Absorbing collection of hard fact and human touch
Great reportage heightens the senses while supplying the facts, as this compendium shows
The grotto where 15-year-old Ann Lovett died with her newborn baby. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Eamon de Valera attends the funeral of Roger Casement in 1965. Photograph: Getty Images
Young children await food relief in Tigre, Ethiopia. Photograph: Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images
A Mujahideen in Zabul, Afghanistan. Photograph: Roland Neveu/LightRocket via Getty Images
Great Irish Reportage, edited by John Horgan
The late John Healy, aka Backbencher, was proud of the title “reporter”. He preferred it to “journalist” or “writer”, arguing that it described exactly what he did. That was not quite the full picture, of course. Healy made his reputation as a columnist and polemicist, turning out a vivid weekly commentary on Irish public life for more than 30 years. Some of the dubious traits he highlighted are still discernible in the culture.
It is fitting that Healy should have his place in this absorbing compendium of Irish reportage. He was a master craftsman in what Olivia O’Leary in her foreword describes as the “descriptive writing” part of journalism. It “returns the human dimension to journalism,” she says. It goes “behind the headlines and the statistics and puts people and their quirks and their lives at the centre of the story”.
There are 57 contributions, plus O’Leary’s foreword and an introduction by John Horgan, the book’s editor. Some of the most powerful writing here comes not from career journalists but from diplomats and novelists.
Horgan acknowledges the challenge in selecting the material. “I have had to omit many excellent pieces by superb journalists that would have found their places in a lengthier collection or in one with slightly different criteria,” he admits.
He has done well in his structuring of the exercise. There is a considered spread of topics, from war to social justice to emigration to famine. There is a good chronological span. (The selection opens with Frank Geary’s gripping account of the taking of Cork by National Army forces in the Civil War summer of 1922.)
There is, however, something of a gender imbalance, with just 22 female contributors, very few of them from the younger generations of women writers. Perhaps there is some compensation for this in the inclusion of the prescient and courageous criticisms of de Valera’s draft Constitution by the reporter Gertrude Gaffney, which she wrote for the Irish Independent in 1937.
It would be impossible, one suspects, to get any two editors to agree on a final selection for a project like this. Another editor might even have included some of Horgan’s own writing: his landmark reportage from the Second Vatican Council or, indeed, some of his despatches from the Biafra war of the late 1960s.
Wherever the line is drawn, an exercise like this has to have limitations. An argument could be mobilised for going back beyond the 20th century to include the epochal dispatches from Crimea of the Dubliner William Howard Russell. So too could a case be made for the post-Famine reports in Thackeray’s The Irish Sketch Book. And, by definition, even the greatest Irish broadcast reportage must fall outside this survey. What of the RTÉ cameraman Gay O’Brien’s historic filming of the RUC attack at Craigavon Bridge in Derry on October 5th, 1968? Or Seán Duignan’s epic 24-hour radio commentary as the train carrying the body of the slain Bobby Kennedy made its way across the United States?