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Colm Kelpie: A genius of print who thrived on controversy

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Aengus Fanning with his wife Anne Harris

Aengus Fanning with his wife Anne Harris

Aengus with the
late Ronnie Drew

Aengus with the late Ronnie Drew

With the late
Garret FitzGerald
in Ranelagh

With the late Garret FitzGerald in Ranelagh

Aengus with Bertie Ahern in September 2002

Aengus with Bertie Ahern in September 2002

Aengus Fanning with the then UUP
leader David Trimble at Stormont

Aengus Fanning with the then UUP leader David Trimble at Stormont

Aengus with the late
Veronica Guerin
in 1995

Aengus with the late Veronica Guerin in 1995

Aengus Fanning (back row) when he played for Kerry in 1960s

Aengus Fanning (back row) when he played for Kerry in 1960s

Aengus with former Kerry footballer Mick O'Connell at Valentia Island, Co Kerry

Aengus with former Kerry footballer Mick O'Connell at Valentia Island, Co Kerry

Aengus Fanning with Ulick O'Connor on Bloomsday in 2009

Aengus Fanning with Ulick O'Connor on Bloomsday in 2009

Aengus with first wife Mary and their sons Dion, Evan and
Steve

Aengus with first wife Mary and their sons Dion, Evan and Steve

Aengus as part of the Sunday Independent's Cricket Society (back
row, second from left)

Aengus as part of the Sunday Independent's Cricket Society (back row, second from left)

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Aengus Fanning with his wife Anne Harris

ALTHOUGH a giant of the Irish media, Aengus Fanning once suggested that he preferred to remain on the sidelines.

Credited as the driving force behind the transformation of the 'Sunday Independent' to the biggest newspaper on the island, the dyed-in-the-wool newsman said he wanted to be invisible.

A newspaper, he believed, was bigger than any one individual and it did little good to have the editor personalised.

It was an illuminating aspiration. His success in creating a publication that produced a weekly cocktail of hard news, entertainment, lifestyle features and opinion that attracted a loyal readership secured him a reputation in the industry.

Yet at times he also wrote full-page features in which he was photographed with his interviewee, often a Taoiseach or leading minister.

He wanted a paper that was not afraid to be brave and articulate strong views and the 'Sunday Independent' -- over which he presided for 28 years -- provided provocative commentary and thrived on controversy.

He once said people that may not like what the paper said, but "they like the fact that we have the guts to publish opinions that sometimes go against the stream".

His stewardship of the paper saw the introduction of a wide range of eclectic commentators in an effort to shake up what he believed had become a "staid" and "stale" publication, from Eamon Dunphy, Hugh Leonard and Colm Toibin to Gene Kerrigan, Shane Ross and Conor Cruise O'Brien.

However, success was dampened by tragedy, with the brutal murder of Veronica Guerin in June 1996 by elements of Dublin's gangland underworld whom the paper had been so diligently attempting to expose.

A workaholic by nature, he was also a gregarious force in the newsroom and is remembered by colleagues as great fun, eccentric, highly intelligent, with a love for jazz and a passion for cricket.

Born in 1943, Mr Fanning was educated by the Christian Brothers in Tralee and attended University College Cork.

Journalism was in his blood. His great-grandfather John Powell was the first manager of the 'Midland Tribune', started in Birr, Co Offaly about 1882. The paper was passed through the family, from his great-grandfather to his grandmother and to his uncle, James Fanning.

His father, Arnold P Fanning, sold out his half-share in the paper to become a schoolteacher in Tralee, but his son ultimately moved into the newspaper business.

On leaving college, he joined the 'Midland' in 1964, covering sport and gathering material in Roscrea for the notes section of the paper, chatting to politicians, clubs, Macra na Feirme and covering local court sittings.

He met his wife-to-be, the late Mary O'Brien, from Birr and he decided he wanted a move to the 'Independent' in 1969 as it offered more money, and therefore the opportunity to get married. His wages in Birr at that time were £15, versus £25 in Dublin.

His ferocious appetite for work couldn't be quelled even on his wedding day and that morning he went into the office before heading off to the ceremony.

The couple had three children; Dion, Evan and Stephen. Two followed in their father's footsteps. Dion works for the 'Sunday Independent' as football correspondent and Evan is a journalist in London with the 'Guardian'.

Stephen became a musician and is a member of the band The Last Tycoons.

During his first day with the 'Independent', which was based in Middle Abbey Street in those days, Mr Fanning recalled his awe and spoke of how little work he had to do compared with his time in the 'Midland Tribune'.

Although he started as a general news reporter, in 1973 he was appointed agriculture correspondent following Ireland's accession to the European Economic Community (EEC). This allowed him a certain amount of autonomy to produce his own stories and travel the corridors of power in Brussels and Luxembourg.

He followed this up with his appointment in 1982 as news analysis editor of the 'Irish Independent', where he was responsible for getting three topical features a day, six days a week.

In January 1984, he began his tenure as editor of the 'Sunday Independent'.

HE didn't mince his words in that 1993 interview with Ivor Kenny, referring to the 'Sunday Independent' he inherited as "a bit staid and stale" and dominated by men. He proceeded to make a series of appointments, including Anne Harris (whom he married following the death of his first wife, Mary).

He chose columnists and commentators that reflected the spectrum of Irish life and had the ability to draw in a diverse readership through a mix of widely divergent, and sometimes controversial views.

Somewhat prophetically, he referred in 1993 to the slow decline of newspapers, due in part to the proliferation of new technology, including electronic and specialised newspapers.

His vision of a Sunday paper was one that would be more akin to a magazine, filled with content intended to stimulate and provoke.

Colleagues spoke of a man who was supportive of his reporters and would frequently send a note of praise if he particularly liked a story.

One of the darkest moments to engulf the paper during his tenure was the killing of crime correspondent Veronica Guerin. It stunned and saddened Mr Fanning and indeed shocked everyone in the newspaper.

He would often privately visit the memorial established in Dublin Castle to remember her.

The killing marked a watershed as there was a perception that while threats were routinely issued against journalists who delved into the criminal underworld, murdering a reporter was crossing the line.

Despite being a Kerryman, he was intensely proud and supportive of the communities along the south Dublin coast, where he lived, including Blackrock, Monkstown, Dun Laoghaire, Glasthule, Sandycove and Dalkey.

Blackrock was one of his focal points and he was often seen strolling around the village, often popping into Insomnia coffee shop on a Monday afternoon.

Indeed, so keen was he to offer support to businesses that he would sometimes ask women he met in the area to model clothes from local boutiques and then use the photos on the front page of the paper.

While news was his passion, he found plenty of time to indulge his other loves -- jazz, cricket and swimming in the Forty Foot and Seapoint.

Although he played GAA in his younger years at county level in Kerry, he developed a love for cricket and established the Sunday Independent Cricket Society and the Sunday Indep- endent Irish International Cricketer of the Year award over 10 years ago.

He was deeply passionate about the sport, as much for the social opportunity it presented as for the nuances of the game.

He played the clarinet and tin whistle and would be seen with the latter poking out of the breast pocket of his shirts, which were customarily bright. An avid jazz fan, he often gathered with kindred friends on a Sunday morning to play together.

Irish Independent