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3 October 2016

Terry Wogan the man who reminded the British and Irish of depth of their affection for one another

Broadcaster Republicís unofficial ambassador who eased tensions at a dark time, says Ruth Dudley Edwards

Wogan appreciated wit, originality, an eye for the ridiculous and an ability to laugh at life
Wogan appreciated wit, originality, an eye for the ridiculous and an ability to laugh at life

My close friend Nina is probably the least sentimental person I know. Thoroughly English yet educationally and professionally European-minded, she has little interest in Ireland, north or south.

So when she told me on Saturday that the previous night she had watched the BBC tribute to the late Terry Wogan I was surprised.

And when she added that she had found it so moving that she shed a tear at the end I was astounded.

But when we talked about him, we realised the admiration and affection we both felt for Wogan were because his virtues were so universal: kindness, cheerfulness, tolerance, wit, self-deprecation, honesty and an ability to see the absurdities of life, even in the bad times, are qualities to be cherished outside as well as throughout the British Isles.

To the British he was simply a delight, a broadcaster you could rely on to make you feel better at the end of one of his programmes than at the beginning.

As the Welsh actor and comedian Rob Brydon put it, that voice made one feel he would provide a silver lining even for a nuclear cloud.

Limerick-born Wogan was a happy presence on the BBC from September 1966 for almost 50 years.

Among his extraordinary contributions to his country of adoption was his decades of devoted work for Children in Need, which raised in the region of £800m.

But millions of people in Britain who had been born in Ireland or were of Irish descent had particular reason to be grateful to him.

The Troubles were just beginning when Wogan moved from the Republic to London, and during decades when IRA bombs were killing, maiming and terrifying, he was our ambassador, the man who reminded the Irish and British of the depth of their mutual affection.

“When the Birmingham bombs went off I had to come up the following morning with a cheerful Irish accent”, he remembered.

“I didn’t feel any guilt, 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.”

That he didn’t feel it necessary to apologise for being Irish was as important as feeling no need to deny his Britishness, which — as with so many Irish people — was acquired from literature and the BBC.

“I was a West Brit from the start,” he told an interviewer, seeing absolutely no contradiction in his affection and loyalty for both the country of his birth and that in which he lived.

What I loved most about Wogan was how he connected with his listeners through humour.

No one ever sent him sycophantic messages, because he simply wouldn’t read them out.

The qualities he appreciated were “wit, originality, a keen eye for the ridiculous, lateral thinking, a laugh at life”.

As their great pantheon of comic writers proves, the English are brilliant at laughing at themselves and the quickest way for immigrants to win their approval is to do likewise.

Like Wogan, Dave Allen and the creators of Father Ted encouraged millions to laugh with the Irish at the Irish, and indeed at any other nationality caught in the crossfire.

Asian comedians are fruitfully ploughing the same furrows.

I was fortunate that my mother, a great reader, believed that humour transcended almost all divisions: she brought me up on a varied diet of comic writers who included American, Canadian, Jewish, Italian, French as well as Irish and British.

I was fortunate, too, that my father taught me that you don’t really have a sense of humour unless you can laugh at yourself.

In Ireland we pride ourselves on being humorous, but we’re keener on laughing at other people than at ourselves.

In honour of Terry Wogan, let’s swell the ranks of consumers of satirical blogs like Ulster Fry and Waterford Whispers.

And let’s also usefully remember his advice, that the most important quality is kindness.

Because he was kind and funny, he was mourned by tens of millions throughout the British Isles.

Even my unsentimental friend Nina.

It’s a hell of a lot better than being remembered for hatred and bitterness.

Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Seven: The Lives And Legacies Of The Founding Fathers Of The Irish Republic, was published by Oneworld Publications on March 22.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards