Honorary Conferrings Speeches Archive

    at Aula Maxima, UCC

  • 07 Jun 2013






MR JOHN FITZGERALD, Librarian and Head of Information Services, University College Cork on 7 June 2013, on the occasion of the conferring of the Degree of Doctor of Arts, honoris causa, on GRAHAM NORTON


A Sheansailéir agus a mhuintir uilig na hOllscoile,


I first encountered Graham Walker in the Autumn of 1980 at UCC, in the uberKool Kampus Kitchen at one of the regular group styrofoam cup dissection labs then and still ritually conducted there. Those first couple of years at university were very memorable, but not in a chronologically sequential sort of way.  Some of us came in from the relatively dull (from our perspective) market town schools of County Cork, with ambitions to earn a BA and then promptly become world-renowned journalists, writers, philosophers or actors. Being at UCC was a complete and exhilarating and God-sent change.  It was like being inside a kaleidoscope.  It took all you had to keep your focus on the richness of the subjects you had chosen, while at the same time remaining socially and personally intact, as the world literally spun around you.  So, as well as stabbing those styrofoam cups to death with snapped plastic spoons and then dissecting them, we also dissected our subjects, lecturers, other students we didn’t know, and of course, in an indirect way, each other.  At that time, we moved in and out of each other’s circles of acquaintance on a daily basis, quickly amassing friends but each eventually finding one table that was more hospitable for all sorts of reasons than the rest. 


It was in that heady circling of friends that I discovered something very unusual about Graham.  Not that he was from Bandon, or that he was studying French, English, History, and Greek & Roman Civilization, but that he was officially a Sun-Worshipper.  This secret was revealed openly in class by a particular lecturer – respectfully I should add, if a little quizzically.  At that time one was expected to declare one’s religion on the registration form.  And at that time also, when UCC had only 5,300 students, most lecturers read the registration forms to learn something about their students.  The interesting thing is that nobody batted an eyelid, or indeed believed Graham for a second, but he instantly became known more widely and seemed so much braver and more interesting to us for it.  And of course, we all wished we had thought of doing it first.


Graham displayed admirable - and characteristic - acumen in his choice of First Year subjects:  He has written, and I quote:


In that first year we had to take four subjects and I chose mine with great care.  English because the plan was I would use this degree to pursue my career in journalism, French because I didn’t go through all that stuff in Toulouse for nothing [you'll have to read the book to understand that!], then it was a toss-up between Geography or History – I went for History because Geography seemed to have a lot of nine o’clock lectures.  Finally I took Greek and Roman Civilization because they didn’t fail anyone in the first-year exams, hoping that someone might go on to take it as a degree.


The BA is an interesting thing.  It‘s an institution in itself, a kind of rite of passage, badge of identity, and for most who spend any time at all in its grip, a transformational opportunity to learn about and from artistic and intellectual excellence.  But perhaps its greatest immediate quality is that it also provides an opportunity to be among people you can relate to.  University is also an interesting thing.  For some, the academic adrenalin is sufficient to propel them through and out of their programme.  For others, the personal friendships are the revelation and the raison d’etre.   For many, unfulfilled expectations, or sheer loneliness, or a healthy independence of spirit can lead to a rejection of university for other ways of life.


At some time in his second year, Graham took the decision that the world needed him more than UCC did.  And as usual, he was right, as it has proved to be the right decision. I remember that time in Cork, and at UCC, and while we can too easily sentimentalise to forget, it was a pretty grim time from a number of perspectives. There was rampant unemployment and emigration. The government and political leadership seemed obsessed with endless self-questioning about contraception and the rights of mothers and unborn children. Homosexuality was both mortally sinful and criminal.  The faded 19th century pallor of the city hadn’t yet undergone the restorative treatment of the next boom. And that included the city’s bedsits, as both Graham and I can attest, as former tenants of the Tenement Buildings of Washington Street. And when occasionally you did make it home to your parents, after your dinner of Supermash and steak & kidney pie you had to wait for Mart & Market to finish before Mary Tyler Moore came on and then repent with Outlook before standing for a rousing National Anthem. The Internet was just a twinkle in the eye of the US Military, and the only form of social media available was to adopt an unpronounceable pen pal in Nairobi or Wollongong and remotely compare education systems and national stamps. The freewheeling ride of the sixties and seventies seemed to have crashed somewhere at the bottom of Patrick’s Hill and tumbled into the as yet distinctly unpotable River Lee. 


But there was one redeeming thing about Cork at that precise time – besides the Long Valley Bar of course.   And that was its theatre.  Out of the depths of the early eighties, in Cork, there came a surge of activity in the arts and particularly, in drama.  Along with the Opera House, Everyman Theatre, Fr. Matthew Hall, The Loft, The CAT Club… UCC’s Dramatic Society, Dramat, came alive like never before and actually helped to inspire the establishment of another professional theatre company in the city.


Much has been made of the flowering of a new crop of poets at UCC in the late sixties and early seventies.  But there is another story to be told of another later flowering, of which Graham was part.  I speak of the band of mainly student actors who bustled into prominence on the stage of the old Granary Theatre through UCC Dramat and who transferred from there to the Ivernia Theatre on Grand Parade and elsewhere as the widely acclaimed and much-missed professional Cork Theatre Company, or CTC as it was better known.  The spiritual leaders of this movement were people like UCC’s Dr. Ger FitzGibbon and his wife Emily Fitzgibbon, Lionel Pilkington, Michael O’Callaghan and especially Gerry Barnes (all of whom were at one time or another, tutors or lecturers in the Department of English).  They led and cajoled and inspired a motley troupe of talented actors including names like Dan Mullane, Mark O’Regan, Donnachadha Crowley, Jack Healy, Peter FitzGerald, Eamonn Maguire, and Graham Walker, all of whom went on to shine in other constellations and some of whom, as we all know, are still treading the boards and gracing our screens with distinction.


I have to mention a particular Dramat Production of Waiting for Godot in the early eighties.  Directed by Garvan McGrath, a then recent Graduate of Chemistry, the cast included Graham, Dan Mullane, Mark O’Regan and Donnchadha Crowley. This Godot had a huge impact and toured to acclaim, and is still cited as a kind of apogee of UCC and Cork theatre of the time. 


I like to think that UCC, as much through its formal education as its clubs and societies, gave Graham the courage to be himself, to follow his instincts and exercise his latent talents, to learn to question things and have the confidence to reject as a form of engagement; and especially that it granted him an opportunity to take the first tentative steps in pursuing – and surviving – what has become a stellar career in drama and comedy entertainment.  


Graham’s story is not exactly one of rags to riches. Despite his early fascination with curtains and drapes, to your credit mother, you never let him out of the house in anything but his best jumper and slacks.  However, when he got to UCC, it wasn’t quite back to the drapes, but I do recall a particularly memorable orange parachute suit being sported relentlessly for a few months.  And, like many of his colleagues, he has served his time in the grotty dives that only robust ambitious youth can abide – not to mention the times spent living on beaches and in communes, which you’ll be glad to know Graham, I won’t venture into here.


After UCC, and a year in San Francisco, Graham returned to London determined to enter drama school there, and successfully obtaining a place at Central.  During this time and afterwards, Graham kept himself solvent and socialised and no doubt dramatically exercised with restaurant work. Once qualified and on course, his early career took him steadily upwards into the stratosphere – with just a few spells of circling around Brixton and Hackney.  Some memorable perhaps less well-known dramatic incidents from this period include his auditioning for the part of a corpse (and curiously not getting the part!!); allowing his blind human donkey to escape in Puss in Boots, with James Dreyfuss at the Harrogate Theatre; changing his name to Norton to comply with Equity rules for a production of Sean O’Casey’s Shadow of a Gunman at the Liverpool Playhouse; and crucially, taking the courageous and inspired decision to write for himself and perform his own work.  This was probably the most significant decision of Graham’s career, for in doing so, he created the public persona of Graham Norton which he has since honed into the utterly unique TV and radio presenter presence that he has become.  Typically for Graham, this transition from role-actor to self-styled comedic entertainer happened in a setting which only a comedy script-writer could dream up: seated in a wheelchair bought from a charity shop in front of a second-hand typewriter in a cockroach-ridden council flat in Hackney.


His Hackney Moment led to an original solo-publicised comedy performance before fifty people in a London gastro-pub in the summer of 1991 which, on the opening night, earned him the first of many invitations to the Edinburgh Festival.  Radio appearances followed, all based on performances of his own shows.  An essential feature of these shows was that it was Graham Norton talking about and making fun from Graham Norton: the cultivation of that persona again. Graham began to do more radio work, including Radio 4’s Loose Ends, and moved into stand-up – which is not for the faint-hearted as he discovered in Galway one night, where his timing, quick thinking and self-confidence were well tested.


This determination, self-awareness, keen judgement of his own talents, and ability to work hard when opportunity presented, ensured that Graham himself created his own success – something that cannot be said for everybody in the entertainment business.


And then, in the late eighties, Graham’s parents and his sister Paula had their prayers answered, so’s to speak, when on to the set of Father Ted romped and rattled the frenetically-folksy and completely neurotic Fr. Noel Furlong.  The significance of this was of course that it was TV.  And indeed it was while still rehearsing for Father Ted, that the increasingly adriot and ambitious Graham signed a contract for 26 episodes of the late-night, slightly side-stream, and very raunchy game show ‘Carnal Knowledge’, co-presented with his friend Maria McLane.


Success now became a dogged follower with ‘Bring me the Head of Light Entertainment’ – a panel game filmed in Norwich for the short-lived Chanel 5 which in turn led to Graham being slotted in to guest-host ‘The Jack Docherty Show’ for which he promptly scooped the Best Newcomer Award at the British Comedy Awards.   During all of this, Graham must have been resting on thorns as opposed to laurels, because while putting together a proposal for his own Channel 4 chat show, he was still doing stand-up, still playing Edinburgh, featuring regularly on radio, and appearing on multiple TV comedy panel shows. 


It was with his ‘So Graham Norton’ Channel 4 TV show that Graham perfected his unique style of risqué and informal but always entertaining mega-celebrity chit-chat. Always attracting the best guests, soliciting their most shocking revelations and making the most outrageously improbable live phone-outs, the show didn’t so much divide as defy the critics.   Because to everybody, critics and viewers alike, it quickly became clear that the attraction was as much the celebrities as the unique natural candour of their host.  What was apparent was that Graham was actually on the viewer’s side, sharing in our mischievous delight at meeting and baiting the most famous people on the planet.   And his barely disguised glee and infectious irreverence ironically poked fun at the whole irresistible superficiality of modern celebrity culture.  


After six years at Channel 4, Graham continued doing both stand-up and TV shows in America, including The Graham Norton Effect on Comedy Central. And in 2005, to the horror of the conservative press and the delight of his by now huge following, he decided to move to the BBC where he has been since, and is of course now presenting his signature The Graham Norton Show in the coveted Friday night slot.  This show continues to attract the cream of the entertainment world and to delight millions with Graham’s characteristic playful, méchant, and capable hosting.


Graham has won the BAFTA TV Award for Best Entertainment Performance on five occasions, along with numerous other awards.  We all know that he hosts the Eurovision Song Contest broadcasts for BBC – but unfortunately has no influence whatsoever over the Irish scores.  He also hosts a weekly Saturday morning BBC2 radio show; writes a column in the Daily Telegraph; makes the occasional appearance on film; has appeared on stage in the West End revival of La Cage Aux Folles; raised a million pounds for Comic Relief in March of this year by breaking the Guinness World Record for 'The Most Questions Asked on a TV Chat Show'; has worked with Andrew Lloyd Webber on a TV series; regularly hosts the British Academy Television Awards; and as if all that isn’t enough, reads stories some nights on the BBC children's channel CBeebies as part of Bedtime Hour.


Graham’s mother Rhoda is with him today along with his sister Paula and her husband.  His devotion to his family, including his late father Billy, is a mark of Graham’s deep humanity and a very caring nature.  He still cherishes those who inspired him and voyaged with him along the way, such as his English teacher in Bandon Grammar School, and UCC alumnus, Niall McMonagle.


His affection for his West Cork and Irish roots is something that we cherish as much as he does. Writing of the sad time of the loss of his father, Graham said: “That sense of community and support brought me a whole new respect and affection for Ireland.  All of the things that I had thought were there to hold me back I now found were there to hold me up.“ And we also enjoy those little audio postcards that he fires off during his broadcasts when he falls into a soft lilting Cork accent to speak aside to us directly – or so it seems to us. 


Yours, Graham, is as much a story of talent and success as determination and independent thinking.  It is one of irrepressible self-belief, and the endlessly redemptive power of humour.  As an entrepreneur, innovator, exceptional communicator, peerless entertainer, we are proud of you.  We unashamedly claim a stake in your success and remain loyal to you as an alumnus of the University. This award is our way of saying we respect you and admire what you have achieved and continue to achieve in one of the most competitive and unforgiving of professions.  We value your professionalism and your commitment to ensuring there is some fun in our sometimes demanding lives.  And so we wish to honour you today, in the best way we know how, with affection, but also some pomp and formality…and, in recognition of your UCC classical background, a liberal sprinkling of Latin: 


Praehonorabilis cancellarie, totaque universitas!

Praesento vobis hunc meum filium, quem scio tam moribus quam doctrina habilem et idoneum esse qui admittatur, honoris causa, ad gradum Doctoratus in Artibus, idque tibi fide mea testor ac spondeo totique Academiae.

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