Our cruellest month
On this week, seven years ago, I sat down for the first time at a desk in an office in Leinster House, to begin a new journalistic journey – that of a political correspondent.
Before I started, I thought the middle of August would be a good time to start. It was quiet. I’d have a bit of time to put my feet under the desk, read myself into the brief, and adjust to a new way of life.
I had been appointed the political editor of the Irish Examiner. It was a big change for me. I had never worked for a daily newspaper before. I had come from The Sunday Tribune and had also edited the montly Magill. Long meandering pieces were my speciality so I was nervous about quick turnaround stuff with an emphasis on news yarns.
Nor had I specialised before. Though politics infuses through all journalism, going into the Leinster House lobby was a different kettle of fish altogether.
I was nervous the first week. John Downing (now the deputy government press spokesman) had been my predecessor but had departed some months beforehand. Fionnan Sheahan (a retiring young fellow – wonder what ever happened to him?) and Michael O’Farrell (now of the Mail on Sunday) had been left holding the fort. Both disappeared on holidays as soon as I arrived.
The first thing I realised that August wasn’t a really good time to start. A daily newspaper is like a baying beast, demanding to be fed every day. As soon as you feed it one day, you start all over again the following day. And during August that’s a nightmarish prospect. And you don’t have any choice. You can’t not have stories.
And there was nothing doing in Leinster House that summer (or indeed in any summer since then, bar the general election of 2007). Our office was on the second floor of the old building with an uninterrupted view of Merrion Square. Nobody was around save for a couple of ushers and support staff. It was like the Overlook Hotel in the Shining, eerie and deserted (ok, there was no axe-wielding maniac).
The only thing that passed for excitement was the roar you’d hear from the tourists on the Viking Splash tour as it passed by periodically.
As it happened, a huge story came across our path in that first week. The Examiner’s property editor Tommy Barker got a tip-off that Haughey’s Gandon-designed mansion in Kinsealy had been sold for €30m.
I was asked to quietly check it out. Which I did with a very well-established Fianna Fail handler, who said he had heard nothing about it but would find out. Then half an hour later, he rang back to say that it was true but the developer was going to sent out a press release.
I groaned. It wasn’t going to be an exclusive any more. He protested. He said that they were going to release it anyway, which I consoled myself with. But deep down I sensed that I had made a wrong call by making that call. Sometimes it’s better to go with what you have, rather than to be sure to be sure.
The rest of that first week was a terrible struggle as I tried to contact politicians or officials I had yet to get to know, most of whom were on holidays. It was like being given a fishing rod in the Sahara.
What has evoked all that sentimentality and nostalgia, is that this week has powerfully reminded me of that August week in 2003.
It has been as dead as vaudeville.
When Ivor Callely (the non-entity politician’s non-entity politician) is dominating the political agenda you know what part of the barrel you are scraping.
It’s been so bad that today’s Newsweek poll of world rankings that thrusts Brian Cowen into the top ten (itself something desinged for the still and taciturn days of silly season) has been like a Godsend.
For TS Eliot April was the cruellest month. For us, it’s August. Without a doubt.