Sunday 21 July 2019

Obituary: Nuala Considine

Expert crossword compiler was a former model and Aer Lingus air stewardess

WORDSMITH: Nuala Considine during her time as a stewardess in the 1940s
WORDSMITH: Nuala Considine during her time as a stewardess in the 1940s newsdesk

Nuala Considine, who has died aged 90, was the daughter of the singer Delia Murphy, and had perhaps the longest career of any crossword compiler; her first puzzle was published at the age of 18 by The Irish Times and she was still working prolifically until shortly before she died.

The former Aer Lingus stewardess whose father was one of Ireland's greatest public servants, was a long-standing Daily Telegraph compiler, having set around 1,000 of its famous cryptic crosswords over a 31-year period. Starting on December 5, 1986, she set alternate Mondays until 1992, when Val Gilbert, the crossword editor, asked her to take over on The Sunday Telegraph. She compiled the Sunday cryptic for 17 years - a total of 830 puzzles - before passing the baton in 2009. When the Telegraph Toughie was launched in 2008, Nuala Considine assumed a new identity as "Excalibur", with 110 Toughies published.

Her puzzles were known for their wit and brevity. Take this clue from her 100th Toughie: "Ram home (5-3)" - Answer: "Sheep-pen". She would never allow an obscure answer to darken a puzzle's door. She loved cryptic riddles and had no time for long bits-and-pieces clues. Toughie compilers have to send in explanations for the crossword editor. A typical Excalibur explanation would say: "Joke."

As well as her work for the Telegraph, Nuala Considine produced a volume of puzzles that almost defies belief. For the Daily Express she set five puzzles a week for 10 years. For the Daily Mail she had set a giant crossword every Saturday for the past 25 years, also compiling the Friday crossword for the London Evening Standard.

Her crosswords were syndicated to local newspapers and "more magazines than I can possibly remember - She, Woman's Realm, Amateur Gardening," she recalled, adding: "I did a weekly puzzle for the New Scientist with scientific clues - that was difficult."

Aisling Fionnuala Maire Considine was born on October 10, 1927 and grew up in London, Dublin and Rome. Her mother, Delia Murphy, was the popular singer who recorded more than 100 ballads in the 1930s to 1950s, including If I Were A Blackbird. Nuala's grandfather, John Murphy, had made money in the Klondike gold rush of the 1890s.

WORDSMITH: Nuala Considine in later life
WORDSMITH: Nuala Considine in later life

Nuala's father, Dr Thomas J Kiernan, was an Irish diplomat. He was posted to London, where Nuala, her sisters Blon and Orla, and brother Colm were born, and then in 1935 he became the head of Radio Eireann. During World War II, Dr Kiernan was Ireland's Minister Plenipotentiary to the Vatican, later writing a biography of his friend Pope Pius XII. Nuala, then a teenager, went to a girls' school in Rome; she went on to speak Italian, French and Spanish.

In 1960 her father became Ambassador to the United States and was instrumental in bringing President John F Kennedy to Ireland. He had also been the envoy to Canada and Australia.

After the war, Nuala became a stewardess for Aer Lingus, where she met a pilot called Brian Considine, nearly eight years her senior. Brian, from Limerick, had served as a Hurricane pilot, being shot down and wounded during the Battle of Britain.

He introduced Nuala to cryptic crosswords, and together they compiled a puzzle for fun which they sent to The Irish Times. To their amazement, it was published. "That was the first of many I set for them," she said. Brian and Nuala were married in March 1948.

Back in London, Nuala's puzzle-compiling led her to join a Fleet Street press agency, Morley Adams, in 1955.

"At first I wrote pieces on all kinds of subjects," she recalled. "I wrote a weekly horoscope, and film and theatre reviews. But I specialised in crosswords. Sometimes a cryptic had to be compiled within an hour - and there was no electronic help."

In fact, Nuala would spurn electronic help throughout her career. Today, a computer program can set up a grid of answers at the press of a key, but Nuala continued to create her grids personally in pencil. She insisted that it helped her to avoid obscure answers - and if she ever got trapped in a corner where she might have to put in some little-known plant from Peru, she would tell herself: "Rub out, rub out, rub out!"

After Brian died in 1996, Nuala threw herself into a workload that might have overwhelmed someone half her age. Phil McNeill, the Telegraph's crossword editor when Nuala was in her eighties, has recalled that: "Compiling is a solitary occupation, and she missed Brian terribly. She split her time between central London and San Diego, California, as they had done together, and when she was in London we would meet for afternoon tea. Nuala had done some photographic modelling in her youth, and she would arrive exuding old-style glamour, a tiny, slim figure who looked as if a puff of wind could blow her away. She had a wicked sense of humour and was fantastic company."

Nuala gave up compiling when told she had a terminal illness six weeks before she died. Even then she admitted: "I've stopped work now, but you know, as I fall asleep I am still writing crossword clues in my head."

She died on July 24.

© Telegraph

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