How Terry Wogan bridged the divide and blazed a trail for other Irish stars to follow
In decades when IRA barbarism tainted how the British saw Ireland, the Limerick man offered a more authentic view of his homeland, writes John Meagher
It was on the venerable BBC radio show Desert Island Discs that Terry Wogan spoke candidly about being an Irish broadcaster in Britain at a time when being Irish there could be a very difficult cross to bear.
"It was very difficult," he recalled. "I was very conscious, for instance, you'd come up with a cheery morning (Irish) voice after some horrific bomb incident."
"I didn't feel any guilt (in being Irish)," he told a magazine in 2010. "Because things being done in the name of Irish freedom were not being done by me or anyone I knew, or by the generations of Irish people who contributed to this country (Britain).
"All I felt was an Irish voice must be hard for some people. I had the odd death threat, but I think that was only from discerning listeners."
The Limerick man, who emigrated to Britain after a stint with RTE in Dublin, rarely had to experience the sort of casual racism that was directed towards his countrymen in the 1970s and into the 1980s, but there was no other reason than his nationality why a parcel bomb was once sent to him at the BBC.
"Wogan rarely drew explicit attention to his Irishness," wrote English author and journalist Martin Kettle this week. "And yet, although he lived, worked and died in Britain, was knighted by the Queen, and was never reluctant to wave the Union Jack when the needs of the BBC required it, his Irishness was there whenever he opened his mouth.
"For more than 40 years he was probably the most prominent Irish person, and certainly the most familiar Irish voice, in Britain, rivalled for fame only by George Best and Bono, neither of whom could match Wogan's length of time in the spotlight."
Taoiseach Enda Kenny captured Wogan's importance when he noted he had played a key part in building "a bridge between Britain and Ireland".
Dr Sean Campbell, a media studies lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University and author of Irish Blood, English Heart - the story of second generation Irish musicians in Britain - believes Wogan played his part in challenging perceptions about Irishness in Britain. "On the one hand he was an audibly Irish voice at a time when Irish accents were often associated with negative social values such as the Troubles, and 'thick Paddy' jokes. In this context he offered an antidote to the prevailing conception of the Irish in Britain.
"At the same time he came to inhabit a sort of anomalous space between the two cultures where he could speak for Britain - at Eurovision, for instance - and in that way he seemed to transcend (for his viewers) Irish specificity, and exceed a strict idea of nationhood. In this sense he might be seen as a transnational treasure, rather than the 'national treasure' that was bestowed on him this week."
The thousands of Irish who emigrate to Britain every year now and experience no negativity may not realise just how different the welcome would have been just 30 years ago.
"I think it's fair to say that in that particular period (1970s and 1980s) anti-Irish hostility had pervaded everyday life and was part of mainstream British culture, whether in the form of 'Irish joke' books, which sold hundreds of thousands of copies, or through the 'suspect community' status that was heightened by the political context of the time," Dr Campbell says. "In this context Wogan - as an audibly Irish voice in the British media landscape - was associated with warmth, geniality and wit, and thus evoked a different sense of Irishness in Britain."
Dr Finola Doyle O'Neill, broadcast historian and lecturer at University College Cork, says he played "a huge part" in helping to shine a positive light on Irish people at the time. "I remember friends who emigrated and tried to change their accents to fit in," she says. "But here was somebody who was one of the top broadcasters on 'Auntie' and he spoke with a clear Irish accent."
Dr Doyle O'Neill believes Wogan's impact on Britain might not be fully appreciated in the Republic. "Of course, people would remember him from his TV work on Blankety Blank and The Wogan Show (which aired thrice weekly between 1985 and 1992)," she says. "But there wouldn't have been an understanding for what a huge deal he was on radio. And it was on his morning show (Wake Up To Wogan) that he really connected with Middle England because he was on air two hours a day, five days a week. We have a tremendous history of talk radio in this country so there wouldn't be anything like the audience for British radio here as there is for British TV."
Wogan's BBC Radio 2 show was one of the most popular in British broadcasting history, regularly pulling in eight million listeners. When first told that the show was attracting an audience in excess of that amount, he quipped: "Hang on. There's 60 million people in the country, what are the other 52m listening to?" The numbers achieved for game show Blankety Blank were even more spectacular - up to 20m until he handed the reins to Les Dawson in 1984.
Dr Doyle O'Neill says he didn't play on his Irishness, although his recent TV series Terry Wogan's Ireland suggests he was fiercely proud of his roots. "He understood English people very well and had a great gift at striking up a rapport with his audiences. Listeners loved when he talked about them as 'Terry's Old Geezers'. And when it came to giving something of himself, he knew how much of his private life to share and how much to keep back - quite a tricky balancing act.
"And he could be subversive too. He could be quite critical of the BBC in his own way and was never afraid to poke fun at it - and at himself. There was a lot of humour in his broadcasting - he loved to celebrate the absurd in life, whether on his radio show or when commentating on Eurovision. But he wasn't mean or nasty, and people liked him for that."
Wogan's longevity on the BBC was remarkable and his pulling power legendary. Over the course of five decades he seemed able to connect with successive generations - a feat unmatched by almost all his contemporaries, many of whom, Jimmy Savile especially, have been subsequently disgraced.
Dr Campbell says it's likely that he helped pave the way for the glut of Irish broadcasters - Graham Norton and Dara O Briain chief among them - who have become heavyweights of contemporary broadcasting in the UK. "He helped create a space for an Irish accent to be part of the mainstream of British broadcasting. The fact that Graham Norton took on the Eurovision role is perhaps evidence of this."
News of his death encouraged several Irish broadcasters to express their gratitude for making Irish voices acceptable on mainstream British media.
O Briain paid tribute to his role in smoothing Irish-English relations. "(It's) hard to quantify what he achieved, not just in broadcasting but for the Irish in Britain and hard to separate what he achieved and the accent he did it in, from the times in which he did it. (He) opened to the door to all who followed."
Norton, the nearest UK popular culture has to a Terry Wogan today, tweeted: "He made it seem effortless. And for a young boy in Ireland, he made it seem possible." When Norton replaced Wogan on the Eurovision coverage, the older man famously told him the secret of the job was "not to drink before song nine".
Broadcaster Dermot O'Leary summed up the bond that many second generation Irish had with him when he noted "he was a unique connection between Ireland and the UK, which, when growing up in an Irish household in the Eighties, can't be overstated."
In his heyday Wogan was impossible to ignore. "Whether he liked it or not," wrote Martin Kettle. "Wogan was a significant Irish presence in Britain right through the era of Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley. To some Irish nationalist eyes that may perhaps brand him as someone who made dubious accommodations with Britishness at a sensitive time. To his British listeners, however, and possibly to many of his Irish ones too, Wogan was a reminder that there was also much more to the British-Irish relationship than nationalist and loyalist politics, and that people on both sides of the Irish Sea have more in common than some of them sometimes like to pretend."