Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Whatever happened to....?

What happens when an ordinary person gets caught up in the whirlwind of a national news story? With news available from so many different sources these days, perhaps don't stories just don't hang around as long as they used to.
I looked at a number of stories that were huge in Ireland in the 1980s onwards and asked some of the people at the centre of them how it felt to be in the spotlight.

CELEBRITY these days is very often a construction. Wannabe fame monsters – with or without talent – knock on the door of shows like X-Factor in the hope of achieving their 15 minutes of fame.

Lady Gaga told an interviewer: “How wonderfully memorable 30 years from now, when they say: ‘Do you remember Gaga and her bubbles?’” The popstar has turned self-publicity into an artform and made celebrity a goal in itself.

Even in the realm of serious news, some people catch our eye not simply because they were in the right (or wrong) place at the right (or wrong) time. It is three years since little Madeleine McCann was snatched from a holiday resort on the Algarve but there are few people who wouldn’t recognise the tear-shaped mark in the pupil of her right eye.

There are reasons for this outside the obvious tragedy of her abduction and it is largely to the credit of the sustained media and publicity campaign conducted by her parents Kate and Gerry. Understandably, they have gone to every length possible to never let the world forget about their daughter.

Even as recently as two decades ago, this kind of global saturation of a news story wasn’t as easy to achieve. In Ireland especially, news was a slow drip-feed of largely local stories. The internet was in its infancy and 24-hour news stations were not on our airwaves. When a story caught our imagination, it wasn’t wiped out by the next trending topic on Twitter. If it caught hold of the public imagination, it stayed there. Try watching an episode of RTE’s Reeling In The Years nostalgia-fest and see if your eyes don’t mist up at some point or other.

The irony was that most of those at the centre of such iconic stories were incidental celebrities. They were men, women and children whose face became as well known to us as that of our own family – but they didn’t necessarily ask for it.

As a first-time mum just hours after giving birth, Veronica Cassidy was in a vulnerable position when she was thrust into the spotlight. She had given birth to Ireland’s only set of quintuplets and she and husband Kevin were trying to cope with
their instant large family.

“The attention was dreadful,” says Veronica from her home in Bridgetown, Co Wexford. It is a rare quiet hour before the five – Conor, Dearbhail, Amy, Cian and Rory – come home from school. They are now fine, boisterous nine years olds but when they were born in Dublin’s Rotunda in August 2001, Veronica was terribly worried about them.

“They were so small and people just seemed to have gotten my number and were constantly ringing, looking for information and it was just horrible. And because you’d never been in that situation, you didn’t know how to deal with it. I remember Dr Peter McKenna organised a PR for us to help us out with the situation and who advised us loads.”

And yet Veronica understood that the attention from the public themselves was well-intentioned and that there was “upsides” to the media focus too.

“Without that media attention we wouldn’t have got the sponsorship that we got and we would have found it more difficult financially,” she acknowledges.

As the Cassidys discovered, stories relating to children tend to stick in the mind.

“The picture of a child can capture the imagination,” says Stephen O’Leary, whose company O’Leary Analytics profiles the attention particular news stories get across the media. “People feel involved in the stories of children as they feed into the perception of good and evil. We see the angelic, innocent child that reminds us of our own childhood or children, if we have them ourselves. These stories pull on the heartstrings really.”

The image of Colin McStay’s huge brown eyes and gorgeous smile certainly captured the hearts of the nation when he appeared on the Late, Late Show in 1984. He was an 18-month-old with a rare liver disorder and his mother Margaret McStay had written to Gay Byrne to appeal for his help in raising funds to send Colin to America for a life-saving liver transplant.

The public, touched to the core by Colin’s plight, sent donations flooding in and the target was reached and exceeded within weeks. However, the wait for a new liver for Colin was a long one. By the time Colin finally got his operation, he was over two, very weak and Margaret and dad Leonard were finding the attention on the family almost an extra cross to bear.

The op was successful and today the family have tried to retreat hugely from the limelight. “The whole object of it (the McStay’s fundraising appeal) was to give him a normal life and that’s his life now,” says Margaret from the family home in Rathmines, Dublin.

Colin doesn’t like to give interviews about his past although the family are contacted about three times a year for one. The response to Colin as a tot was so enormous that the nation began to feel that he was, partly, everybody’s child. It is only by his retreat into anonymity that he feels he can make his life his own.

Ironically, Colin went on to study journalism and is now, says Margaret, freelancing and trying to build his CV of published work.

“What’s difficult for him is if he rings someone to ask them about something from another perspective, people basically start saying, ‘Are you him?’” says Margaret. “So you know if you’re going to be in that field, you really have to put away your own story so that it’s the other person’s story that is interesting.

“We’re back into private life and that’s where we’d like to stay. I don’t like saying ‘No’ but it just seems all round better for all of us. It’s been that way for a long while now.”

Brian Keenan would understand how hard it is to not let one period of your life define the rest of your days. When the author and former teacher released from over four years of being held hostage in Beirut in August 1990, he took himself off to the wilds of the Irish countryside for three years. He had to come to terms with both the trauma and torture he had endured in captivity – but also to get away from the intense scrutiny that was a result of the huge campaign to get him out.

Obviously, given his isolation in Beirut, it had all come as a shock to him. In 1999, he spoke of how he had even had to leave his sisters Elaine and Brenda, who had campaigned so tirelessly on his behalf.

“I left them after three days,” he said then, explaining that “It seemed like rejection, but it wasn’t in my nature to let them nursemaid me.” He now sees them regularly, as he does former hostage John McCarthy.

Our image of Keenan might be frozen to that moment when he emerged, hollow-cheeked but smiling, at the top of a set of airplane stairs on an August night 20 years ago – but his life has moved on. He is married now to physiotherapist Audrey and they have two young sons, Jack and Cal. “My children,” he said last year as he published a memoir of his childhood in Belfast, “are among the few people in the world who don’t think of me as an ex-hostage”.

On a different but no less important level, Veronica Cassidy has found that while the public may sometimes wonder, ‘Where are they now?’, her children’s lives have also progressed from our last photographs of them on their first day at school.

“The last big thing really was when they started school and that was it basically,” she says. “There would have been a lot of attention on them on their birthdays up until they were five. But we had Communion this year and there wasn’t a thing about it and that was great.”

Being adored by the nation didn’t really hurt the children though. “They did behind it all feel a bit special, and they did enjoy it,” says Veronica. When sextuplets were born to a couple in Belfast last year, one of her boys was even heard to remark, ‘We’re not famous anymore now!’. “That’s right – he was a bit starstruck by it all for a while,” laughs Veronica.

These stories, at least, had joyous endings. Others that remain with us do so because of a deep sense of poignancy that never quite goes away. Philip Cairns, the 13-year-old Dublin schoolboy who went missing in 1986, is obviously never far from the minds of his family. He disappeared on the way to school in Rathfarnham one bright October morning. His schoolbag, found in a nearby laneway days after he went missing, dry despite hours of heavy rain so evidently planted there by somebody, was the only trace ever found of Philip.

His brother Eoin made a renewed appeal on the 21st anniversary of Philip’s disappearance for new information but the family generally prefer to observe their grief privately. Det Sgt Tom Doyle, who heads up the investigation on Philip’s still-open case, has said that whenever mention is made of Philip in the news, it sparks off another rush of phonecalls.

“Every time there has been a major story about him in the papers or on the television, there has been a huge upsurge in the number of people contacting us,” he said. “My attitude would be that it's important to keep his name out there. Some member of the public has the answer to this riddle. We need to find that person.”

There are plenty of shocking international stories breaking on a daily basis these days – perhaps domestic stories won’t stick with us in the future now that we no longer worry just about what is in our own backyard. Would the revelation that a Bishop had had an affair with an adult woman and fathered a child cause as big a scandal now as it did when Annie Murphy revealed she had had a son, Peter, by Bishop Eamon Casey on the Late, Late Show in 1992?

“I think in some ways we are bombarded with news now,” says news analyst Stephen O’Leary. “Because we’re getting so much so quickly, I think that a lot of it is getting diluted. An image that might have stood out so much in the 1980s, like Colin McStay or Philip Cairns or Annie Murphy, they would have been isolated big news stories.

“News stories are far more easily replaced now. Even some of those celebrity stories involving John Terry or Tiger Woods, which got huge, intense coverage this year, get replaced by another story quite quickly.”

By contrast, whenever mention is made of Malcolm MacArthur – the man jailed for life for the murder of nurse Bridie Gargan in the Phoenix Park in 1982 and who also killed farmer Donal Dunne three days later - possibly coming up for probation, it is easy to recall the waves of revulsion and fear felt by the public. MacArthur was on the run for two weeks before being arrested in the home of the then Attorney General Patrick Connolly, who had no idea what MacArthur had done. The scandal even earned a new acronym – GUBU – after Charlie Haughey described it “grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented”.

The same horror surrounded the shooting dead of criminal Martin ‘The General’ Cahill on a quiet suburban road in Rathgar in 1994. These kind of things didn’t happen on our doorstep – the sense that fledgling gangland Ireland was spilling over into the lives of ordinary, decent citizens was terrifying.

On the other hand, the good news stories had a firmer grip on us too. Many of the residents of Ballinspittle in Co Cork, for example, still feel fondly about their time in the sun. In the summer of 1985, one Mrs Cathy O’Mahony, a neighbour and their children, believed they saw a statue of Our Lady swaying in the village grotto. TV cameras, news reporters and busloads of the faithful flocked to the tiny village to check out the “moving statue” for themselves. Mrs O’Mahony died early this year but never for a moment in the intervening 25 years doubted what she saw was real.

“You’d still get a good turnout on August 15 every year at the grotto,” says local councillor Alan Coleman. “But it’s not in the consciousness like it was back then. People are delighted that it put the village on the map. It was the dreary 1980s, we had a recession and had two very bad summers so it was very welcome. There was nothing negative as far as they were concerned.

“In fact, I remember a famous character in the area, a Cllr O’Reilly. He was old-world, old-style and when the statue was attacked with a hammer one night, he set up road blocks straight away to try and catch the fella! Everyone rallied round.”

Local postmaster Anto Hegarty was 10 when the phenomenon kicked off and he remembers it as an “unbelievable summer”. He concedes that if he mentions to someone that he is from Ballinspittle now, they will have a little joke with him – but just as quickly ask for details on what happened. “Visitors are still a bit fascinated by it all.”

Then there are stories that just stick with us because, like Peig, that nemesis of the Irish language student would say, we’ll never see their like again. This would seem to apply to the adventure of a 10-year-old called Keith Byrne and a 13-year-old Noel Murray that same summer of moving statues and Live Aid, 1985. The two pals from Dublin got a whim one day to take a trip on the relatively new DART train. They hopped on one to Dun Laoghaire, then stowed away on a ferry to Holyhead. From there, they got a train to London and, telling airport security men that their mother was behind them with passport and boarding cards, got on a flight to New York.

The two voyagers were finally discovered in JFK airport, asking a policeman for directions to Manhattan, or “town” as they put it. They were returned to Ireland by an astonished NYPD and greeted at home by two very worried families. They both now live quietly in the east of the country but don’t tend to reminisce too much about their extraordinary trip.

Paul Russell, who made a radio documentary with RTE producer Ronan Kelly about the boys’ big adventure called Don’t Go Far…Your Dinner’s Nearly Ready (available to listen to on the RTE website), says the story immediately caught his eye when he worked as a news sub-editor on the Evening Herald at the time.

“It was something that you wished you had done yourself or you admired someone else for doing it,” he remembers. “It was something that was planted at the back of my head and literally stayed there for the last 25 years.

“People didn’t really do exotic things in Ireland in the ’80s. I suppose the most uplifting thing that happened for Ireland that summer had only happened a few weeks before, and that was U2 at Live Aid. Suddenly there was this Irish sense of importance on a world stage.

“It’s interesting to look at the newspapers of that era and look at the context in which these stories appeared: They are few and far between. You did have a lot of desperation - there were certain ministers advising young people to leave the country because they were better off emigrating, so it was depressing. So these stories do help raise the spirit.”

Apart from the historical context, there are just some stories that stay in our hearts because they are unlikely to happen again. Certainly with the evolution of global security measures, the boys couldn’t slip through airport barriers today as easily as they did then.

“It might sound a bit cynical,” laughs Paul, “But also, kids these days, if they are looking for adventure, they’ll probably try to hack into someone’s website rather than leave their garden in the first place.”


With news and information coming at us from all angles 24/7, our focus can be divided and news stories can be overshadowed in an instant. There are, however, a few newsmakers who are likely to make a show like Reeling In The Years in decades to come…

Madeleine McCann: The image of the little girl who went missing from a holiday apartment in Praia da Luz, Portugal in May 2007 has become unforgettable, mostly because of her parents’ sustained publicity campaign to keep her picture in the public eye. Her story also had a hugely emotional element for parents who recognised her disappearance as their worst nightmare.

Jade Goody: Reality television will probably still be a constant with us in 20 years’ time – but will we still remember Jade Goody, one of the first celebrities entirely made from her appearances on reality shows? The fact that her last days were documented by TV cameras make her a tragic distinction in a world where celebs are created – and forgotten – every 15 minutes.

The Obamas: We still know who JFK is, right? Although Kennedy’s presidency became particularly notorious because of his assassination, Barack Obama has made history on his own account by becoming the first black President of the United States. The pictures of him with wife Michelle on inauguration night caused some to dub the new era in the White House, Obamelot.

Osama bin Laden: If innocence has a face, it is probably Maddie McCanns. If evil could be personified, many would probably plump for bin Laden. There are a number of reasons for why he should be so instantly recognizable over so many other human rights violators. There is his association with a defining moment in western history of course – 9/11 – and with the feared al’Qaeda. Also, in this era of constant image bombardment, the fact that pictures of him are so scarce has made the clearest and last-known one almost iconic.

Harry Potter: Not a real live person, perhaps, but the Harry Potter phenomenon has infiltrated so many countries (translated into 67 languages at last count) and been such a commercial success (400 million books sold, never mind the films and merchandise) that his influence will be felt long after He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named disappears in a puff of smoke.

Britney Spears: Young female pop stars are for the most part interchangeable but Britney Spears will somehow survive both as a cautionary tale of the new cult of celebrity and the original breakout teenybopper of the 1990s and Noughties.

Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman; Sara Payne:
Like the case of Philip Cairns here in the 1980s, the idea of children going missing in broad daylight struck a terrible chord with the public. What makes these cases different was that we could watch them unfold via Sky News bulletins every hour, on the hour, heightening the sense of personal involvement right until their tragic denouments.

Sara Payne was snatched from a field where she was playing with her brothers and killed by paedophile Roy Whiting. In the most bizarre twist of all, Ian Huntley was interviewed on camera by an unwitting news team before he was discovered to be the killer of Wells and Chapman in the little village of Soham.

Fleeting fame is a cheap commodity on the small screen these days. With digital TV pumping out thousands of images on multiple channels every minute, it’s harder for any one face to stick out. But back when Ireland was still a two-channel land, certain homegrown telly ads created characters who are still remembered fondly by the public.

Sally O’Brien – and the way she might look at you:
An Irish ex-pat working in some sweltering exotic part of the world dreams of all the things he misses about home. A cool pint of Harp, naturally, but also a night in the local pub, with the aforementioned Sally O’Brien making eyes at him. So attached were we to this model of Irish femininity that there was public outrage when it emerged that Sally was actually played by an English actress, Vicki Michelle who would go on to star in TV comedy series ’Allo ’Allo. It turned out that the ex-pat himself was also played by an English actor.

The prodigal son:
There is no welcome like the welcome home of an Irish mammy to her son after he’s been away gallivanting in an unspecified but farflung place. The ESB ad which showed a young man being driven home from the train station by his father, as his mother rushed around preparing the house for his arrival. With the soundtrack of Dusty Springfield’s Goin’ Home, it again tugged at the heartstrings of a nation beset by 1980s emigration. The returning son was played by a baby-faced Alan Hughes, who went on to present a game show for RTE and is now a firm fixture on TV3.

Dancing king:
He never said a word but actor Joe McKinney sparked a dancing craze when he performed a restless jig waiting for his pint of Guinness to settle in the 1994 ad, Anticipation. McKinney spent the next two years of his life promoting Guinness around the world but found it a heady lifestyle. He gave up drinking 13 years ago, and is still an actor. He appeared in Glenroe and has had regular small parts in films from King Arthur to the upcoming Camelot.

Buttering him up:
You can keep your Nescafe Gold Blend ads – Kerrygold had the sexiest TV ads in the 1980s, all simmering repressed sexuality and saucy-tongued Irish women. Two Frenchmen return from a fishing trip to their Irish lodgings. The good-looking one asks if “zere is somezing I can ’elp”. There comes the loaded reply: “You can put a bit of butter on the spuds, Andre.” A later ad came with a role reversal; a sexy French woman flirting with actor Enda Oates (who played Reverend George in Glenroe) as his son asks “Dad, who’s taking the horse to France?”

• Mother of the holy trinity of biscuits:

Kimberly, Mikado and Coconut Creams are such quintessentially Irish biscuits that only a quintessentially Irish personality would do to advertise them. Panto queen Maureen Potter became the face of the Jacobs’ trio in the 1970s and kickstarted the timeless slogan, ‘Someone you love would love some (Mum)’ as she handed them out to Kimberly the cowboy, Mikado the comedy Chinese figure – no PC police in the 1970s, then – and Coconut Cream, a little girl.


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