Keelin Shanley: Faraway, Still Close (RTÉ One, Monday, 9.35pm) is heartbreaking to watch. The RTÉ journalist and Six One presenter died on February 8th, 2020, at the age of 51, after a long struggle with cancer.
And though this film is framed as a celebration of her life and her career, there are nonetheless moments when it demands the viewer think about living and about dying, and about the things we do and don’t leave behind.
These questions were understandably on Shanley’s mind towards the end. After it had become obvious that her stage-four cancer could not be cured, and was too far advanced for her to be accepted for experimental treatment in the United States, she made a series of recordings for her son and daughter. Some two years later, it is wrenching to hear her so frankly contemplate her death.
Keelin Shanley is initially upbeat, determined to make the most of what time is left. At the end, however, she is tired and audibly in pain. It’s a dramatic transformation in someone who had always lived with her foot on the pedal
Initially in these tapings she is upbeat – determined to make the most of what time is left. At the end, however, she is tired and audibly in pain. It’s a dramatic transformation in someone who had always lived with her foot on the pedal. To be forced, finally, into a state of apprehensive stillness was clearly difficult for her to process.
The documentary, narrated and codirected by her husband, Conor Ferguson, doubles as a study of modern Irish middle age. It is so strange to see old photographs of Ferguson and Shanley, he a Curehead hanging out on Grafton Street, she so sparklingly fresh-faced and carefree. Like all young people, they must have thought they would never grow old or be forced to reckon with their mortality.
In the interviews from her final months, Shanley projects a sort of phlegmatic detachment regarding her death. So as to prepare her children, she takes them shopping for an urn for her ashes and calmly discusses funeral arrangements. “They know it’s coming,” she says. “They can see it, God love them.”
One of RTÉ’s highest-profile journalists, Shanley reported on everything from sex trafficking in Romania to conflict in Africa. Although driven, she was never caught up in her own reputation. She didn’t mistake herself for the story – always an occupational hazard with big-name journalists.
To describe Faraway, Still Close as feelgood is a stretch. Yet there is something comforting in its message that we will live on in the recollections of those closest to us
Shanley and Ferguson made for a wry couple, and their warmth and drollness shine through. Interviewed shortly before her death, Shanley admits to the “odd daydream” in which her cancer was miraculously cured. Shanley’s optimism and determination could only count for so much.
Ferguson and his codirector, Judy Kelly, work hard at holding mawkishness at bay. For Ferguson his time with Shanley is to be celebrated as much as mourned.
Woven in with the ache of loss, then, is a sense of defiance and gratitude. To describe Faraway, Still Close as feelgood is a stretch. Yet there is something comforting in its message that we will live on in the recollections of those closest to us.
“It does often feel like she’s been stolen from us,” says her husband. “But she’s still here with us in the memories we have.”