Enda O’Doherty writes: Back in the 1990s I went on a short “study trip” to Germany as part of a small group of journalists, drawn chiefly from the newly democratised countries of central and eastern Europe. There were Poles, Lithuanians, Romanians, Czechs, Slovaks, Bulgarians, a Hungarian, a Georgian and – to make up the numbers – a Greek woman and an Irishman. We visited newspaper offices in Frankfurt and Berlin, television and radio stations in Mainz and Hannover, and the Frankfurt Book Fair. Our official guides – a different one for each city we visited – were professional and attentive, but they also seemed to think we needed close watching: all that wild blood perhaps. I linked up mostly with the Bulgarians and the Georgian, who seemed to be on the lookout for enjoyment as much as intellectual stimulation from their trip. Our guide and shepherd in Mainz – I don’t remember his name but let us call him Johann – represented a particular reproach to our cheerfulness, being not much inclined to ever say anything that was superfluous ‑ and certainly not to smile. But perhaps he could be drawn out. I tried.
Have you been in this job for long?
About two years.
And before that?
Oh yes, studying what?
Working on doctorate.
Very good. And what was the subject?
The typology of humour.
I was reminded of this dispiriting episode when I sat down this week to reread some of the contributions that my friend and former colleague Dave McKechnie, who died last week aged just forty-five, had made some years ago to the Dublin Review of Books. Dave and “Johann”, let us be clear, were by no means similar characters. Indeed they could be said to be antipodal. Nevertheless, Dave had some interest too in how humour worked. In a sharp rereading of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 published in the drb in 2013, he wrote:
Catch-22 is indeed satirical, but above all it is absurd – a celebration of laughter in the ancient tradition … a sugar-coated pill to cope with the joke of war and the joke of life. Humour is the novel’s overwhelming structural and thematic driving force, helping to bring order to chaos, but it is also thoroughly independent, as laughter becomes an end in itself. In Taking Humour Seriously, a fascinating study of comic traditions, Jerry Palmer outlines the process involved in what he calls “the logic of the absurd”. Palmer divides the process of joke-making into two stages: the first involving the creation of a sudden discrepancy or incongruity; the second a logical response by the listener or reader that what they have been presented with is highly implausible, yet at the same time – crucially – a little bit plausible after all. The contradiction in this second stage, writes Palmer, is what makes a situation funny.
That is the theory – and as literary theory goes it’s clearer than most. And here is the practice:
The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likable. In three days no one could stand him.
Heller knew the war he was writing about in Catch-22. He had himself been a bombardier and had flown sixty missions in an American B-25 in the Italian theatre in 1944. He did not, however, set out to write a realistic novel about war. That had already been done very well by Norman Mailer (The Naked and the Dead) and James Jones (From Here to Eternity). In constructing the fantasy world of Catch-22, Dave wrote, Heller drew on sources as various as the anti-authoritarian tradition of New York Jewish comedy, with its irresistible urge to deflate the overbearing and pompous, Kafka’s absurd fictions of remote, hostile authority and Jaroslav Hašek’s celebration of Schweik, the little man who uses his native cunning to evade the best efforts of his military superiors to turn him into a dead hero. Just what the individual, and his human worth, mean to the top brass conducting the war effort is nicely conveyed in Catch-22 by the letter of condolence Colonel Cathcart writes to Mrs Daneeka:
Dear Mrs., Mr., Miss, or Mr. and Mrs. Daneeka: Words cannot express the deep personal grief I experienced when your husband, son, father or brother was killed, wounded or reported missing in action.
Most of those who knew Dave McKechnie will remember him as a practitioner rather than a theoretician of humour. I first met him maybe seventeen years ago when he arrived to do casual shifts on the sub-editors’ desk in The Irish Times. Dave didn’t spend too long at the base of the work pyramid. It was obvious that he was calm, smart and efficient, that he got on with everyone and so, in spite of his youth, he was soon going to be asked to do some heavy lifting in the production process.
He had started out, after a journalism course at DIT, as a sports reporter, specialising in football. Indeed he quickly landed the enviable job of covering English Premier League soccer for the Sunday Tribune. Then, after spells in production in London with The Guardian and The Sunday Times, he came back to Dublin and The Irish Times.
The later 2000s and the early 2010s were a transitional time in newspaper journalism – transitional and challenging. Both circulation and advertising revenue were declining; suddenly younger people seemed to have very little interest in reading a newspaper at all. The future was far from assured. Many people thought “the paper”, and our jobs, might be about to disappear. But they did not, hauled back from the brink by painful adjustment of work practices and a thoroughgoing reinvention of “the offer” to the reader. The newspaper ‑ understood primarily as a product which every evening was “put to bed” by its production staff only to appear miraculously in the shops the following morning ‑ ceased to exist ‑ or at least ceased to be the main focus of the enterprise. Newsprint was largely replaced in our concerns by the online product, a news and information source which is constantly updated and which is consumed, most often on the phone, through a range of new subscription options. From quite an early stage in this process of change newspaper staff were told they must forget the idea of “today’s paper”, “tomorrow’s paper”, “Friday’s paper” etc: this had now become an example of that abomination “old thinking”.
Journalists, however, are sentimental folk and there was much that we loved about the ritual of pushing the edition through the eye of the needle at the end of the night – an achievement felt to have been hazardously wrested from adversity and which was normally followed by going to the pub. This is roughly speaking where Dave came in, in the last few heroic (or so we thought) years of old-style newspaper production: the last few years anyway of going en masse to the pub at the end of the day’s work.
In late 2006, a year or so after Dave’s arrival, The Irish Times moved from Fleet Street to Tara Street; this left our favourite pub, Bowes, no longer fifty seconds from the front door but a full five minutes. This was just one of the factors that were inexorably to make evening shifts more tense over the next few years. Many newspaper readers may be unaware of this, but there are two types of journalist – the visible ones, who chase stories or write columns, and production staff (sub-editors and editors – always anonymous), who structure and design the pages, correct the spelling, write the headlines and get the whole thing in shape. There is usually no love lost between the two breeds, though there have been cases of fraternisation – and worse. Their interests are in fact often opposed: reporters want to hang on to a story as long as possible, to check with one more source that it still stands up or see if anything can be added to refresh it. Editors want it handed over so that it can be smartened up, cut to size, its blemishes removed or minimised and then we can all go to the pub. This tension could often be a serious matter, signing-off time at the end of the night tending to be dictated by the whims of our superiors and the presence or absence of inconsiderately breaking news. And thus, depending on circumstances, we might fit in two pints, three pints or just one. One pint is no good to anyone.
On the good nights we would pile into Bowes with plenty of time stretching ahead of us, order the first pints and replay some of the events of the evening, not in naturalistic mode but imaginatively recast as an absurd adversarial game pitting officers against enlisted men, some of the former coming to bear a strange resemblance to Colonel Cathcart, General Dreedle (“there’ll be no more moaning in this outfit”) and of course Major Major Major Major. Dave, not surprisingly given his talents, was usually to the forefront of this happy exercise, a celebration and enactment of “laughter in the ancient tradition”, a sugar-coated pill to cope with the joke of work. Though the company in the pub was sometimes – particularly on Fridays – extensive and mixed, it’s fair to say that the core participants in these flights of absurdity were men and that the proceedings may have involved an element of what is known as “male bonding” – a ritual that doesn’t often get a good press these days but let that not bother us too much. Of course journalism is not war and our lives were not at risk. But humour, for Dave at least, did not derive from mimesis but imagination and analogy, the wilder, more daring and far-fetched the better. Catch-22’s Captain Yossarian is understandably terrified as Colonel Cathcart – principally to ingratiate himself with his superiors ‑ constantly ups the number of dangerous bombing missions air crew must fly before being sent home. In our “real world”, as the economic health of the newspaper industry became more critical, working hours grew longer and production staff became ever scarcer on the ground, we were solemnly addressed by senior management, who told us that in future we would have to “DO MORE WITH LESS”. For human resources (“Dear Mrs., Mr., Miss, or Mr. and Mrs.”), this no doubt seemed a rather nifty formula; the poor bloody infantry knew it presaged a grinding, comfortless future. The logic of everyday life is, it must be emphasised, not at all like the logic of absurdity, and we should be grateful for that. If I might in passing flatten Heller’s joke: “Corporal McKechnie turned out to be good-natured, generous and likable. It was soon clear that everyone was hugely fond of him.”
Strangely, in spite of our high times, it was not long before Dave found that the simple, age-old life pattern of the night sub-editor – work, drink, sleep, repeat – did not entirely fulfil him and he decided to go back to college, to UCD this time, where he completed – at the same time as working in the paper ‑ a BA in art history and English literature, quickly followed in 2009 by an MA in American literature, where his interest, originally stimulated by the lectures of Ron Callan, eventually settled on the fiction of Donald Barthelme, Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut. It was also during his MA year that he was presented by a student who was sitting in on a class to a friend of hers, a young Dutch woman called Lilian Dorst, who was pursuing Joyce studies at Trinity College. No one who knew Dave had ever doubted that, behind the jokes, there was a person of considerable intellectual sharpness. And so of course it didn’t escape him that he had just been fortuitously introduced to a cracker, someone it would be very foolish to let slip away.
Dave and Lilian became an item. The story of “the proposal”, a transaction conducted in the unlikely setting of Decwells hardware shop in South Great George’s Street, was widely retold and marvelled at: it may not have gone down so well with some of Dave’s male friends, who would never again be regarded by their spouses or partners as quite up to the mark romantically. In summer 2017 a very large contingent of Dave and Lilian’s friends made their way from Ireland to Nijmegen for the wedding service, in the beautiful medieval Sint-Nicolaaskapel and afterwards at the De Meesterproef restaurant, a spectacular post-industrial repurposed soup factory along the banks of the Waal, a distributary (look it up) of the Rhine, where we stood sipping our drinks on the riverside while watching the barges, laden with vast numbers of tractors, making their way slowly up to Rotterdam and the North Sea. For many, the highlight of the evening came quite late on when Dave’s friend Michael McMullan treated the attendance to a celebratory rap song of his own composition called “The Ballad of Dave and Lilian”. Maybe Michael wasn’t going to win the Cole Porter Prize for rhyming “Dave and Lilian” with “girl in a million” (however appropriate), but his line about the proposal – “He only asked her once / He didn’t ask her time and time again / And that’s why we’re all / Here today in Nijmegen.” – brought the house down.
None of us were too surprised when we heard that, barely seven months after their marriage, Dave and Lilian had welcomed a new addition to their family: the spectacularly handsome Irish terrier Nelson. For me too, Nelson was to be something of a godsend. After my retirement, meeting Dave and other work friends became something that required a bit more organisation. The tight-knit group from Bowes was no longer quite so tight-knit: some had moved to other jobs in the organisation and worked days rather than nights, some of the NCOs had been promoted and were now junior officers; the working day didn’t end early enough, or for some ended too early to make meeting in the pub at 10 pm an attractive prospect. So meetings, now more often in O’Neill’s in Pearse Street than Bowes, were by arrangement. They still took place and were – until Covid ‑ just as enjoyable as before, if less frenetic. Myself and my partner, Kathy, also met Dave and Lilian locally for occasional meals, often in Shouk in Drumcondra, and more frequently for dog-walks in the Phoenix Park or at Portmarnock or Dollymount, where Nelson’s favourite trick was to disappear into the dunes ahead of you and come out behind.
We said goodbye to Dave last Saturday at the Holy Family Church in Aughrim Street in his adopted home of Stoneybatter. The service was conducted with great warmth and delicacy by Father Cory Muresan. The familiar words of St Paul, spoken by Dave’s brother-in-law Frank Dorst, seemed particularly appropriate to the person whose life we were honouring: “Love does not come to an end. In short, there are three things that last: faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love.” We felt deeply for Lilian, for Dave’s mother and aunt, Rose and Marie, to whom he was such a great support, and for his sister and brother, Elaine and Gerard. And of course we also felt tearful and sorry for ourselves: many of us indeed were saying goodbye to the most lovable person we knew.
Afterwards, at the graveside in Glasnevin there was more music from Danny and Patrick Groenland, who had played at the service, and as we stood in the warm sunshine some of Dave’s friends spoke of their memories and their feelings for him. Paul O’Keeffe recalled that Dave liked to tell stories, but that they sometimes lasted longer than was really necessary because of his habit of interjecting on the long road to the punchline – à propos of some of the most peripheral characters in the narrative – “a really nice fellow, by the way”. Colleague Carl O’Brien reminded us that unlike most journalists Dave was an optimist; then, glancing at the few score people standing around him, he remarked “I used to think I was one of Dave’s closest friends. I see now I was wrong about that.”
It was hard for us all to accept that Dave’s life could have stopped so suddenly, partially at least because that life was so intense, so various and so densely packed. There was his fulfilling but demanding job as deputy foreign editor of The Irish Times, which he performed with great flair and conscientiousness. There was his writing – unlike most production journalists he also wrote for the paper: he was really just too good not to. This work included serious foreign reports from Colombia, Brazil and Bangladesh, pieces where a large amount of academic research had been digested before the individual story was finally put together with due journalistic attention to telling anecdote and vivid quotation. There were also many “occasional pieces”, most memorably perhaps the touching confessional essay on his inherited gift for ferociously loud snoring, “like a hog trying to swallow a suitcase”. There were his literary/academic essays in American fiction; there was his love of sport, of cinema, of music, of talking with friends and strangers in local pubs, of running into new people, often while out walking with Lilian and Nelson. There was his cycling. There were his and Lilian’s ambitious and adventurous holidays – I recall Nelson snapped from behind gazing into the distance from a Pyrenean peak looking quite like Caspar David Friedrich’s romantic “Wanderer”.
Certainly people loved Dave because he made them laugh, but they didn’t love him just because he made them laugh. They also loved his imagination, which was closely allied to his humour. They loved his gentleness and humanity, his natural kindness. Some of the reactions I heard from colleagues last week illustrate the effect he had on people. One young journalist spoke of how, not long in the paper, Dave took him under his wing when he was feeling somewhat lost in the face of baffling new demands. An older colleague who I was not initially sure had much overlapped with him at work said “Oh yes: Very lovable, such fun, such an open friendly person.” From a foreign correspondent: “He was great company. There was just a generosity of spirit there.” Others: “he was instantly likeable as a human being”; “he couldn’t have been more likeable if he tried”.
In between our much-anticipated trips to the Park for physical encounters with Nelson, Kathy and I often received Instagram images. The dog, it must be said, has a particular talent for looking quizzical (or is it puzzled?), and this frequently led Lilian to speculate on what might, at the time, be going through his mind. The guesses often centred on what he might make of his “humans”, what he might expect of them or what he might possibly prevail on them to do for him. “Human” here is just a word for another species. From a dog’s point of view a human is a thing, like a cat or a bird or a deer, an important thing perhaps, a thing one might be quite dependent on, but maybe not as interesting a thing as another dog. The word, however, does have connotations apart from its use to designate a species. “Human”, “humanity”, “humane” are notions we still invest with a positive aura, in spite of all we have done in and to the world. They designate, or suggest, to borrow the terms his colleague Chris Dooley used to describe Dave, “the best of us”. In this sense of the word, I think we would all have to agree that Dave McKechnie was some human.
Band of brothers. From left to right, John Fleming, myself and Dave McKechnie late in the evening on the day of my retirement from The Irish Times in 2016. Photograph: Davin O’Dwyer. I’d like to thank Lilian for giving me the OK to write this piece, Paul O’Keeffe for encouragement and Tim Groenland for perspectives on Dave’s academic work and some background on his time at UCD.
Dave on Joseph Heller’s Catch-22: https://drb.ie/articles/the-jokes-the-thing/
Dave on Internet bullying: https://drb.ie/articles/married-to-the-mob/
Dave on Dublin history and folklore: https://drb.ie/articles/the-beat-on-the-streets/
Dave on late Hemingway: https://drb.ie/articles/having-a-wonderful-time/