Friday 15 December 2017

Ambitious attempt to chart the triumphs and crises at the 'Irish Times'

Irish Times book
Irish Times book
Eamon Delaney

Eamon Delaney

This is an ambitious attempt to tell the full history of Ireland's posh title, from its foundation in 1859 right down to the present day. It thus also charts the history of the country, and indeed of wider world affairs.

There is particular focus on World War II when the paper took a, thankfully, more international view than the narrow 'Emergency' of the State's neutrality. But many of us might have wished for an account that dwelled on more recent decades when the title broke out of its minority ('Protestant') status, and became a liberal, cerebral, middle class but often radical chronicler of, and contributor, to a rapidly changing Ireland. As an ostensibly all-Ireland paper, it also had a unique and valuable perspective on the North and events there.

Brown has woven a readable narrative out of all this, but there is much digression and superfluous detail, especially maddening given the premium on space. A passing reference to Jack Charlton and the importance of our World Cup success in 1990 would have sufficed without being told that Charlton was 'Northumberland-born' and a brother of Bobby with a description of the type of team he assembled.

Likewise, the cultural tensions of the 1990s did not really require a whole page and more about John McGahern's novel Amongst Women. Brown is foremost a literary critic and this shows. There are long, and admittedly, erudite digressions about poet Eavan Boland, but by contrast we get just one-line references to actual ground-breaking Irish Times writers like Caroline Walsh and Breandán Ó hEithir. Generally, the book is stronger on opinion writers than on the title's journalists and reporters.

In fairness to Brown, he doesn't avoid mention of the paper's controversies, not least its sudden extraordinary crisis in 2001.

The Irish Times had gone from a profit of €7m to jaw-dropping projected losses of €17m in just two years. Indeed, the crisis in the Irish Times in many ways directly replicated what would happen to the State itself - an unsustainable cost base, with too many staff and high wages, all fed by a revenue bubble, in this case not from property tax, but property advertising. Meanwhile, during all of this time, the title lectured the State and others about fiscal responsibility and transparency. Ironies abound.

Meanwhile, the Irish Times is fighting the battle that all print media now face in the uncertain internet age. But this book is a salutary reminder of just how valuable an intelligent, challenging and even vexatious media outlet can be in our everyday lives and in the rude health of our society and country.

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