Mar. 6, 2013




It’s the 17th May 2011.  Queen Elizabeth 11 is making a historic visit to Ireland. This visit is richly symbolic. We know it’s historic and symbolic because the media commentators and the politicians have told us so about a million times during the past week. 

I’m correcting proofs in Belfield  when I get a phone call from somebody called Adrian from the BBC World Service. Well, that’s nice!  The BBC  World Service! Now,that’s not Raidio na Life or Newstalk.  What can they want?  Are they going to broadcast one of my stories?  Adrian, who sounds  really sweet, asks me if I would be prepared to comment on the  Royal visit on a programme he’s doing, tonight. The World News or something.  My heart sinks. Sometimes I am rung and asked to comment, at short notice, on the shortlist of a literary award, or the death of a writer. But not on events that are of historic importance and richly symbolic, involving heads of state.  I say I haven’t got much to say about the visit one way or the other and would rather not. Curious, I ask him why he has called me. He explains that he wants a ‘cultural person’ – in a careful tone which makes me wonder if he has any clue about the form my particular ‘cultural’ credentials might take.

It’s four o clock, his programme is going out at eight. He’s obviously been let down. Presumably he was really looking for Diarmuid Feirtear or Declan Kiberd or someone who knows something about Irish history.  Maybe he’s been going through the telephone directory, checking out people whose names are in Irish, hoping they’ll be rampant nationalists who will add a bit of spice to the World News with their risible views?

He must be desperate, if he’s ringing me, someone he’s obviously never heard of, out of the blue a few hours before the programme goes on air.

I say,what the hell, the BBC World News makes a change from Radio na Life.  I say yes. I agree to to the interview on the phone, at home, at eight o’clock.

 At five thirty, I’m home, and the phone is ringing as I walk in the door. Could I go to a studio? No. I couldn’t, there’s a limit.  Ok, that is all right. Can we test my Skype then?  Over the next two hours there are about six or seven phone calls, sound tests on Skype, various nicely spoken men calling.  Adrian finds  out how to pronounce my name. I write some notes, think about Irish history, wonder what we’d be like if we all spoke Irish.  When you start thinking about it, the royal visit is quite interesting. Thought provoking.  I don’t get any dinner, I’m so busy thinking about Strongbow, the Ulster Plantation,  the  cultural similarities between Ireland and England (Politicians mention the cultural similarities every few minutes but never specify what they are. Rugby, I suppose, they might mean. English. Or the full Irish breakfast?) Someone rings me and asks if I know any writer who might be a bit hostile to the queen’s visit, just to contrast with my reasonable attitude.  I don’t. Actually the attitude most of the writers I know have to the Queen’s visit  is benign indifference…  sure, it’s  deeply symbolic and richly historic but unless you’re one of the thousand invited to the state banquet, it’s as thrilling as the Queen’s Christmas message). But I put on my thinking cap.  I ring back with a few telephone numbers, of men from Northern Ireland. I tell Adrian that writers from the North may have stronger feelings about the visit than we wishy washy, easy going, southerners.   At this stage – since they’re using me to source names – I ask how he got my name and he mentions a short story I published recently in an English anthology. That sounds plausible  and  I wonder , though not aloud, if I will get a plug in  for one of my books.  When they ask me for biographical details I can mention that. An ad, all over the world! 

At eight I get the final Skype call, I am listening to the BBC World Service news, we’re all set. Bertie Ahern is going first, then it’ll be my turn.I hear Bertie. He’s using his serious voice, to  say that the visit is deeply historic and richly symbolic.

A voice comes on and mumbles something  about holding on for a minute.  Then the line goes dead. I assume this is in order although I thought I was hooked up now, on the air. Minutes pass.  Ten minutes. Fifteen. I wonder if there’s something wrong with my Skype and start fiddling with it it. Am I even online still?  It is very quiet in my kitchen now.  A blackbird sings at the window – they stay up so late, these nights.  At twenty past eight Adrian  telephones me again and says bluntly, “ We interviewed someone else.’   He doesn’t have time to beat around the bush, or say sorry.

I’m gobsmacked.  

‘Who?’ I ask.

Eamonn McCann.

He sounds a bit embarrassed, I’ll give him that.

I didn’t want to be on their damned programme. I was doing them a favour –so it seemed to me.  But they were using me. They must have invited Eamonn McCann  too. I presume he wasn’t just passing by the studio at eight o’clock. Oh,howareye Eamonn! I must have been lined up as an unwitting understudy all along.

You ‘d have to wonder.

Adrian was the name of that Pope, wasn’t it?  The English Pope, who sent Henry 11 to invade Ireland? Nine hundred years ago.

Now that was an historic event. More historic than symbolic. The real thing. 

I’d forgotten about it, so it’s nice to be reminded.