Thursday 27 October 2016

Books: Press here for nostalgia

Media: The Press Gang: Tales From the Glory Days of Irish Newspapers, Ed by David Kenny New Island, tpbk, 382 pages, €16.99

John Boland

Published 13/12/2015 | 02:30

Stone age: Editor Tim Pat Coogan (second from right) oversees the final adjustments to the Irish Press 50th anniversary supplement in September 1981.
Stone age: Editor Tim Pat Coogan (second from right) oversees the final adjustments to the Irish Press 50th anniversary supplement in September 1981.
The Irish Press office on Burgh Quay in the 1940s
The Press Gang: Tales from the glory days of Irish newspapers

John boland on a new book that recalls the good old days in the Irish Press newspapers.

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The feeling that's constantly evoked in these reminiscences by almost 60 former employees of the Irish Press group is one of camaraderie, and the word itself is mentioned by quite a lot of the contributors.

Not without reason, either, because the Press, which closed down 20 years ago last May, always had a distinctly collegiate atmosphere, with little of the rank-pulling and none of the bullying too often found in other news organisations. It's what made Burgh Quay such a pleasurable place in which to work, but it's perhaps also what made it too cosy a refuge from the brasher media world outside and arguably what contributed to its demise.

You wouldn't know that from the accounts given here of its closure, in which the agreed villains are incompetent inhouse bosses (Eamon de Valera and Vincent Jennings) and foreign predators (the Ingersolls), while the heroes are bravely defiant, if ultimately helpless, journalists. That an intractable union and an unyielding staff might have had some part in the downfall of the group is never considered.

And the book's subtitle is disingenuous, if not downright misleading. Under consideration here are not the "glory days of Irish newspapers", but of one particular organisation that operated like no other and had no real equivalent elsewhere.

This is not to say that the book isn't frequently engrossing, with many anecdotes that capture both the quirkiness of Press journalism and the eccentricities of some of its practitioners, though I must say I'd never heard the story, related by former Irish Press chief sub-editor Sean Purcell, about the sub-editor who "poked his penis" through his editor's office "and pissed all over the floor". Perhaps I was too cosseted in the Evening Press, where another overwrought sub-editor tried to set himself on fire one morning in the men's toilet.

And in an interesting piece on newspaper women, former feature writer Kate Shanahan leaves unidentified the perpetrator of the gibe to a colleague who was seated at a reception wearing an ill-advised floral dress: "I didn't recognise you, dear, I thought you were a sofa". That, in my recall, was Ruth Kelly addressing former Late Late Show researcher Pan Collins.

After former Irish Press editor Tim Pat Coogan's foreword, which is somewhat self-serving ("I unwittingly helped to bring feminism to Ireland") and in which he outlandishly claims that the Press produced "some of the best journalism in the English-speaking world", there are some fine pieces here, notably those devoted to particular personalities.

Former Evening Press editor Dick O'Riordan provides a touching portrait of sub-editor Adrian MacLoughlin, a lovely but lonely and, for much of his career, alcohol-plagued man who in later years developed a passion for model trains and an innocent crush on Kylie Minogue but who also wrote two scholarly books, Guide to Historic Dublin and Streets of Ireland.

Patsy McGarry writes with affectionate admiration of John Garvey, who was Coogan's deputy editor and one of those unsung journalists (like Coogan's earlier deputy Fintan Faulkner) who kept the editorial line sane - writing sternly anti-Provo editorials on the nights when the editor was elsewhere - and also ensured that a scrupulously checked newspaper was published each morning.

Frank McDonald is also appreciative of John Garvey ("the most decent man I ever met") and of Fintan Faulkner, too ("an absolute gentleman"), while Liam Mackey's fondness for Con Houlihan is evident in his vivid piece about this great sports and literary journalist.

The book would have benefited from other such profiles. Indeed, I regret failing to meet the publication deadline as I would have written about Evening Press editor Sean Ward, a man whose basic shyness was sometimes misread as brusqueness.

He could be fierce in his pursuit of a story and intolerant of sloppy journalism, but I liked and admired him very much and I don't think that the few mentions he gets here give him his due.

Indeed, it's hard not to feel that greater editorial supervision would have rid the book of its repetitiveness, with some colourful journalistic figures recalled by many (too many) of the contributors and other more distinguished ones not at all.

And greater supervision might also have curbed the tendency of so many hacks to get all dewy-eyed about the past, as if the Press were somehow an enchanted lost domain that existed before the internet came along and ruined everything.

It didn't, of course, even if nowadays it's sometimes hard not to feel that no one really knows anything unless they Google it, which makes me wonder how I ever completed a lengthy Evening Press obituary of John Lennon in the two hours after he was murdered - from my own knowledge and the cuttings library, I guess. But there were no glory days that warrant mourning.

The internet is an invaluable resource and serious journalism in Ireland is better - more courageous, less subservient - than it was in an era when newspaper proprietors, editors and journalists kowtowed to political dictates and genuflected before the clergy.

Yes, the Press was a great place in which to work and it trained outstanding journalists who went on to other newspaper outlets and to RTÉ. But one wonders how it would have fared in a media world that's less tolerant of the "barely controlled lunacy" recalled by Breandan O hEithir way back when.

John Boland was Features Editor of the Evening Press

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