Gone, but the gait still going

  • 25 October 2006
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Imagine him all those years ago, the dew still on him. Hauling himself down along O'Connell Street, Limerick. The slivers of the world being pulled towards him. He's a magnet for the drunks, the punks, the bowsies, the gurriers, the toffees, the tinsmiths, the auld ones, the chisellers. Coming down the street, shoulders swinging, big enough to tamp down the rain. Yes, he's chain lightening to everything around him. No rust on him. No way he's going to stop, nor rest, nor look behind. He'd break your heart with a gentle word and take your head off with the next. He didn't want immortality. To hell with all that. Immortality, he thought, would be boring. Give him the moment instead and feck the consequences.

He was the sort of man who even on a Thursday was wearing a Sunday suit – the only problem might be that it could have been from last Sunday or the Sunday to come, or maybe Sunday three weeks ago, or maybe the one three weeks hence. No matter. Time was a bouncing ball. He lived it all at a breakneck speed. If he was late for dinner he'd perk up and say that it was fair enough because that meant he was early for breakfast. He would drag you along and hold your hand over your heart to see if you still had a pulse. "M'lord," he'd shout. "M'lord. Come on!"

Imagine him there, with a word for everyone, throwing the conversation the width of Patrick Street, and the thing about it was, the thing that was fascinating, the thing that was always going to make him great, was that he was a genius in compassion. He understood them all, he had a language for each soldier, sailor, farmer, tailor, clod. He lifted secrets out of people, released them, shot their comfortable balance all to hell. Even when he was an arsehole – and by god he was good at that too -- he knew what he was doing.

Richard Harris. Four years dead, on 25 October. Gone, but the gait still going.


One of the signs of growing old is the laments we create for those who've gone by. Somehow every October it hits me more and more. It's not just the return of winter that makes the old ghosts return, but increasingly it seems to me that we have fewer and fewer characters around to invoke. Maybe it is the moan of every generation that there are fewer and fewer characters around, and perhaps the history of humanity is a lesson in the ongoing diluting of the human spirit, that we just get continually more alike, but I'd be prepared to testify that there were a good few more interesting souls around 20 years ago than there are today.

This leaves me acutely open to the notion that my own life has become quiet and bland, but fair enough, I'd rather a night on the town with Richard Harris than any other movie star I can dredge up today.

I only knew Harris for the last seven years of his life, but he was as full and as contradictory as any that came. He knew full well that whiskey was more interesting than water. He knew that doors were for opening and that others would be there to close them. He knew there would be long days in the giving up of himself. He knew there would be disappointments -- he would have been disappointed otherwise. He knew that nothing good would ever be achieved through predictability. He knew that a long life isn't good enough but a good life was long enough. He wanted to soak it all up like blotting paper. He was a hard man, a decent man, a good man, a man who might fail you, a gorgeous wreckage.

On the streets of New York, where I often walked with him (we were working on a screenplay together) he would swagger along, looking very much like some of the homeless men I knew. Long grey hair. Tattered scarves. Eyes cigarette-scrunched. Often he'd drink a bottle with the down-and-outs on the street corners. Other times he'd drop a hundred dollar bill in their laps. "Go get drunk, m'lord." Other times he'd just sail on blithely past. He made certain people acutely self-conscious by telling them how they looked (he loved to tell the well-heeled how terrible they looked, especially after they had just complimented him!). He caused a ruckus. He threw a good few punches. He chased after beautiful women. And he unfailingly pissed even his best friends off.

But so what? What are our memories made of? I think memory becomes a sort of regret that the goodness is gone, that the character is not there any more, that he or she will not return, that the world is dented just a little bit for an absence.

Missed at his own funeral, Richard Harris.

Earlier this month a statue of Harris was erected in Kilkee, where he once spent his summer holidays. The newspapers made it easy for themselves when they reported on the event. In every single article, either the word "wildman" or "hellraiser" was used. How easy we allow our words to dig a trough. Yes, he was a wildman, but he was also a father, son, grandfather, actor, singer, scrum half, debtor, maurader, charmer, poet, critic and a million other things beside.

Contrary to popular reports, it takes a lot of words to fill a single life.

He'd laugh at the statue – it's of him playing racquetball – and then he might ask where the next one will be put up.

Fact is, m'lord, everywhere.

He's dead all right, old Richard Harris, but it's only by being alive that he got there.

Beannacht Dé lena anam.