The most successful newspapers have a distinct personality of their own with which their readers connect. In Britain, the Daily Mail and the Guardian are perhaps the best examplars of that. In Ireland, the decent, if slightly smug, denizens of Dublin 4 know exactly where they are with the Irish Times, and that it will connect with them and reflect their values.
Sometimes a newspaper’s personality even defies its actual content, and change encompasses an unexpected continuity. The Guardian moved seamlessly from being the organ of non-conformist opponents of horse-racing to the first newspaper in Britain to print the word ‘cunt’. And yet the personality remains intact — priggishness being an essential element. Similarly, the Irish Times has morphed from the entrenched champion of the British empire and defender of Protestant conservative interests to the chief advocate of same-sex marriage and unvarying paladin of the European Union. Anti-Catholicism remains a consistent motif, although today’s readers are more likely to be self-hating ex-Catholic quangocrats than the country squires who feared Fenianism and the peasants’ attachment to Popery.
Terence Brown, a Trinity College Dublin (TCD) academic — no better match for the Irish Times — has undertaken a Herculean task in telling the story of the newspaper from 1859, and he has certainly been diligent. He also seeks to put some of the historical developments into context, and, as the biographer of Louis MacNeice and W.B. Yeats, he is especially informative about interweaving developments in poetry and literature with the general culture. And yet, I think, even the most loyal devotees of the paper will find some of the narrative a hard slog: the professor lacks the journalist’s flair of injecting a little colour into a character or the newsman’s instinct to cite the telling quotation. (If you are going to report that Charles Haughey quoted Othello in his final Dáil speech, then give the exact quote: ‘I have done the state some service, and they know’t.’ )
And while context is important, the text is top-heavy with political material replicated in every modern history of Ireland at the expense of the more quirky and truly elemental aspects of the newspaper, such as the letters page, which is, to this day, a great national forum, and is only mentioned towards the end, in connection with an outraged response to an article by Kevin Myers on unmarried mothers.
The evolution of the ‘Social and Personal’ column is, by the same token, ignored, although the changing social character of Irish society could be deduced from this alone. The small ads in the Irish Times were a mine of information — until the end of the 1960s, the coda ‘Protestant preferred’ was frequently added to many domestic vacancies. And entire categories of features and reportage, in many of which the paper excelled, are also omitted — fashion, cooking, travel. Maeve Binchy was hired by Douglas Gageby as a travel writer, and food, cooking and wine became significant aspects of the paper’s widening appeal.
Brown does make allusion to sport (and the delightful Gordon-Bennett Cup motor races, and he does pay due attention to the lavish property pages of the newspaper —Maeve herself used to call it ‘real-estate porn’, which you could drool and fantasise over — and the role this supplement played in the Celtic Tiger property bubble, as our Dublin 4 reader perceived that a terraced house in Drimnagh had the same price tag as a château in Normandy (€400,000).
And he does describe judiciously how the paper modernised to encompass the rising Catholic middle class to replace the depleted Protestant constituency of old. It was some time, as he describes it, before the management could bring themselves to appoint a Catholic (or non-TCD) as editor — Conor Brady, in 1986, after Douglas Gageby’s final retirement. At least two deserving candidates, Donal Foley and James Downey, had been passed over because of their ‘RC’ background. A decent TCD Protestant, but hopeless editor, Fergus Pyle, succeeded the legendary Gageby, who was indeed a very great editor — and like many of the best, a quixotic man.
A Belfast Protestant Anglophobe and soft republican, Gageby called Cathal O’Shannon ‘a fucking traitor’ for having served in the RAF during the second world war — not mentioned by Brown, although I am glad to note that he has referred to the deplorable treatment Myers was given by Gageby and his lieutenants for researching and reporting, in meticulous detail, the buried stories of Irishmen who fought in the 1914–18 war. What a reversal: the newspaper which had regarded the Great War as a heroic defence of the British empire (and ‘cleansing’ to boot) was subsequently ashamed of what Irishmen had contributed. Small wonder we call journalism ‘the first draft of history’: time will bring many ‘corrections and clarifications’ indeed.
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