When Seamus Heaney received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, it gave the Irish press something to celebrate, especially in its culture pages. Most newspaper columnists were united and unstinting in their praise of the Co Derry poet. Note: I said most columnists…
In the Sunday Independent, Eamon Dunphy decided to go rogue with a controversial and negative view of the poet. To a gobsmacked nation, Dunphy declared that Heaney was not a great poet at all and therefore did not really deserve the prize.
Heaney remained unruffled. He had the measure of Dunphy and just saw him as someone who liked to stir things up, that was his job. Interestingly, Dunphy came to regret writing the piece and apologised to Heaney when their paths crossed later at a social gathering.
At times, it takes courage to dissent from popular opinion. Of course, some dissenters might just be attention seekers trying to claim the spotlight for themselves, like jaded duo Jedward with their controversial tweets since the Queen’s passing. For bargain basement celebs publicity is oxygen.
But there are people who are not afraid to take a principled stand against wrong doing, even if it costs them dear. One such person is David Walsh, an Irish columnist for the Sunday Times.
In 1996, Walsh was at the Atlanta Olympics. The big story for the Irish was the incredible success of swimmer Michelle Smith. In one week she won three gold medals, thus becoming Ireland’s greatest ever Olympian. She was a national hero and there were huge celebrations at home.
However, the title of Walsh’s newspaper column after Smith’s success struck a far from laudatory tone.
‘Poison in the Golden Pool’ it read. He raised difficult questions that nobody wanted to face in such a euphoric atmosphere; such as, how does a mediocre swimmer who has never had any success during a twelve year career come from nowhere to win these medals? Could the fact that she married a Dutch discus thrower who had been banned for using performance enhancing drugs have anything to do with it? Eventually Michelle Smith would be exposed as a cheat.
Little did Walsh know that his dissenting voice would be heard again in a much bigger sporting controversy a few years later…
In 1998 the Tour de France hit an all time low, when it was discovered that the competition was rife with doping. Therefore, 1999 was presented as the Tour of Renewal, where the organisers wanted to show the world that the competition was now clean and dope free.
Coincidentally, 1999 saw the return to the Tour of American cyclist Lance Armstrong after a three year lay off during which he recovered from a severe case of testicular cancer. It really was quite a tale. Armstrong not only came back from death’s door but he won this most physically demanding of races. It was the most inspiring, compelling and life affirming sports story of all time and Armstrong made headlines around the world.
After his Atlanta experience, Walsh just could not join in the celebration. He knew that Armstrong had ridden in the Tour four times before his illness and his best placing had been thirty-sixth. How was it possible for such a rider to come back after battling cancer and win the race?
Not only that, but the average cycling times at this new, supposedly dope free event were actually faster than they had been the previous year of the scandal. It didn’t add up.
When Walsh voiced his concerns in the pages of the Sunday Times, the paper was inundated with texts and letters pouring scorn and vitriol on his reporting. Everyone wanted to believe in Lance. One man wrote, “Mr Walsh has the worst cancer of all – a cancer of the spirit”.
Even after Armstrong went on to win six more Tour titles, publish a bestselling book and was feted as a world superstar and role model for the young, Walsh continued to doubt. Eventually he would be proved right when Armstrong was finally outed as a cheat. The whole story is told in The Program (2015), a film by Stephen Frears with Chris O’Dowd playing David Walsh.
During these days of mourning for the Queen, there has been some dissent and protest, but that is only natural.
Support for the Royal Family has been falling in recent years. In 2010 about 80 per cent of people identified as monarchists.
At present the number is around 65 per cent. It is understandable that the many people who do not feel represented by the BBC version of the country should want to make their presence felt.
Also, it is good to live in a society that can tolerate difference. Back in 1983, after being included in an anthology of British poets, Seamus Heaney felt the need to dissent, “Be advised, my passport’s green, no glass of ours was ever raised to toast the Queen”.
Colm Eastwood, leader of the SDLP, quoted those lines when questioning the NI Office’s decision to use Heaney’s image as part of its centenary branding. He had a point. Differences should not be denied or glossed over, but recognised and celebrated. Difference can be fascinating as we saw last week in the informal encounter between the new King Charles and Sinn Féin leader Michelle O’Neill while DUP leader and monarchist Jeffrey was sidelined. It was priceless.
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