‘Terry was the voice of the diaspora’

‘Terry was the voice of the diaspora’
Sir Terry Wogan at one of his last public engagements in October 2015.

Michael McDonagh first met the presenter in 1972 and recalls how he quietly resisted an attempt at censorship

I first met Terry Wogan in 1972 when he took over the breakfast show on Radio 2 and I was just getting started in the music business working for Transatlantic Records.

As we were introduced he said with a glint in his eye ‘Ah McDonagh that name is indelibly embossed on my flesh, by my Jesuit Rector at Belvedere, who was called Fr. Francis McDonagh’.

I pointed out that he was actually my cousin Frank and from then we always had a friendship with a running gag between us.

‘Terry was the voice of the diaspora’
Terry Wogan on his last day at Belvedere in 1956

Over thirty years ago unrequested he kindly welcomed the births of both my children on air.

His Jesuit education was important to him and it left him with such a huge vocabulary including a knowledge of Latin, which he used without patronising his audience. He was well read and well-informed but never pompous.

I have many memories of indulgent lunches at wonderful restaurants like Odin’s or Wiltons or Le Gavroche with his dear friend and producer the late Paul Walters, when he would have us roaring with laughter with his stories and take on current events.

I also have memories of meeting him at Irish international rugby games at Twickenham and Dublin, where he was always full of jokes.

Once I was sitting in the stand of Lansdowne Road with the late Tiernan McBride for an Ireland v England game and got over excited and shouted a profanity. I suddenly heard the soft unmistakable voice from two rows behind me with a mock reproach saying ‘Steady on Mick look who you are sitting beside’.

There was Wogan with a glint in his eye indicating Cardinal Basil Hume to my left. His contribution to music was enormous, as so many people would not have discovered so many new, often obscure artistes, whose careers were launched by his show.

It was hard in those days with so few radio stations to get airplay for new artistes but Terry knew quality and what he liked and would champion artistes that could not get a look in elsewhere.

I first played him Streets of London and Clare to Here by Ralph McTell, which he played and Shoeshine Boy and Her Father Didn’t Like Me Anyway by the Humblebums (Billy Connolly and Gerry Rafferty), which he also played.

From then he was the first person to play for me Hey Jude by De Dannan or Heartsong by Gordon Giltrap. He championed Julio Iglesias before anybody else also playing other wonderful music by people like Clifford T Ward and Gallagher and Lyle. Classic records he played for years.

Troubles

Coincidently, I had been thinking of him on Saturday at the Troubles, Tragedy and Trauma conference chaired by former President of Ireland Professor Mary McAleese.

Hearing the poignant personal stories of victims of those terrible violent times, I was reminded of just how important Terry Wogan was at that difficult time for the thousands of Irish people working and living in England in the seventies and eighties.

When terrorist bombs were going off in Birmingham, Hyde Park or near Harrods, allegedly in ‘our name for Irish freedom’, Terry, who was always apolitical, was the voice of normality.

He knew more than anybody that if we overreacted, the terrorists had won. As the public recoiled from the horror of the deaths there was always the danger of a public backlash against the Irish community in England, who had been living here peacefully with their neighbours for years.

Tabloids inflamed the fear that there were IRA terrorist cells in every parish in Camden, Willesden, Kilburn or Ancoats and the mere sound of an Irish accent could raise anxiety amongst the ignorant. But Terry was a courageous beacon and his pride in his Irishness shone through.

Terry was the voice of the diaspora
Terry Wogan at 29 via Broadsheet.ie and RTE50 archive

By simply just carrying on as normal in his mellifluous tones with his surreal humour and soulful music he reassured his listeners that all was well in the world, that life would carry on and by implication without comment, that Irish immigrants had a valued place here.

I had lunch with him shortly after the Horse Guards were killed in Hyde Park and when those unfortunate military bandsmen were blown up in Regents Park. I could hear for myself how upset and outraged he was at the murders of innocent musicians playing for the tourists.

He told me it was really hard for him on those that details of IRA atrocities led the news bulletins and he was expected to follow live on air being cheery. But he was always determined that the best way he could support his listeners and refute tabloid-inflamed prejudices was by just being true to himself and carrying on.

This took enormous courage and was a huge comfort to the Irish diaspora community at the time.

In that week of London bombings I gave him a copy of The Green Fields of France by the Fureys, which he played on his show a remarkable thoughtful gesture of peace.

Offence

Amongst senior management at the BBC there were always those who felt Irish voices on the radio might ‘cause offence’ so they tried to secretly drop Irish records. When the IRA’s Harrods bomb went off on 17 December 1983 they even tried to censor Terry.

Frank Kelly had released his comedy record Christmas Countdown as Gobnait O Lúnasa.

We had given it to Terry in advance of release and it was scheduled to be played on his show the next day as he had played it several times before, getting a great reaction as it entered the charts.

BBC bosses instructed Terry’s producer to discreetly remove the record from the programme box for the next day so as not to ‘cause offence’.

“When he learned BBC managers secretly tried to censor Frank Kelly’s comedy record he was incandescent”

A BBC secretary tipped me off so that night I sent by motorbike courier another copy of the record to Wogan’s home with a note telling him what had happened. He was incandescent.

The next morning as the producer drove to work he was horrified to hear Terry Wogan laughing on air playing the ‘banned’ Frank Kelly record as normal. It became a minor hit and we did Top of The Pops just after Christmas on 5 January 1984.

The Queen told Wogan she was most amused by it. For Terry it was actually a very brave and independent thing to do and a measure of just how practically important he was to the community here.

I last met him in October when I talked to him for a piece in this paper on his new book. At the time I wrote: He set the bar so high for all the DJs who followed. Wogan always remembered it was about the audience and not himself by talking personally to the microphone, as if to one individual person who would relate to him.

He said ‘if I dropped in some joke in Latin (obviously learned from his old school Belvedere) he had done his job if one solitary academic in Oxford picked up and laughed at the joke’. That was his trick. We all thought he was talking to us personally and that included Her Majesty the Queen, who was a fan.

With Terry Wogan, the man who talked to you on the radio was the man you met in the street or with whom you had lunch. He was the same on air as he was off it, just himself, a man who did not enjoy the trappings of fame but preferred a private life with his family, even though he had become a very, very highly paid national institution.

Joke

In August 1981 I gave him When You Were Sweet Sixteen by the Fureys. When nobody else was behind the record he stuck with it, making a friendly joke out of the banjo introduction or Finbar’s deep voice until we had the hit in October with a song that was about 100 years old.

We then got them on Top of The Pops and this huge hit created a massive international career for the band but also kick started an important Irish label in London, Ritz Records.

He did the same when I played him Bunch of Thyme ‘ and Maggie by Foster & Allen. Later he would play Daniel O’Donnell and invited Daniel, the Fureys and Brendan Grace as guests on his TV show, giving them much appreciated early exposure.

He also played other Irish artistes such as Paul Brady, Sinead Lohan, Clannad, Enya and the Corrs. Eva Cassidy and Katie Melua would not have sold millions of albums without Wogan championing their wonderful talent.

An incredible musical legacy for which we are eternally grateful.

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