In aghaidh an fhionnaidh, 3/3

Following the news of Robert Kennedy’s assassination, I was keen to learn more about what was going on in the world. In Ireland in the late-1960s, this meant tuning in to Raidió Teilifís Éireann’s (RTE) current affairs programme, 7 Days

The programme’s main presenters were Brian Farrell, John O’Donoghue, and Brian Cleeve. Farrell was a noted academic and political scientist, O’Donoghue already an experienced current affairs anchor, and Cleeve had distinguished himself as a commentator on Irish life in his Discovery series.  

Brian Cleeve stood out for his English accent and somewhat aristocratic appearance. In 1966 his accent got him into trouble with RTE. Someone there did not think it appropriate for him to be so prominent on national television just as the country was about to mark the jubilee of the 1916 Rising. Brian was briefly suspended but public opinion caused the station to reinstate him. Now he was back in a top slot investigating the big news stories of the day.

His first producer on 7 Days, Lelia Doolan, pointed out the contrast between the sometimes frantic atmosphere on set leading up to airtime and what she described as Brian Cleeve’s “awful relaxed casualness” when he introduced the programme.[1]  Brian must have been subject to the same pressures as everyone around him. But his urbane manner successfully concealed any nervous tension he was feeling when he hosted a live broadcast.

Many years later I met Brian Cleeve and learnt more about his fascinating life - before and after his career in television. I discovered a man with his own individual perspective, and someone prepared to go “against the grain” if he had to.

This trait meant that he often clashed with over-bearing authority, whether in school, the British army, or during his time in Apartheid-era South Africa. When, after several run-ins at RTE, his contract was terminated, he went straight to the top and complained directly to the Director-General. 

Yet, as his TV persona indicated, Brian was not naturally aggressive or confrontational. Once when competing in a fencing championship he lost the bout when he held back after inadvertently drawing blood from his opponent. 

Brian may have lacked the “killer instinct”, but he did not lack courage. At the same time he was not naturally fearless, quite the contrary. Like Seán Ó Riada, he was more keenly aware than most of the spiritual realm surrounding us. The perceptible presence of shadowy, threatening forces could be quite frightening. But Brian overcame his fears by convincing himself that it was “undignified” to allow them to dominate his thinking. And so he banished them completely from his mind. 

When I got to know him he had already faced the latest test of his mettle. In 1977 he underwent a profound spiritual experience that changed his life forever. He set out the fruits of this experience in several books published in the early-1980s. They told of the sort of relationship between God and human that was possible for anyone who wanted it. What Brian wrote made the Catholic teaching of my youth easier to understand and left me feeling reinvigorated and eager to learn more.

For Brian himself, finding God meant losing other things, like his career as a successful novelist and his status as an elder statesman of Irish broadcasting. None of this mattered to someone long familiar with the experience of being ostracised for his convictions. What was different about this turn in Brian’s life was the impact it had on total strangers, like me.  

I learnt a lot from the many spiritual insights Brian wrote about. But I learnt more from my friendship with a man who never allowed the pressures or temptations of life to knock him off course.

[1] Lelia Doolan, Jack Dowling, Bob Quinn, Sit Down and Be Counted: The Cultural Evolution of a Television Station (Dublin, 1969), p. 86.

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