Alison O’Connor: Shanley pioneered a form of social journalism with courage and tenacity

It was heart breakingly sad to reflect on someone so vibrant and alive, to die so young, aged only 51, writes Alison O’Connor.

Alison O’Connor: Shanley pioneered a form of social journalism with courage and tenacity

WHEN someone dies in Ireland we have a tradition of speaking well of that person. That, largely, is a good thing. However when it involves someone you thought was really special you feel the need to stress this is not just regular “saying nice stuff after death” territory.

Keelin Shanley is a perfect case in point. Keelin was one of life’s remarkable people. Before I knew and became friendly with her, I had admired her hugely as a journalist.

Keelin had such courage and tenacity. She had the sort of personality where it was impossible not to be taken by her gutsiness and her dedication, and her great sense of fun.

As her friend Niamh O’Connor said in a tribute at her funeral, in Glenageary in Dublin on Wednesday, she was fearless.

She pioneered a form of “social journalism”, going to the margins of society, for which she won a number of awards.

She believed that “the voices on the boardwalk (on Dublin’s River Liffey), were just as important as those in Buswells (Hotel, across from Leinster House).”

This was a funeral, which reflected beautifully the person that was Keelin Shanley; a woman that knew she was dying and faced that fact head on.

A week before her death she told her brother Eoin that she’d had a wonderful life. Her regret was leaving her husband Conor and her adored children Lucy and Ben. It was heartbreakingly sad to reflect on someone so vibrant and alive, to die so young, aged only 51.

But it also made you want to go out and grab onto life, just like Keelin had, even before she got cancer. Her energy, even when she was sick, was at times astonishing to witness.

Her brother Eoin spoke with such fondness of his older sister, how she would be immensely encouraging, how she was “absolutely fair”, had no filter, had the most fantastic sense of fun, and had a “wild streak never seen in her public life”.

He spoke of how her adored Conor “who we all adore” had minded her through our illness.

Conor and Keelin celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary recently. They met on Grafton St in Dublin in 1983 when she was 14 and he was 16.

She would describe him as “the hottest goth in Dublin”. It was clear, if you spent any time in their company, that this couple adored each other. Conor’s sister Ciara spoke of a long ago trip to Colombia where Conor planned to propose to Keelin. He had the scenario all planned out.

However he fell out of a hammock, got a terrible bang to the head and just blurted out the proposal. “Are you raving or what?” was the reply from his intended.

Ciara said that Conor’s love meant that Keelin was able “to hold it together with dignity and strength until the end”.

Keelin had told her sister-in-law Ciara that while all the attention would be on her at the funeral Keelin wanted it acknowledged how amazing her husband had been, and despite being an award-winning film maker and talented photographer, he had put her career and illness ahead of his own.

Niamh O’Connor, Keelin’s great friend, explained how Jon Williams, managing director of RTÉ News, and Hilary McGouran, deputy managing director, had appointed Keelin to the job as co-anchor of the Six One News despite knowing she had stage 4 cancer.

“Some of her happiest times in RTÉ was over the past couple of years where she landed the job she’d always wanted — anchor on the Six One News. She loved it.

She was eternally grateful to both Hilary and Jon that they took a chance on her when they did.

She felt it was a very brave decision knowing her health status, they just knew she was the best person for the job.”

Niamh spoke of Keelin not allowing cancer to become her life; whether it was chemotherapy, radiation or surgery, she would say you can’t let it take away who you are.

In more recent times I never came away from a conversation myself with Keelin, usually snatched on the corridors of RTÉ, where I wouldn’t be blown away by her personal honesty and lack of bitterness about her illness.

As Niamh said: “I never met anyone as life affirming and positive as Keelin and never met anyone as fearless.”

When Keelin’s cancer returned in 2016, Niamh was with her in St Vincent’s Hospital. She was coming to terms with the enormity of the battle that lay ahead.

She asked Niamh to drive her to RTÉ to pick up her post from the news room.

“‘Do you really want to go in?’, I said. ‘I can pick it up for you.’ ‘No, I want to pick it up myself,’ she said, ‘RTÉ makes me feel calm’. I understood what she meant. We had grown up in the corridors of RTÉ. We had left to get married from there, left to have our children from there and it was as much a part of our lives as any other.”

The national broadcaster has been through so much loss in recent times with the deaths of Gay Byrne, Marian Finucane and Larry Gogan, as well as attempting to face the consequences of it’s own dire financial straits.

It is a testament to her colleagues that after the shock news of Keelin’s death on Saturday — the entire team, despite so many of them feeling heartbroken — went ahead and produced amazing cross platform coverage of the entire election count and put a context on the results.

INA tribute that was moving and funny Conor spoke of his wife’s last few months, of how she did not have self pity. She lived in the moment.

She would lie in bed and watch the seasons change via a tree that stood outside their bedroom window. They loved watching The Sopranos together.

As he came to the end of his speech he remarked: “If Keelin was here she would say, ‘Conor get on with it’ ... She would have been stunned by all this hoo hah as she would have called it ... She didn’t have a big bucket list, she wasn’t arsed about seeing the Taj Mahal or Machu Picchu, she was happy with what she had at home around her.”

He told of how she had booked a family break in Wexford for the midterm next week. However last Thursday they were basically told that it was the end of the line.

Not long after hearing that from the doctor Keelin said to him: “Conor don’t forget to cancel that hotel reservation.”

She died on Saturday.

She truly was a one off.

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