Edited to add: events overtook me this morning and I was still writing this post when the death of Brendan Grace was officially announced, but I’m going to leave this post as it was.
A little while after I woke up this morning (6.15) I was looking at Twitter checking the morning’s news. I saw that Brendan Grace was trending in Ireland and my first thought was “ah no,he’s dead.” Brendan Grace for those of you who might not have heard of him is an extremely well-known Irish comedian and actor who is currently ill. It transpired that someone had announced his death and social media being what it is, an awful lot of people posted tributes and commented how sad they were to hear of his death.
Next thing I saw was a different load of people giving out about those who had commented on or shared posts about Brendan Grace without having checked that he had died. And before anyone jumps on me here, its very easy to check – any Irish news outlet (RTE, Irish Times, Irish Examiner etc) would have major coverage on their sites and social media platforms if Brendan Grace had died, so it would have only taken another click or two to verify things.
Over my first cuppa I carried on reading Twitter and saw that Noel Whelan, political commentator, columnist with the Irish Times, barrister, founder of the Kenendy Summer School, died yesterday after a short illness. And before anyone jumps on me again for repeating that, it was announced by the Irish Times. I generally found his column interesting even if I didn’t always agree with it and felt slightly sad to hear of his death. Online reaction to these two stories got me thinking about how we learn of the news of a death in the era of social media saturation.
Whenever I hear via social media of a death of a famous person, I’m always reminded of when Richard Burton’s death was announced. It was August 1984, so I was 13. The evening news came on the telly (probably the BBC) and over the opening music, was just a photo of Richard Burton. I remember as clearly as if it was yesterday my Dad saying “Bloody hell, Richard Burton has died.” At this point the newsreader hadn’t said anything so I asked Dad how he knew and he replied that when the news starts with a picture of a famous person that meant they had died. At 13 I wasn’t really aware of Burton’s fame and work but that always stayed with me. I don’t know how long after Burton died that the news broke, but I’d be willing to bet it wasn’t almost instantly like it seems to be now. When Amy Winehouse died in 2011, it was being discussed – or in some instances gossiped about – all over social media before it was officially announced.
Reading about Brendan Grace and Noel Whelan this morning got me thinking about how we learn about a death. The writer Kevin Barry had a short story in the Irish Times last week that made me smile. Entitled ‘Who’s Dead McCarthy‘, it reminded me of a number of people I know who seem to almost delight in sharing the news of a death. It doesn’t matter to them if the death was sudden, tragic, or expected after a long illness. I’ve been on the receiving end of a few “Did you hear who’s dead?” type conversations (and in some instances phone calls), and I’d be willing to bet most Irish people of my age and probably younger have been. I was born in England and lived there until I was 31 but I don’t recall this happening. Its not really gleeful (although with SOME people you would wonder) but it doesn’t come across as exactly sad either.
Social media makes it too easy to spread news of a death, whether erroneous or not. I’d be amazed if social media (and in this example I’m thinking especially of Facebook) hasn’t been used to incorrectly share the news of the death of a non-famous person in their local area. I cannot imagine what that would feel like for family members and close friends – possibly even the person themselves – to read. If you’ve bothered to read this far, then the next time you read on social media of a death, maybe take a few seconds to verify its true before you share it. Or go one further – do you need to share it? Do we need to hear straight away that someone has died? If you were close to them, you’ll hear quickly enough and through the appropriate channels. If not, you’ll find out in due course.
This morning in Ireland, we’ve all heard who’s dead. RIP Brendan Grace – Bottler, Fr Fintan Stack in that unforgettable cameo in Father Ted. RIP Noel Whelan – our politics would have been different but his work on the marriage equality campaign helped Ireland move towards being more inclusive.