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Friday 2 December 2016

Obituary: Michael Keane

Last editor of 'Sunday Press' who was respected and loved by his peers

Published 12/06/2016 | 02:30

Highs and lows: Michael Keane met the Clintons, Prince Charles and his social welfare officer within weeks of each other
Highs and lows: Michael Keane met the Clintons, Prince Charles and his social welfare officer within weeks of each other

Michael Keane, who worked in Belfast as Northern Editor of the Irish Press during much of the Troubles in the 1970s and early 80s, went on to become the last editor of the Sunday Press before the closure of the Burgh Quay-based newspaper group.

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His funeral Mass was told last week that over a two week period in 1995 he was introduced to Bill and Hillary Clinton at the World Economic Summit in Washington; to Prince Charles at a garden party and to Miss Kelly at Hatch 19, in the dole office in Dun Laoghaire when he lost his job. He invariably concluded this self-deprecating tale by adding: "Meeting Miss Kelly was far more beneficial to me than Hillary, Bill or Charles."

Some of the many journalists and former colleagues who attended his funeral Mass in the Church of the Ascension, Balally, Co Dublin would also have been quite surprised by his commitment to the parish, where Fr Dermot Lane spoke warmly about Michael Keane's involvement with the Bethany bereavement group, his readings at the 12.45pm contribution to the parish.

Born in Athy, Co Kildare, where his father was a primary school teacher and prominent figure in the teachers' union, Michael Keane joined the Irish Press as a trainee in 1965 and was allotted the job of diary clerk, which involved keeping a record of news events for the group news editor, Bill Redmond, to deploy his reporters. "It was a job where you developed a thick skin fairly quickly," said a colleague.

After working as a reporter for a number of years, he was assigned to Belfast where he met the woman who would become his wife, Jenny. They drifted apart, but met again when they both returned to Dublin and married. He also perfected, says his former colleague Martin Fitzpatrick, "an uncanny Shankill Road accent, which he told me kept him out of trouble on a number of occasions".

He was appointed Northern Editor in November 1972, in succession to Vincent Browne. It was a time when The Troubles made it a dangerous place to work and Belfast was not just a major Irish story but world news and the city's Europa Hotel the most bombed building in the world.

Returning to Dublin he worked as assistant editor of the Irish Press and news editor of the Sunday Press before being appointed the paper's editor in 1986, a post he held for the next eight years. He became editor against the backdrop of continuously falling newspaper circulation, and a misguided media consensus that 'old-style news reporting' was a core value for the Press group.

It was a strategy that failed to take into account the penetration of radio and television as a news medium and the new-found public appetite for a colourful mixture of comment and opinion, salacious gossip and sexy celebrity features. A panicked management and an intransigent union became a dangerous time bomb that ultimately led to the closure of the three Press titles in 1995.

The Irish Times journalist Conor O'Clery, who delivered the eulogy for his best friend Michael at Mount Jerome on Tuesday, said that they were together when the news came through. "I embraced him - but he turned to me and said 'I have a relative at home who has cancer, I don't have cancer.' That was typical of Michael, not to seek sympathy for himself."

To many who lived through that trauma, Keane was a rock of good sense. He was a gregarious man who liked good food, a pint of Smithwicks or a glass of wine and the company of people, whether they were family, neighbours or newspaper people.

After his short stint on the dole, he bounced back, joining the public relations firm Fleishman and later establishing Insight Communications with Michael Parker in 2006, where he continued to work there until his untimely death at the age of 68. It was somewhat ironic that he died on the same weekend as Muhammad Ali, as one of his treasured possessions was a photograph of the two of them together taken during Ali's 1972 visit.

For a journalist he had, rather than a splinter of ice in the heart, a humane streak for someone in such a cynical trade. One former politician who attended his funeral said that during his "darkest days" Michael Keane was there to advise and comfort him, which is not something that could be said for most members of the Fourth Estate.

"We can take solace from the knowledge that we knew a good man, a kind man, a gentle man, a family man, a brilliant journalist hugely respected by his peers, a lovable man who touched our lives and made us all richer for it," said Conor O'Clery.

Michael Keane is survived by wife Jenny and his children Aoife, Michael John and Simon, who spoke movingly of his dad at the funeral service.

The attendance at his funeral included a wide cross-section of journalists such as Mike Burns, Andy Bushe, Olivia O'Leary, Campbell Spray, Martin Fitzpatrick, Seamus Martin, David McCullough, Michael Farrell, Vincent Browne, John Redmond and many others.

Also in attendance were his partner in Insight Communications Michael Parker, Rhona Blake of Fleishman, Frank Flannery, former chief executive of Rehab, Eamon de Valera of the Press group, former Press Ombudsman John Horgan, publisher Ian Hyland and many more.

Sunday Independent

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