Wednesday 26 June 2019

Juicy morsels from journalist who took on 'a nest of vipers'

Old foes: Frank with Charlie Haughey in 1987
Old foes: Frank with Charlie Haughey in 1987
Truly Frank by Frank McDonald

'A permanent thorn in the fat arse of municipal pretension" is how Bob Geldof describes Frank McDonald on the cover of this memoir by the long-serving Environment Editor of the Irish Times. And McDonald certainly was that over many years as he opposed the destruction of Dublin (the title of his seminal book in 1984).

If this memoir were just about McDonald's battles with councillors, officials and developers ripping down beautiful old buildings, it would be interesting enough. But it's far more than that - it's a wonderfully indiscreet romp through several decades of Dublin life which will have many people who were around at the time nervously scanning the index.

Now in his late 60s and semi-retired, McDonald tells the interspersed stories of his career and his personal life with a liberating abandon - a childhood in 1950s Dublin, fiddling Christian Brothers in school, rebellious UCD in the late 60s, getting into journalism, becoming the defender of the city and, colouring everything, being gay. Growing up in a modest home in Cabra West, Frank was aware from early on that he was more attracted to boys than girls. (An early TV crush was Illya Kuryakin in The Man from Uncle!)

Since homosexual acts were criminal at the time, being gay was a hidden business, conducted in public toilets and pubs like Bartley Dunne's. Yet as McDonald describes it, he had a remarkably active gay life despite the difficulties.

This developed while he was a student in UCD, during breaks in the UK and later in New York where he went after graduation. He did some freelancing from the US, which led to a job in the Irish Press, from where he moved to the Irish Times after a few years.

He was a general reporter at first but quickly developed a special interest in what was being done to the city he loved, talking his way into being made environment correspondent so he could investigate this full time. One description he gives of council meetings at the time is telling: "The small 'public gallery' was heaving with estate agents, developers, landowners and lobbyists, watching every move like seasoned Las Vegas gamblers. You could nearly smell it in the air, that unmistakable whiff of corruption."

It wasn't just the brown envelopes he was up against because in the planning culture of the time, preserving Georgian buildings was seen as eccentric when they could be replaced by office blocks or apartments. McDonald was so concerned about corruption that he went to the gardaí regularly to pass on suspicions about who was on the take.

After one such meeting to discuss Ray Burke and Liam Lawlor, a superintendent told him: "What we're dealing with here is not just a few backhanders. What we're dealing with here is a nest of vipers."

Much later he had a critical influence on the Flood Tribunal, briefing its barristers on who he thought had been taking bribes. When he asked Frank Dunlop what question he was most worried about being asked, Dunlop replied: "Did any politicians ask me for money." McDonald passed this on to the tribunal's barristers and it opened the flood gates.

He is just as frank when he is talking about subjects other than planning corruption, like his many gay friends, or the mess made of Temple Bar where he has lived for many years. And no one is spared, including former colleagues. (The book is titled Truly Frank with good reason.)

Other delights involve the former Supreme Court judge Hugh O'Flaherty and McDonald's visits to the retired Charlie Haughey in Kinsealy where the two old foes may not have kissed but certainly made up.

All the juicy morsels and regular chortles are going to make this book a bestseller. Without doubt, it's the memoir of the year.

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