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A Light That Never Goes Out by Keelin Shanley: a down-to-earth account of a life well lived

Late RTÉ journalist’s memoir avoids mawkishness through its matter-of-fact approach and self-deprecating humour

A Light That Never Goes Out: A Memoir
A Light That Never Goes Out: A Memoir
Author: Keelin Shanley and Alison Walsh
ISBN-13: 978-0717189472
Publisher: Gill Books
Guideline Price: €19.99

“It’s a funny thing to suggest that you can somehow get used to the idea of dying, but you can. You’d be surprised.” Written as force of nature Keelin Shanley was preparing for her death, A Light That Never Goes Out is at once an account of a life that was, by any measure, extraordinary and a love letter to life itself.

In 2013, some two years after her first bout with cancer, Shanley was interviewed by Ryan Tubridy on the Late Late Show. Watching the interview back, she thought perhaps she had been overly cheerful about her illness. “But my intention wasn’t to make light of things - it was simply to show that people can and do face the ‘C’ word and overcome it. I am struck by what I say at the end: that we have to remember, people die of this disease. At the time, I wasn’t talking about me - I was talking about the unlucky ten per cent of women for whom the disease will return in five years. I never for one moment thought it would be me.”

Yet it was her, and in 2016 the cancer was back. The shock was profound but with characteristic pragmatism Shanley began treatment, continued to work and saw the landing of the plum job as co-anchor on the main evening news, while in the middle of a cancer battle, as proof of a general belief in her ability to stay the course.

She writes from her bed at home in Dún Laoghaire in late 2019 having just returned from the States, where she participated in a trial of an experimental treatment. Awaiting word as to whether it has worked and whether she can continue on the programme or not, she muses about life, past, present and future.


A beloved tree outside her window marks the passing of time in the garden of the house she shares with her husband, filmmaker Conor Ferguson, and their children Lucy and Ben. Moving forwards and back in time, memories are triggered by old footage from her many award-winning documentaries and Prime Time reports. She reminisces about family holidays, her life growing up in leafy Monkstown, and the many people she has met, liked and loved, frequently acknowledging her luck as she goes.

As co-anchor of RTÉ’s flagship Six-One News, Shanley was at the top of her game when her second encounter with breast cancer became overwhelming. She movingly writes about the moment when she knew her work life was coming to a close. Her boss in RTÉ suggested that Shanley needed time out to deal with her illness. As an aside, she shares the fact that this conversation occurred in the aftermath of vomiting into said boss’s office bin, minutes before going on air.

This is Shanley’s style. There is a matter of factness, a self-deprecating humour, which snatches the book from the clutches of mawkishness.

She clearly took her job seriously, making some of the most hard-hitting and unforgettable documentaries and exposés of the past 30 years - on inner-city poverty and crime, on sex trafficking, on youth violence. She casts light on the technical aspects of interviewing, of finding sources and people willing to tell their stories. Whether she’s giving us hair-raising details of the undercover purchase of sex slaves in eastern Europe, reporting on the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake or admitting to failings in interviews with Martin McGuinness and Bill Gates, we are carried along by Shanley’s genuineness and enthusiasm. Here is the real deal, a woman who loved her work and believed that she had an important role to play in giving voice to the voiceless and speaking truth to power.

“I’ve just been a conduit for other people,” she writes, “first for those who rarely get listened to in our society, and then for those who do, but who need to explain their decisions to ordinary Irish people.”

For all the professionalism and the sheer niceness, in her book Shanley is unafraid to laugh at herself and in no way lays claim to sainthood. On reporting from U2’s Pop Mart tour for a 20-year band retrospective, for instance, she admits to being somewhat starstruck by the BBC’s Jo Whiley. “A brief wave of imposter syndrome ebbed away when her producer told me I could go first because Jo was having trouble memorising her script.”

And the intrepid reporter bubble was resoundingly burst in a north Dublin nightclub. “I donned a wig, under which I secreted a recording device, and a pair of aviator shades, behind which was hidden a camera. I thought I looked great! Off I went onto the dance floor with my wig and my shades, filming away, until someone yelled, ‘Giz a go of your hidden camera, love!’ I had been well and truly outed. Nowadays you can hide a camera in a buttonhole, but times were different then.”

With limited time left in this world, she considers why she is writing this book. “Perhaps it’s because I’m journeying toward the end that I want to take stock, to look back on who I was, and still am, to reflect on what was important to me and how I lived my life, to reassure that gauche young woman that there was so much more ahead and that she was living her life as best she could.”

In truth, Shanley wrote this book for her family and many friends, all of whom she speaks of with warmth, love and gratitude. Female friends and colleagues feature heavily in her life story, and while she explicitly says little about women’s rights and position in society, it remains clear that she’s got the backs of the women in her life.

Before lockdown, before her tree began to bud, before the warm weather she so loved and before she had the chance to finish her memoir - the last chapter was written by her husband - Keelin Shanley passed away. This memoir is a joyful statement of what life can truly be. Imperfect, magical, real.