Age-old question of when to pack it in

There will be a lot of fanfare over the coming weeks to mark Gay Byrne’s 80th birthday, which falls in early August, as there has just been plaudits for Bill O’Herlihy, as he stepped away from the anchor seat of RTÉ’s sports department, having steered us through 10 World Cups and 10 Olympic Games on TV. And rightly so.

Age-old question of when to pack it in

Both men are exemplars. There is something particularly impressive about their longevity. Vitality, as the late Dr Garret FitzGerald once remarked, is to be commended. It seems to be all about experience these days. Monty Python are on tour. Next month, the legendary modern dancer Valda Setterfield, who has choreographed several Woody Allen films, will take the title role in the Lear Project at the Kilkenny Arts Festival. She’s 79.

Barry Cassin is a decade older. His professional acting career stretches back to the Second World War, when he tramped around Ireland with a “fit-up” theatre company, playing in halls so cramped that his troupe used to have to crawl under stages to get from one side to the other. He once came face-to-face with Anna Manahan — she in a white dress; he in an evening suit — while crawling on all fours in between abandoned props under the stage in Abbeyfeale, Co Limerick.

Cassin has just put in a lovely turn in a two-hander radio play by Malachy McKenna, called The Quiet Land, on RTÉ. Kevin Flood joins him; the pair has 130 years of theatrical experience to call on. They play two elderly farmers. The tension builds imperceptibly, with subtle, unsettling clues dropped along the way until the play’s climax.

You might wonder why Cassin keeps on keeping on. Perhaps the American comedian George Burns, who died aged 100, put it best: “Age to me means nothing. I can’t get old — I’m working. I was old when I was 21 and out of work. As long as you’re working, you stay young.”

Lynn Barber, Fleet Street’s most accomplished celebrity interviewer, has no intention of retiring, which is a change of mind. In her 30s, she says, she presumed she’d retire at 60, but now she’s 69, she says her employers will have “to prise my gnarled fingers from the keyboard”.

Barber — or “The Demon Barber”, as she’s sometimes known — is unsurprisingly unsentimental when it comes to assessing the pros and cons of age in her field. She acknowledges that 69 is old for a journalist, especially for a celebrity interviewer, quipping in her recently published memoirs that she’s old enough to be Rafa Nadal’s grandmother, the tennis star who was the subject of one of her most revealing interviews.

She doesn’t believe that wisdom necessarily accrues with age; she admits to being shockingly naïve about how the world works in certain ways, but she argues older people have a built-in bullshit detector that young people often lack. Older people are better at scepticism, which is a vital commodity in her trade.

Is there a point, though, when the old go past it, when they become wanting on innovations and technical details? O’Herlihy made an interesting point on these pages last week in an interview with Kieran Shannon. He mentioned that Denis Irwin was dismissive of John Giles during a debate about soccer players not tracking back. “Well, John, the game has changed since your time,” the younger man said. This made Giles — who feels the fundamentals of the game never change — bristle greatly.

There is a danger, of course, of romanticising the older vintage and the likes of Larry Gogan and David Attenborough, verging on the patronising. What someone once described as the “still syndrome”: Are you still working? Are you still playing golf? Are you still going outside? There is a reason, however, why some people last so long in their jobs, which has less to do with their tenacity, and more to do with public taste. If we didn’t love them, they wouldn’t still be performing.

The 83-year-old Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh, recently seen scampering up Carrauntoohill with the Sam Maguire cup, comes to mind. Without naming any of his successors’ names, who doesn’t wish he still wasn’t calling it out on the radio for matches this summer?

- In a feature by Richard Fitzpatrick, Arts, July 18, we wish to clarify that Micheál Ó Suilleabháin, author of Where Mountainy Men Have Sown, is no relation to Aisling Bea’s relatives.

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