levels of sophistication that would delight the heart of any post-modernist.

At total ease with Irishness. Wogan never saw the need to ram his nationality down people's throats. This wasn't pandering, it wasn't even tact, it was simply accepting that his job wasn't to grandstand, but to provide some light entertainment to the listening millions.

Yet light entertainment isn't a trivial thing. For millions of British people, Wogan "stood for" Ireland. Whether ordinary people, or the Royals (the Queen and Philip were great fans), when the word "Ireland" popped up, they thought "Wogan". Not Pearse. Not Paisley. Not Adams.

"Ireland" was an avuncular celebrity with a ready quip, a warm, easygoing charm and dodgy hair. The fact that Wogan held this special place in people's hearts is all the more in the context of the time.

With people here gaily murdering each other in their neighbourly way and IRA bombing campaigns across the water killing dozens and maiming many more, his vision of Ireland was a powerful antidote to the bloodstained versions of Irishness.

The fact that he rose to superstardom during the Troubles is in itself testimony to his ability as a broadcaster. It was also a tribute to his ability to portray a more flexible version of Irishness to the outside world.

It may be a stretch, but it was Wogan's more imaginative version of how we belong to a place that was to prove a key element in our peace process. The cultural legacy of the broadcaster featured heavily in the tribute of Taioseach Enda Kenny: "As an Irishman, Terry Wogan occupied a special place in British listeners' hearts and he acted in no small way as a bridge between Ireland and Britain."

That sentiment was echoed by Tanaiste Joan Burton: "Terry Wogan made us all feel proud. He was more than just a broadcaster; he showed Ireland and the UK had more in common than divided us."

Our own First Minister, Arlene Foster, was among the first to lament his passing with a warm tribute, praising his charitable efforts, his wit on Eurovision and the fact he was a fabulous broadcaster and family man.

It is these wide-ranging accolades that go to the nub of Sir Terry's greatness. For he was Irish. But he was at home in Britain, too. He neither saw, nor felt, a conflict with that. One of his greatest fans was the Queen, who told him over dinner how much she would miss Wake Up to Wogan. He sat easily with everyone, losing nothing of the essence of himself.

If we're fortunate, we know people like that in our own lives; men and women who had no problem engaging and befriending "the other side", who were never brought low by sectarianism. Who were confident enough of their own identity to accept and enjoy that of others. People who stopped this place going under.

Wogan's routines and instincts were all about drawing on what we have in common. Which is also the language of the peace process and the basis of our new politics.

No wonder so many of the bitter-enders, diehards and blowhards disdain that achievement. They hate him because Wogan showed that there were cleverer, funnier, more fruitful ways of declaring Irishness than clinging to the old barren shibboleths, the rigid orthodoxies which never ended in a laugh, but buckets of blood and a fetishising of glorious death.

Wogan never declared his Irishness. He didn't need to. He just was.

And, unlike some, he made Irishness look, at times, a very attractive thing indeed.

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