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Thursday 18 January 2018

Sean McCann - Modest man and a proud father

Tribute: John Boland remembers the journalist and writer Sean McCann, who died this week

Sean McCann
Sean McCann
Son: Author Colum McCann

Writing in The New Yorker last December about his father, Sean, who has died at the age of 85, Colum McCann recalled his dad returning home from work every afternoon and disappearing into his garden shed, from which "the tattoo of two-fingered typing" could then be heard.

In later years, it was the son who would find fame for his writing, but during those years of Colum's boyhood at the end of Clonkeen Road, it was Sean's books - The World of Sean O'Casey, The Wit of Oscar Wilde and eventually more than 20 others - that were to be found in the family house.

Not that they meant much to the youngster. As he wrote in that loving New Yorker piece last Christmas, what he wanted to be was "what every other boy wanted to be: a professional soccer player".

That didn't come from nowhere, either, his Dublin-born dad having gone to London as a young man in pursuit of a football career, though his stint with Charlton Athletic was ended by his need to make a more secure living, whereupon he became a journalist. However, he later wrote novels for teenage boys about a young soccer wizard called Georgie Goode.

Returning to Dublin in the early 1960s, he was taken on as features editor of the then very successful Evening Press, firstly under the general editorship of Conor O'Brien and subsequently of Sean Ward, and it was when the latter took over the paper that I first met him, introduced by Irish Press literary editor David Marcus, for whom I was working and who was a close ally of Sean - the two of them vanishing each morning for 11 o'clock coffee in the Silver Swan or White Horse on Burgh Quay.

Later, after a three-year sojourn with Hibernia magazine, I myself joined the Evening Press, eventually becoming Sean's deputy, and it was during those years that I grew to appreciate his quietly enduring impact on the paper.

From before my time, he had run a weekly page which he called Petticoat Panel and though the name now sounds quaintly sexist (to a young journalist it seemed outmoded and iffy even then), one of Sean's great achievements was to encourage a generation of freelance women writers to address a national readership.

These were seldom very controversial articles (Sean's instincts leant towards caution rather than confrontation), but they provided talented women writers with a regular forum in which they could express their concerns. And among his staff feature writers, he hired other distinctive journalists - notably the socially-concerned Liam O Cuanaigh (who went on to found Alone with Willie Birmingham); Clare Boylan, who subsequently became a fine novelist and short-story writer; and Noeleen Dowling, who died too soon last year.

Colum, too, contributed a pop and lifestyle column, though his father warned him of the perilous lure of journalism and all the enemies of promise it nurtured, a warning that his son heeded by decamping to America in search of his true self.

No one was more thrilled than his father by Colum's subsequent literary success, regaling me after the 1995 demise of the Press group (from which he had retired early) with phone calls and emails about his son's achievements and awards. The love was reciprocal and there was a touching Miriam Meets interview with father and son on Radio One in 2010.

And writing in The New Yorker of those long ago Georgie Goode books, Colum recalled that what "stunned" him as a youngster was that "another boy could emerge from my father's ramshackle shed, as real to me as the dirt that caked on my own soccer boots. This was new territory: the imagined coming to life. My father's typewriter sounded different to me now. More and more, I disappeared into books".

And at the end of the piece, he recalled his father sitting him up in the shed and reciting from memory Philip Larkin's 'This Be the Verse' with its opening lines: "They fuck you up, your mum and dad./They may not mean to but they do".

"I knew what he was trying to say, but I also knew that sometimes - just sometimes - the father you get is the father you want".

Indeed, even those of us outside of Sean McCann's immediate family will remember him with great fondness. A civilised and unfailingly charming journalist of the old school, he was also an internationally-recognised and award-winning authority on rose growing and he wrote fluently, too, about wine, another of his passions.

He bowed out as features editor of the Evening Press in 1989, just before the internet took hold of all our lives, and most of what you'll learn of him there can be found in articles about his famous son.

A modest man and a devoted father, that's undoubtedly how he would have wished it to be.

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