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

By Gail Walker

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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