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Saturday 30 August 2014

Eoghan Harris: Aengus and Anne: two hearts with one purpose

Eoghan Harris

Published 22/01/2012 | 05:00

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Aengus Fanning and myself married the same woman. Not at the same time of course. Bigamy is a bridge too far -- although it would make a great Sunday Independent story. But we both loved Anne Harris.

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Any alpha male shows a spiky reflex when another alpha male arrives to pay suit to his former wife. Accordingly, I was aware of aspects of Aengus that other men missed. So I read the tremendous tributes to him with a former rival's rueful regard.

I stress former. Aengus and myself warily circled each other for 25 years. Each year the circles became smaller. In recent years we became very fond of each other. But there is no denying the earlier tensions.

These were not of the Dr Fell variety. I knew exactly why Aengus annoyed me. He was too handsome, too good at Gaelic football, too attractive to women. Above all, too attractive to Anne.

Anne has always liked the blonde leonine look. Aengus, with his shaggy mane of flaxen Viking hair, was not so much the lion in winter as the lion in summer. Even more to be envied were his big hands.

Anne has always admired my strong fingers, the genetic legacy of my maternal grandfather, a Roscommon small farmer. Aengus, however, had the huge hold-fast hands of a Gaelic footballer. And yes, Freud could dine out on that detail.

Anne has always loved the blues. But Aengus could bend his big fingers to play the jazz clarinet with professional musicians. While I could only play the banjo-mandoline badly.

You get the picture. Anything I could do Aengus could do better. Chiefly he could attract and hold the attention of almost any woman, including women who scared other men by their strength. Like his first wife Mary, whom I greatly admired and who later died of cancer.

Back in the early Eighties, however, I only saw the surface of Aengus's ease with exceptionally strong women. Eventually I realised this ease came from him being comfortable with his feminine side -- and was the secret of the astounding success of the Sunday Independent.

Editors in many publications thought he had found a magic formula that could be followed while withholding their approval. Just hire women to write about sex and fashion. So they hired them but shamefacedly mocked their "soft" copy to their male peers. But Aengus did not hire women to write about women. He hired women writers who could write well. And accepted the results with respect, realising, for example, that good gossip is to women what good sport is to men.

By contrast, his rivals feared looking soft in front of their beery peers. Hence they kept harping on the need for hard news. And went on adulating the kind of macho hack who recycles tired cliches about reporters never becoming the story.

Aengus, however, was too masculine to worry about appearing feminine. He also knew television was faster with news. What he wanted were features and comment -- and he did not want them from reporters who thought they were recording angels in the sky.

Like Patricia Redlich, he believed we can only trust people who speak for themselves, even if it means laying themselves on the line. Contrary to the cliche, he believed the writer was always part of the story, that writing drew credibility from the life experience of the writer, and that women writers had a special contribution to make.

In the mid Eighties, Aengus hired Anne Harris to help him implement his vision for a more feminine-friendly Sunday Independent. He hired her not merely because she was the brilliant editor of Image, but because she had been a respected feature writer in Tim Pat Coogan's Irish Press.

Aengus, Anne and Willie Kealy formed a troika that feminised the Sunday Independent without blunting its masculine edge. They freed women to write about politics and men to write about womens' issues. They banished the macho bullshit. And won a million readers.

Aengus achieved this not by applying a marketing formula, but by reaching into his own rich interior life, his roots in Tralee, his principled Presbyterian mother, his theatrical father. With the aid of Anne and Willie he combined his instinctive insights into a unique creation called the Sunday Independent. The same instincts inspired what for me was his greatest contribution to the good of his country: his unbending, unflinching, unwavering opposition to the IRA, which he sustained without stint for nearly 30 years, and which played a crucial part in ensuring they did not enter Irish democracy without giving up their guns.

This stand as well as the commercial success of the Sunday Independent made him media enemies. They accused him of low standards. Apparently they found the sight of scantily clad women more offensive than the sight of Jean McConville's skeleton.

The same sort of critic, recycling charges they also make about my anti-nationalist influence in RTE, complained that Aengus had adopted my antipathy to the IRA and Irish nationalism. Actually he could credibly claim it was the other way around.

When we first met in the early 1980s Aengus was scathing about socialism, and had no time for Irish nationalism, particularly the tribal GAA ban. By contrast I was a committed communist, and had a soft spot for what I called "real republicanism".

But by 1990, I had come to share Aengus's scepticism about socialism, and also shared his scant respect for republicanism. So it seems to me that I was one who shifted. What bothers me now is why I took so long to reach conclusions Aengus arrived at much earlier.

In retrospect I realise that while I had a fanatic heart, Aengus had an accepting heart. Where I sought the perfectibility of man. Aengus accepted the imperfectibility of man. Starting with himself.

Aengus had a strong sense of self. But he had no ego. Sometimes I would see him sitting on the bench in main street in Blackrock, finishing a bag of chips, indifferent to his image, before going off to pursue his twin passions: Anne and the Sunday Independent.

Their love affair subliminally suffused the Sunday Independent. I believe their happiness created a cheerful aura around the paper that no other newspaper could match. An aura that was as attractive to modern Ireland as their pluralist belief in an Ireland where the Queen of England could come and go in peace.

Aengus and Anne's Sunday Independent was regarded by many readers as a surrogate for an ideal Irish Republic: representing Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter, peddling no pious platitudes, disrespecting old dogmas, exposing enemies of democracy. No wonder they seldom took a holiday.

So I will always cherish a memory of them sailing past me one Sunday morning, waving from a convertible with the hood slightly stuck, the left wheel wandering towards an empty bus lane, their blonde manes blowing in the breeze, heading for the distant dark blue of the Kerry Mountains, their labour of love selling well on the streets, spreading sweetness and light across the land.

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