Eamonn Kelly: The Ryan Line


From top: Gerry Ryan in 1997; Eamonn Kelly

Gerry Ryan: The Legacy (RTÉ One). A Review

If you ever suspected the system might be rigged in favour of an elite, RTÉ certainly offered lots of food for thought for that idea in their tribute – to the late Gerry Ryan who died this week ten years ago.

Gerry Ryan hailed from the middle-class suburb of Clontarf. He attended Trinity and went into pirate radio and then RTÉ. His mother was from a theatrical family, this connection resulting in Eamonn Andrews being Gerry’s godfather.

Gerry went to school with one of Charlie Haughey’s sons and knew Haughey himself the way you’d know the dads of your pals.

Charlie Haughey by the way was the son-in-law of Sean Lemass, taoiseach at the time, who appointed Todd Andrews (no relation to Eamonn Andrews) to the chair of the RTÉ authority from where his first directive to the director general was to “fire that f**ker Byrne” from The Late Late Show.

Todd Andrews disliked Gay Byrne’s journalistic objectivity. Two generations later the same chair of the Late Late Show went to Andrews’ grandson, Ryan Tubridy, leaving Gerry Ryan, the natural successor in any meritocracy, deeply disappointed.

The Ryan Line

What came through loud and clear from this potted history of one RTÉ life was the sheer tightly woven scale of the political connections operating in RTÉ since its inception, and the Fianna Fáil influence over the station, along with the huge monies that were bandied around to keep broadcasters of Ryan’s talent on the books.

Charlie Haughey was presented in the documentary as a kind of role model of style and influence who impressed the young Ryan; not as the taoiseach widely considered to have had a corrupting influence on the country’s political culture, the consequences of which we are still living with.

The man who was implicated in, for instance, the widespread Ansbacher tax evasion scam involving vast numbers of individuals from the church-going professional middle classes. The wily Charlie Haughey who, in the wake of the 2015 TV drama about his life was described in the Irish Times as:

“Charvet Charlie…his stately home, his befurred, entitled mistress, his grovelling Uriah Heep ministers, the phone-tapping, the tails, the threats, all remain too close, too familiar, too infuriating to be classified as fascinating or entertaining…”

Gerry Ryan too was presented in a kindly manner as a victim of over-eating and heavy drinking and lack of exercise rather than just another middle-class cocaine tooter contributing to the criminality that the eternally shocked middle-classes abhor when it suits them.

They conveniently make no connection between the boy that was dismembered several weeks back in some kind of twisted gangland retaliation, and the smug overpaid over-connected middle classes driving the whole nasty underground industry.

Class and Cronyism

Though it would be tempting to conclude that Gerry Ryan was undone by the nepotism at the heart of RTÉ that saw a Todd Andrews heir take the top presenting job that Ryan felt entitled to, it is far more likely that the decision to award the show to someone other than Ryan was taken in the full knowledge of Ryan’s drug-taking.

However, on the tribute programme, innocence of this aspect of Ryan’s life was the clarion call. Like Manuel in Fawlty Towers, nobody knew anything.

So, in the narrative spun by the tribute, Gerry Ryan becomes a lonely victim of success; Charlie Haughey becomes urbane and sophisticated; Ryan’s cossetted middle-class and well-connected upbringing is portrayed as “ordinary”; the reek of nepotism at the heart of RTÉ is blithely ignored; and hardly anyone quite knows what cocaine is.

As a result, what the programme really showed, if inadvertently, was that the three elephants in the Irish living room are class, cronyism and accountability.

Where the only option for any form of social mobility is either through a direct connection to power, or to be endlessly “nice” and “agreeable”, remaining as deaf, dumb and blind to politics and difficult moral questions as the proverbial three monkeys.

Nice Guys Come First

In a sense the Gerry Ryan tribute fulfilled RTE’s commitment to public service broadcasting, albeit more by accident than by design, in that it lifted the lid on the nepotism, the high living, the comfortable connectedness and the big money at the heart of RTE, while also demonstrating the fine art of political spin as it is applied in the creation of anemic cultural narratives.

As a working-class person who has often felt unwelcome and out of place in Ireland’s largely middle-class arts community, (you can’t help but faux pas all over the place, and you are a non-starter in the sugary passive aggressive angles being worked to corner scarce funding opportunities) I long since suspected that the arts, like the other professions, including politics, were all essentially populated by people from the same postal addresses and colleges.

This programme more than confirmed that suspicion, while also shedding light on the arts sector’s largely silent contribution to political matters, along with that sector’s often obsequious behaviour towards government. The idea, it seems, is to “nice” your way into the funding.

This important work involves the maintenance of a hard, permanent smile, through thick and thin, until your rictus breaks your face in half when you realize your funding has been cut by the neo-liberal government you have been supporting with your silence.

As Barbara Ehrenreich showed in her excellent book “Bright-sided”, being endlessly agreeable and polite and calling it “positive”, in the hope of someday being favoured by those already installed in power, only makes a slave of you in the end.

You become so habituated to nodding your head in agreement that you lose the capacity to dissent; inadvertently contributing with your obsequiousness to the ongoing rot of cronyism at the heart of the culture you are, as an artist, purporting to mirror.

It’s not that RTÉ can’t interrogate a subject and spin a meaningful narrative. This is exactly what the Ryan tribute programme did.

The problem was it set out to protect its own class and interests; to exonerate its own tainted champions and to tidy up the neat middle-class world that it serves; re-painting all those pesky moral complications that were littering the place, in nice, fresh, bright, cheerful colours.

And that, more than anything, was a perfect illustration of how the Irish arts and cultural sector has sold out its own function in the interests of maintaining the political status quo.

Eamonn Kelly is a freelance Writer and Playwright.

Previously: Eamonn Kelly on Broadsheet


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38 thoughts on “Eamonn Kelly: The Ryan Line

  1. Con Kennedy

    RIP Gerry, you used public money to fund your drug habit and support criminal gangs. You touched people’s lives in ways you couldn’t imagine.

    1. GiggidyGoo

      That’s the truth of it. And our taxes again then finance RTE to pay homage to him in programs like this.

      1. Computer Contributor.

        I met Ryan once. So up his own hole. And his attitude towards women was disgusting.

  2. Nilbert

    Very well written, and very well observed Eammon, couldn’t agree more.
    I was particularly delighted by Joe Duffy’s quizzical expression when confronted with the scurrilous notion that poor Gerry might have suffered an addiction to something called…. is it “cocaine”?

    If would be laughable if it wasn’t for the completely soporific nature of public debate which results, and the dull acquiescent society we have become.
    Another round of applause for Leo Varadker and Simon Harris ladies’n’gentlemen!!

    1. Mart Cattle

      I thought it was a fair programme overall and I set out wanting to really hate it and be offended.

      I don’t agree with what EK said about the way Haughey was presented.

      The context was about how Ryan perceived Haughey and how that may have affected his own later excesses.

      EK is right though, overall, it really did lift the lid. Disgusting slobs the whole lot of them apart from Marty.

  3. Johnny Keenan

    Can’t add anymore to that Eamonn. That about sums it up.
    Im sure you could write a play about it.

  4. Matt Pilates

    In fairness, with those underlying causes he wouldn’t have like the food in St Vincent’s University Hospital anyway.

  5. White Dove

    Great piece, Eamon, it is even worse than you thought! Not just people from the same postal addresses and colleges but people from the same little internal groups within those postal addresses and colleges.

    Not everyone who goes to fee-paying schools gets on like a member of the Andrews clan from those fee paying schools, for instance (though, even being in the outer circle of connected people in those schools may arguably give you an advantage over those who didn’t go to them at all).

    Ultimately, a close familial connection to a leading current politician trumps being merely someone whose parents are part of the social network of a former politician, unless you’re clever and cunning enough to parlay that into increasing your network power over time – that’s the lesson Gerry Ryan learnt!

    It’s a racket and there’s a glass ceiling for everyone except those at the very top or those who are really really good at playing the system.

    Would Haughey have been exposed at all if he had generations of political connections behind him instead of merely marrying into them?

  6. Paulus

    Well said Eamonn.
    I found it deeply frustrating viewing; although having said that I may check it out on Player as I missed the initial 20 mins – if only to see if it mentioned the Lambo incident?
    I remember well how that story played out. Ryan had been passing it on as absolute fact; it was only when it started to unravel that he adopted Plan B…claiming it was just a bit a craic…or crack in Ryan’s case?

    Having only been exposed to a tiny portion of his output over the years, I had no idea what an egomaniac he was. The small comfort with this programme is that, while it sets out to tell one story, it speaks another truth also.

    1. A Person

      You are on BS. Anyone who does anything is seen as part of the establishment, regardless of their gifts. And to the writer, I didn’t go to a private schools, I don’t have family that are connections, but I worked hard to get where I am. My siblings did the same. To suggest that you can only get by with such “resources” is false, jealous, and frankly lazy “journalism”. Turbidy got the job because he was related to the Andrews clan. Ryan got the job because he lived in Clontarf and went to a private school. If you are middle class you only achieve due to family connections? Surely that’s reverse elitism. If you can’t achieve because you are the wrong class – then just give up? What nonsense. Seriously, why are BS peddling this poopy.

      1. Chuckenstein

        Bingo. No surprises in the programme or in this piece. I rolled with it because I liked Gerry’s show but it didn’t take a genius to sus out what he would be like away from the mic and surely there can be no surprises when it comes to RTE’s intricacies.

      2. Mart Cattle

        That wasn’t his point at all. He said it was very helpful though

        What’s the source of your own incessant bitterness btw?
        Boils or some other renal abscess?

    2. Steve Grogan

      Not begrudgery, just the sad reality. RTE is awash with nepotism and political hackery. Ryan Tubirdy being a prime example of that.

  7. Tarfton Clax

    Well written piece. and true too as far as it goes. Mind you it should be acknowledged that Ryan was really really superb at his job. He could move from discussions of trigemnal neuralgia to sensitive interviews with Lavinia Kerwick to nonsense about fat bottoms in a blink. He also helped spread the wonderfully whimsical music of Aidan Walsh to a much larger audience, which I think does count a little on the plus side of his ledger.

    1. Rob_G

      Agreed – he wasn’t my cup of tea at all, but he was enormously popular. When he died, 2fm lost listeners, and lost them for good.

  8. Truth in the News

    What about an Independent Documentary on the history of RTE,its past time
    that this outfit was exposed to what it is and its influence of Ireland is subject
    to scrutiny and that we have an accountable Public Broadcasting

  9. diddy

    there are networks, there are connections and within those networks are bred people with entitlement and self belief.

    but for every Gerry Ryan there is a Ray D’Arcy, or a Gay Byrne. both from modest backgrounds. in my experience the private school set aren’t against outsiders.

    1. Cian

      Ray D’Arcy – son of an soldier
      or a Joe Duffy – a Dub
      or a Sean O’Rourke (one of eight children of local school principal )
      or Marian Finucane
      or Miriam O’Callaghan (daughter of a senior civil servant – is that ‘connected’)?
      or Claire Byrne – farmer’s daughter
      perhaps not Bryan Dobson – a D4 head.
      or George Hamilton – from Belfast?
      or Mary Wilson – I don’t know her background

      The top 10 RTE earners (apart from Tubs) aren’t exactly from highly privileged backgrounds or professional parents. A fair mix of backgrounds.

      1. Computer Contributor.

        Marian Finucane was from a very well-connected family. Listen to her when she was in her 20s before she adopted her fake ‘ah be the hokey’ accent. Miriam O’Callaghan is very Fianna Fail and from a very well-connected family, her brother’s the FF TD Jim O’Callaghan. Sean O’Rourke comes from a relatively modest family, but he has deep links with Fine Gael (as does his wife and his children). George Hamilton is from the Malone Road, the Shrewsbury Road of Belfast.

          1. Computer Contributor.

            Well, it’s not a meritocracy. Abie Philbin Bowman, wonder how he got his job in RTE. Wonder how Lottie Ryan got her job in RTE.

          2. Mart Cattle

            You haven’t offered one piece of evidence there to show George didn’t get to where he is on merit. He’s an extremely professional and polished broadcaster in every format he’s ever been on.

        1. Cian

          Miriam O’Callaghan has presented Prime Time since 1996, and has been in TV since the 80s. Jim O’Callaghan was a member of Dublin City Council from 2009 (He unsuccessfully ran as a candidate for Fianna Fáil in the 2007 general election). Looks like her RTE career predates his FF one.

          Who are the “connections” that Marian Finucane and Sean O’Rourke have?

  10. Clampers Outside

    Man watches “tribute” programme is shocked by tribute paid positively.

    Some decent points, but over laboured on those one or two individuals to make a point is more anecdotal of the presumptions than evidence of, in fairness.

  11. Lilly

    Plenty of people take comfort in perpetually viewing life through an us-and-them lens, but generally, we’re all subject to same randomness in life irrespective of our origins.

      1. Lilly

        It’s the exception that proves the rule Bertie. Still, her life hasn’t been a bed of roses. Parents’ marriage breakup, losing father etc.

        For what it’s worth I don’t think Gerry Ryan was denied the LLS because of string pulling for Tubridy. He was awful on TV. Aesthetically, he was a better fit for radio.

        1. bertie blenkinsop

          Parents’ marriage breakup, losing father etc….
          I’ll grant you, I wouldn’t wish those on anyone but please don’t tell me she has her career on merit.

  12. Rose

    Well said. And the sycophantic references to Charlie Haughty were particularly annoying. Completely glossed over the true facts about his life.

  13. Mart Cattle

    Poor oul EK is getting an awful roasting in some arts group thing he is a member of on Facebook.
    Administrator John Nee said imagine sitting down to watch that shiiite about Gerry Ryan and then writing about it

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