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Sunday 30 January 2011

Britain's favourite Irishman is a credit to both his countries

'Terry Wogan's Ireland' may have been light, but it did address some contentious issues, says Ruth Dudley Edwards

'Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone," the London Times wrote poetically in September 2009. "Terry Wogan is abandoning his microphone."

He was in fact abandoning just his everyday microphone. Less than two months after Wake Up to Wogan ended and 8,000,000 or so listeners dried their tears, the 71-year-old Sir Terence began his Sunday TV show, and then embarked on Terry Wogan's Ireland: the first of two episodes was aired last Sunday night. In his Sunday Telegraph column, he told his readers: "the word 'journey' has become as abused as 'celebrity', so, if it's all the same to you, I'd rather you treated it as more of a meander, a dawdle".

And so it was, and, as always with Wogan, it was conducted with what calls to mind John Hewitt's line about the "leisured grace" of a favourite landscape.

Bord Failte must be ecstatic that several million British viewers watched Britain's favourite Irishman presenting such a tourist-friendly vision. As one blogger put it: "It's a real Wogan operation, soft focus and light wit. It's a very traditional portrait of Ireland -- pubs, diddly-eye, ring of Kerry, Rose of Tralee and the moving statues. It is so polite that Limerick's claim to fame is that it spans the Shannon."

But there was no shortage of Irish begrudgers on radio and on blogs. For one thing, Terry had offended by using the term 'British Isles'. Now I have wasted far too many hours arguing with nationalists and unionists about offensive terminology, and that particular argument is

Declan Lynch's TV Living SECTION

probably the most boring, unless your idea of fun is judging the merits of 'Anglo-Celtic' Isles (upsets unionists) against 'Atlantic Archipelago' (incomprehensible to almost everyone). Listen, guys, get over it: the Brits don't kick up about the expanse of water between us being called the Irish Sea.

There were complaints about Tel's explanation that he was anglicised and Ireland was no longer home. He was defended by the kind of sensible person who typifies his British fans: "Terry is obviously proud to be Irish, but did say at the beginning of the programme that it is no longer home. England made him the household name he is today and he has lived in England much longer than he did in Ireland. I am looking forward to seeing his thoughts on Northern Ireland next week. As an English woman who has now lived in Northern Ireland longer than I lived in England, this is now my home, although I will always be English."

Thank you, English woman, and thank you, Terry Wogan. Though I think I'm lucky to be Irish, England is my home, yet ignoramuses frequently abuse me for describing myself as British and Irish.

The tone upset several touchy bloggers. "The programme was patronising in the extreme," said one. "In fact, the condescension was running down the walls lol."

"Shallow programme, shallow presenter who veils his contempt for parts of Irish Culture with cheap wit and banality," said another.

My favourite, which I'm sure Wogan would enjoy, was: "Sir Darby O'Wogan and dem der little peeple. Beejaysus and begorragh."

The programme was not deep, for as Wogan pointed out, "It's a big little island, and we haven't done more than skim the surface in two one-hour shows." Yet he addressed quite a few contentious issues head-on, and showed a streak of anti-landlordism (his great-grandfather was a bootmaker to Lord Powerscourt) that upset a few English viewers.

It echoed a line from his speech at the Irish Embassy to Prince Charles among others: "People are a little depressed by the appalling economic situation but these are a people who have been through privation, starvation, oppression, discrimination, emigration, and they still come up smiling and singing."

There are depths of patriotic passion in Wogan. "The Ireland I left in the Sixties," he wrote in the Telegraph, "was a poor place, cursed by emigration. By the Nineties it was booming, the most successful country in Europe. The Celtic Tiger roared, and the Irish, who'd never experienced anything like it before, lived the dream. We know that it all fell apart, but these people and this island have a history that puts the present into perspective. As I hope these two films will show, there's still laughter here, and music, a joy of life and living. How can anyone think that the Irish will not rise again?"

(Or, as one laconic English blogger put it: "What one really admires about the Irish is their ability to get just about everything wrong and still come up smiling.")

Wogan is a citizen of Ireland and of the UK and a credit to both his countries. After this programme, he's joining Radio 4's Just a Minute next month. No need to stop the clocks yet.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards