Sunday 23 November 2014

My Dublin days of milk and brandy and papers past

Con Houlihan

Published 16/01/2008 | 11:07

Con Houlihan

SAMUEL Johnson when at the peak of his fame was asked by an admirer to tell him about the happiest hours of his life. He said: "Those I spent in bed in the morning when I should have been up."

Most of us would be inclined to agree – except that those hours aren't happy at all. You cannot help feeling guilty.

I cannot hope to be as famous as the good Samuel – but I have had some happy hours too; many of them were set in the crazy world of journalism.

There are many happy memories of The Kerryman, especially on Thursday evenings.

By about five o'clock the first edition would have been put to bed and most of us were freed from our chains. We lost no time in adjourning to Laide's next door: there the captains and first mates and mere deckhands such as myself mingled in a kind of casual democracy. Grammar and spelling frequently formed a big part of the conversation.

My great buddy, Eamon Horan, a first-class handballer and first-class sportswriter, was the leading expert. After a few pints he was inclined to quote from the leading article of that week's paper and point out what he considered infelicities.

PATIENCE

The leading article, as is the custom in most papers, was unsigned but we all knew that it had been written by Seamus McConville, the acting editor. Seamus was a grand man with almost infinite patience – he was very slow to take the bait. One night, however, after Eamon had been giving out about sentences without verbs, Seamus said: “Eamon, can you ever write a report without the word “kingsize”?

Often in looking back – and indeed in looking forward – I wish that such crazy evenings had been part of the culture in Burgh Quay – the bosses did not mix with the men or women. By “bosses” I mean the top executives, decent men but not inclined to frequent popular pubs.

I never saw any one of them in Mulligan's except on the morning that The Irish Press was launched as a tabloid.

One of the bosses was there. It was an occasion of music and free drink. I paid for my own, I was not in the mood for a party. And I said to mine host, Tommy Cusack, that we were witnessing not a wedding but a wake – he agreed.

What The Irish Press needed wasn't a new format but a new outlook: it was being written for people who couldn't read it because they were dead. Tommy Cusack, God rest him, and I knew that The Irish Press was very popular in rural Ireland. Men bought it on the way home from the creamery and loved to spread it out on the table and read it over a mug of tea.

That was an unhappy day for me; the thinking that had dismissed a fine newspaper was a fingerpost to disaster.

Of course many of my happiest hours were in the context of The Evening Press. I loved that paper. Usually I worked the column out in my head during the night – occasionally in some congen ial pub – and got up about four in the morning and wrote it.

By eight o'clock it was in the safe hands of the Sports Editor, Tom O'Shea, and I was in my favourite corner in The White Horse – the corner nearest the quay. There I loved to read The Sporting Life and I sustained myself with a glass of milk mildly tinctured with brandy. So I had something in common with The Queen Mother: at eight every morning that same paper was brought to her bed accompanied by a large measure of gin and a bottle of tonic water.

CORRECTIONS

Usually I went back to the office about ten o'clock to get the proof of my immortal words and did the corrections. I cherish other especially happy hours too – but before I tell you I must explain the meaning of “copy boy”. “Copy” in this sense is a word confined to journalism; it signifies any piece of writing that is to be sent to the printers.

The copy boys took in the pieces of writing and brought out the proofs – the printed versions of what he had taken into the case room, as the Printers' territory was called.

The copy boy had other duties: he made tea every few hours; he went for milk and sandwiches and various kinds of fruit and delicacies. He went to the betting shop; he dug out photographs; he saw after the post. Otherwise he hadn't much to do.

On many Monday mornings I used to have four copy boys around me. They were all playing soccer at a good level – they told me about their games over the weekend. I felt like a wise old priest listening to their confessions, except that they told me not about their failings but about their virtues.

Those Monday morning sessions were extremely solemn; if any stranger happened to be in the office, he might think that we were engaged in some conspiracy, perhaps to assassinate the Sports Editor or the Editor himself.

They were grand bright lads and I was very fond of them – I worried especially about them when the good ship Burgh Quay hit the rocks. They survived – but when you have worked in a newspaper, any other kind of job is like prose compared to poetry. The biggest part of our tragedy was that many decent people would never work at their trade again.

There was another aspect: a community of about seven hundred disappeared to the four winds. It wasn't a death in the family – it was the death of a family.

The most galling aspect was that the tragedy should never have happened. From the day the Americans came into the office I sensed trouble. They sent around a circular to all of us; it consisted of about a thousand words – but didn't contain as much as one verb.

Eamon Horan would have been outraged. Incidentally, on that night long ago when his duel with Seamus McConville ended in a draw, the three of us heard the chimes at midnight and beyond.

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