A year of Letters to the Editor
‘EU plus IMF equals ‘I FUME’.” John Brennan’s short letter with a big message reflects the focused anger of this year’s “Letters to the Editor”. Even when the economy wasn’t the main theme, it set the tone for “big debates” on Budget 2013, the controversy over the Gathering and the two referendums. Political shenanigans, medical matters and religion featured strongly too, with waves of comment about the changing role of the Catholic Church and atheism, as well as the death of Savita Halappanavar and the question of abortion.
But even as these debates attracted many thought-provoking and knowledgeable contributions from across the political spectrum, so too the “little debates”, on personal or seemingly more trivial subjects, captured the imagination of readers, who, in their hundreds, shared their thoughts.
A news report’s innocent reference to a shopping list of Beethoven’s sparked a long-running series of letters of composer-related puns, berating The Irish Times for allowing them, even while perpetuating them (see panel). Frank McNally’s diaries on a History of Ireland in 100 Questions, Rejects, and Excuses and his Fifty Names of Irish Rain, spawned many hundreds of letters, rich in personal and cultural anecdote, some stretching the bounds of wit and wisdom to the limit.
The vast range of contributions neatly illustrates the nature of The Irish Times letters page: it is a place where readers take on the big issues: our economy, our governance, our society, our beliefs. They hold our government Ministers, our bankers and institutions, and frequently The Irish Times newspaper, to account. But in 2012, as every year, there is also space for the personal story: the missing orphans of Ballyconree orphanage; the struggle of a brave man with motor neuron disease (Simon Fitzmaurice, October 10th); the battle for Irish citizenship (Nike Ruf, September 24th), and the minutae of life – the bins, the dog poo (“Fido’s little trophy”), the naming of the new Liffey bridge.
Controversial letters – and there were many – included Mike Murphy’s excoriation of RTÉ over its treatment of the Masterpiece: Ireland’s Favourite Painting programme; and writer Colm Tóibín and Joseph O’Connor’s criticism of arts funding cuts.
Archbishop Diarmuid Martin took The Irish Times to task for an editorial on abortion, while TK Whitaker joined Maurice Hayes, Mary Henry, John A Murphy, Mary O’Rourke and Bríd Rogers in trenchant opposition to the abolition of the Seanad.
Letters from long-time campaigners such as Sr Stanislaus Kennedy, Alice Leahy and Peter McVerry addressed important social issues, while several letter writers who raised strong criticisms of government pay and pensions or international affairs saw specific responses from Ministers or ambassadors appear on the letters page subsequently.
A constant refrain has been outrage at political hypocrisy. The Inkgate scandal, Mick Wallace’s tax affairs, top bankers’ and politicians’ pay – all evoked the fire and ire of letter writers.
A survey we conducted this year of 200 people who submitted letters to The Irish Times reflects the range of reasons people write. Matters of importance – particularly politics and religion – top the list. Disagreeing or agreeing with The Irish Times editorials, opinion pieces and letters, is another strong motivator, as is the wish to share matters of personal importance with a wider audience – and to amuse.