HUGH McLaughlin, who was in his late 80s, died last Sunday after a long illness. He was a part-time inventor, a serial entrepreneur, and an indefatigable publisher of magazines and newspapers: the Sunday World was his most commercially successful venture. Above all he was some something of a visionary, and a great risk-taker.
The son of a Co Donegal stationmaster, the young Hugh McLaughlin left Killygord at 16 and came to Dublin to work as a barman. There, he showed his early skill as an inventor, by refining a method of pulling pints with greater efficiency.
In the Forties, McLaughlin went on to pioneer a second invention, a device which converted the rubber tubes from old car tyres into men's braces, a scare commodity at a time of import restrictions during the Second World War. More recently he designed a machine (a water hog) to drain cricket pitches and putting greens. Thewater hog was developed commercially.
His daughter, Valerie Collins, who paid a moving tribute to him last Wednesday at the funeral Mass at Donnybrook Church, said her father had failed in only one ambition. And that was to turn his three daughters into "crack golfers". Hugh, however, fulfilled most of his public ambitions. And while an undoubted success in business, his various ventures were not all commercial triumphs.
Hugh McLaughlin was best known, and will be best remembered, as a publisher, although he never gained the public recognition that his great achievements really deserved. For his influence on Irish publishing and journalism has been as great as it has been understated.
He launched new titles, and he did so with meagre financial resources in the pre-Celtic Tiger era, when all publishing ventures were undertaken on a shoestring, with no great expectation of success.
In the Fifties, he helped to develop the Irish Farmers Journal. In the Sixties he launched a series of women's magazines (including Women's Way ) which successfully challenged the dominance of the Irish market by British titles. Women's Way dealt with what were then controversial women's issues (such as family planning), and did so longbefore women's pages became part of the mainstream news media. His wife Nuala,who died last year, was the editor of Creation , a fashion magazine of style and elegance and some fine writing, in the Sixties.
Too often Hugh's publishing ventures were undercapitalised in an Irish market where magazine readership was small, and where living standards and disposable incomes were never high enough to generate the advertising and sales revenue which were needed for financial success. McLaughlin had an unerring entrepreneurial eye for the the gap in the market; the financial gap, however, was never really eitheras large, or as lucrative, asit might have seemed at first glance.
In 1960, he set up Business and Finance, with Nicholas Leonard as editor, who introduced serious financial journalism to Ireland for the first time. And in 1969, he published, This Week, a current affairs magazine, which this writer edited, and which closed in 1972.
His most ambitious publishing gamble was in 1973. Then, with Gerry McGuinness as the other major shareholder, he launched the Sunday World with capital of just £40,000 (?51,787). The tabloid venture proved an instant success, and achieved sales of some 200,000 within a year. In 1978, when he sold his 54 per cent interest to Independent News and Media, he received £1.1m (?1.4m) for his stake.
Two years later, along with John Mulcahy the former owner and editor of Hibernia, he started the Sunday Tribune, which in 1982, temporarily, went into liquidation. This followed a failed attempt by him to emulate the success of the Sunday World, when he launched a tabloid daily, the Daily News, which folded after 18 issues.
Hugh McLaughlin was essentially a shy man, obsessive about his publishing projects, and singular in his efforts to advance them. As his daughter Valerie said last Wednesday, Sunday lunch was a marketing exercise where family members served as his focus group. While Sunday afternoon was a tour of the newsagents to see what magazines were selling, and why.
Above all Hugh was a generous man, prepared to give talent of any description, in whatever human form it appeared, a chance to perform. A salesman who came to sell him some industrial product so impressed him that he was offered a job.
Another time, greatly impressed by a letter to a daily newspaper, he tracked down the correspondent, and suggested he write a column. Only later, however, did McLaughlin discover that the man he had engaged was a printer, who was already working for him in his Glasnevin printing plant.
In many respects Hugh McLaughlin was decades ahead of his time. In what were difficult years for the Irish economy, Hugh was a publishing pioneer who succeeded against the odds, ever ready to challenge the conventional business wisdom, and to defeat it either by invention, or by innovation. Like Shaw, he dreamt things that never were, and said 'Why not?'.
And he succeeded far more often than he failed. He made a difference.