Belfast Telegraph

Mary Kenny: They say we shouldn't speak ill of the dead, but surely it's better to remember people as they were?

Passed on: Ulick O’Connor will not be fondly remembered by Mary Kenny
Passed on: Ulick O’Connor will not be fondly remembered by Mary Kenny

By Mary Kenny

There's a long tradition that 'we do not speak ill of the dead' (de mortuis nil nisi bonum). But need that always be true? When I learned that Ulick O'Connor - writer, poet, playwright, athlete, lawyer, Renaissance man and general provocateur - had died, aged 90, my first reflex was how much I had disliked him. He could be so rude and aggressive.

Towards men, he had a reputation for inviting them to "step outside" for a spot of pugilism: towards women, he preferred to use the lash of his tongue. Or, at any rate, he did so towards me. We appeared together on several occasions, back in the day, on Gay Byrne's Late, Late Show and it was all very combative. Combative I don't mind. But I usually felt humiliated after a bout with Ulick: he did not play by Oxford Union rules, where it's supposed to be about the debate, not the person.

On one occasion, I appeared next to Ulick on a panel at a public media discussion in Dublin, and perhaps I annoyed him by delving into my handbag for notes. "Mary Kenny - would you stop rummaging in your bag for your Tampax!" Ulick announced loudly, nostrils flaring sneeringly. Now, I have no sense of prudery about the issue of menstruation - it's a fascinating aspect of women's history - but the note of misogyny in Ulick's voice was unmistakeable.

Real misogyny in men is quite rare, in my experience: most men like women. But that's the way Ulick was. Being in his company was always uncomfortable. I wasn't afraid of him, physically, but I had that apprehensive feeling of 'what's he going to say next?'

So when I read the stream of glowing tributes to Ulick from official Ireland, I was less than impressed by all the plamas. Why not portray the man as he really was?

One of the striking cultural differences between Ireland and England can be measured in attitudes to death. The Irish, on the whole, have a better attitude - more open, more graceful. But Irish obituaries are usually more flattering than English ones. The Irish are more inclined to 'never speak ill of the dead': in England, the dead are more like fair game, since they cannot sue.

I have some experience of the London world of obituary writing - the obituary is the long biographical essay summing up a person's life, and is distinct from the death notice, which is a brief announcement of the death. You'd get a call from the obituaries editor saying "I don't like the look of ...", meaning he thought some character was about to fall off the perch. So the obit had to be written, or updated. This was an occasion for probing the weaknesses, as well as the triumphs, of the soon-to-be-departed.

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Speaking ill of the dead was, however, done within the parameters of a certain code. "He did not suffer fools gladly" was the code for 'he was insufferably arrogant'. "He was a prudent custodian of finances" indicated a tight-fisted skinflint. "She was vivacious" meant 'she was a drunk'. "She was party-loving and vivacious" signalled 'promiscuous and drunk'. "He was an attentive steward of his family's genealogy" - a roaring snob. Of one known philanderer the obituarist simply wrote: "His private life defied description."

Sometimes the code wasn't all that hidden: in its obituary, The Times of London described the Australian ballet dancer Robert Helpmann as a predatory homosexual.

Never speaking ill of the dead. Do we uphold this motto because we want it to apply to ourselves, after we die? Do we want people to gush with praise about how wonderful we were and how we were always sweet to lost kittens? I've have sat in church pews - and at humanist ceremonies, too - where I've heard such sentimental inanities pour forth about the perfections of the dear departed, while locking sceptical eyes with others present. (No tributes at my funeral, please: if they're kind, they're dishonest; if they're honest, they're unkind.)

What we should better aim for is a fuller, more rounded assessment of the departed: of the person with their faults and their attributes, both: their quirks, their aspirations, the brave and funny things they did in their lives, alongside the poignancy of human flaws and failures.

And that would aptly apply to Ulick. Although he could be so rude, he was an original and extraordinary man. He left a huge canon of writing, including plays, poetry, diaries, biographies. He dared to do innovative things, like compose Japanese Noh plays. He was also a man of mixed extremes: a strong Irish Republican as well as an adoring pal of the Anglo-Irish gentry.

In later years, when I encountered him, he was somewhat more cordial, and once told me, when I met him on a Dublin bus, that he had been a promising dancer with the Swedish ballet as a young man, and thus spoke perfect Swedish. I thought this was a riveting nugget of information, though I couldn't discern whether it was fantasy or reality; he had been an outstanding athlete (and pole-vaulter) so it wasn't impossible. He alighted from the bus before I could discover more.

It's soppy to pretend that Ulick was some flawless national treasure. He was more interesting than that.

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