I was a ten-year-old growing up in Dublin when the Wogan family moved in a few streets away. Terry and his younger brother Brian came to my school — a rather strict Jesuit institution, Belvedere College — and from then on our lives became happily intertwined. Brian was my age and joined my class. Terry was a few years above.
So close were we, I spent as much time in the Wogan home as I did in my own. It took three minutes to get to the boys’ house on my bike, and I knew there’d always be a warm welcome. Their mother Rose (a small, kind lady I called “Mammy Wogan”) was ever present. Once in a while, their dad Michael would drop us off at school in his smart black Vauxhall Wyvern.
Much as I’ve enjoyed reading the tributes to a man I knew as a friend, a man we all know as one of the best broadcasters there’s ever been, my mind goes back to the boy I grew up with. I can now see many signs within the young Terry Wogan of the great man he’d become. For a start, that smile; warm, gentle, generous, he inherited it directly from his mammy. His love of family too: Terry was married to his beloved wife Helen for more than 50 years. I remember from his days in 1950s Dublin the protective shield he’d throw round his little brother. And his charm? Terry wouldn’t have been able to hide that even if he’d have wanted to.
Brian and I saw Terry as a hero: he was tall, good-looking, and always cheerful. I never in 60 years saw him otherwise. Even as a boy, he projected an air that everything, no matter what, would be all right. As I remember it, he wasn’t what you call academic but was a good rugby player and an enthusiastic performer in the school’s Gilbert and Sullivan operetta’s.
Once, when Brian had committed some transgression, the priest in charge of discipline told Terry to tell their parents. The next day was Brian’s birthday and a party was planned and Terry feared a big telling-off would spoil the day. So he never said a word – but at the first opportunity he told the priest that Mr and Mrs Wogan had been very sorry and had suitably reprimanded Brian.
When he left school, he worked for the Royal Bank of Ireland as a teller, not a job he thought highly of. My parents suggested I should have a savings account and knew the mere mention of having it in the Royal with Terry there would persuade me to save my money instead of spending it. Terry handed me a receipt and gave me a blue padded money box with interlocking teeth at the top. (The idea was that when you put money in, you couldn’t get it out without going back to the bank.) Terry would open it, check the contents and tell me what I had.
“Gosh, Hen,” he’d say (he always called me Hen). “You’ve done well. There’s four pounds 12 and six here! I tell you what – why don’t we put four quid in the account and you take the rest?” He was working in cahoots with my family.
Soon enough, Terry was on the wireless, his first big show on Irish radio at lunchtime on Sunday. I recall my mother saying one day as we had lunch and listened: “Isn’t it like Terry is sittin’ at the table?” And that was what would make Terry loved by millions for the best part of 50 years. Since his death, people have said to me he was a “total professional broadcaster”. True, he could twiddle the buttons but he never wrote a script in his life and used to say he’d never done a decent day’s work in his life either. He was Terry Wogan whether sitting in a radio studio or having a pint. Always the same.
His cheerful nature and affability might have led some to wonder whether he was a man of substance. Well, he was widely read and loved PG Wodehouse, James Joyce and Flann O’Brien. O’Brien’s sense of the ridiculous greatly appealed to Terry; sometimes, to the bewilderment of others, we would impersonate O’Brien’s surreal characters. He loved that sort of nonsense.
I find it hard to believe I’ll never see or hear him again, but at least I have my memories: strolling around a cricket ground in Guernsey during a match with the Lord’s Taverners we came to the beer tent and had a few pints. Terry looked at my skinny frame and declared: “Hen, you’re a lucky man. You can drink pints and never put on weight. I can put half a stone on just by looking at an advert for Guinness.”
For those too young to remember – and for the rest of us who were there at the time – never let us forget that the Britain that Terry arrived in was a very different place for a young Irishman to ply his trade. As his career here was taking off, the so-called “Troubles” were at their worst. In the early 1970s, IRA bombs were a daily occurrence. The year he started his Radio 2 breakfast show – 1972 – was the deadliest of the lot. “Even allowing for the good nature and tolerance of the British it’s surprising that I’ve not been the butt of anti-Irish hatred,” he later reflected.
I recall the morning after the Birmingham pub bombings in 1974. You can imagine the mood in the country. A few hours before, 21 innocent people had been killed by the IRA, which was, in its own way, as much a shock to 70s Britain as the London bombings were in 2005. But Terry had to go on the radio and present a whimsical breakfast show.
Anyone else in his position might have found it impossible — I know Terry found it difficult — but he broadcast as if nothing had happened. He had to be himself. He couldn’t be anyone else – millions of listeners knew the actions of a few hateful bombers had nothing to do with him or 99.9 per cent of the Irish people. It was because he was trusted and loved that this was possible.
So farewell, friend. And to Helen and your children, my sympathy, and, if I’m allowed, especially to Brian: you’ve lost a brother. The rest of us have lost a dear, dear friend.