Editor who insisted on balance and had a zeal for highlighting injustice

Seamus Finn obituary: born December 31st, 1946; died September 1st, 2017

Seamus Finn: he was just 24 when he became the youngest editor in the country. Photograph: The Sligo Champion

Seamus Finn: he was just 24 when he became the youngest editor in the country. Photograph: The Sligo Champion

 

Seamus Finn, the former editor of the Sligo Champion who has died aged 70, was as a cub reporter banned by Sligo Rovers from their home turf, the Showgrounds – a unique achievement, according to his longtime colleague and friend Jim Gray.

Finn had felt no need to mince his words when reporting on how Rovers, a full-time professional team in 1969, got dumped out of the FAI Cup after a dismal defeat by lowly non-league side Longford Town. When he showed up for his next assignment at the Showgrounds he was told he was no longer welcome in the press box.

Typically he fought back, mustering the support of the National Union of Journalists to such a degree that no reporter, local or national, would cover a Rovers game, and soon the ban was lifted and Seamus was back covering a team he followed throughout his life.

It was the first of many scraps with authority throughout a long career which was characterised by an insistence on balance, a zeal for highlighting injustice, and a passion for getting Sligo a better deal from those in power.

Seamus, whose parents John and Bridget ran a shop in Holborn Street – where comedian Spike Milligan’s father Leo was born – showed a talent for writing as a student in Summerhill college. Following a brief stint in the Post Office after leaving school, he realised his dream of being a newspaper reporter when, in October 1968, he was recruited by Tom Palmer, then editor of the Sligo Champion.

It was the beginning of a 41-year career with the newspaper. The Sligo man was just 24 when he became the youngest editor in the country, a position he held for almost 37 years before his retirement in 2009.

His tenure was marked by many agenda-setting campaigns in support of issues such as better hospital services, and a third bridge for Sligo, as well as successful appeals on behalf of local families who had encountered great personal tragedies.

Campaigning reportage

In 2004 he won the national Connacht Gold/John Healy award for his campaigning reportage on the provision of the Kazelain project, a facility for ex-offenders and others in need which was not universally welcomed in the community.

Kieran Devaney a former Channel 4 and Sky TV journalist who organised a post- funeral “wake” for Finn in the snug in Hargadons pub in Sligo, believes his friend could have edited “any newspaper in the world” but he chose to remain in his home town.

Devaney recalls Sligo exiles in London queuing up every Saturday to buy the Champion at Archway tube station. “His column On the Line was a lifeline for Sligo people,” explained Devaney .

Finn’s devotion to his late wife Sheila, who poignantly battled cancer alongside him for years, and his talent for photography were hallmarks of a life busy even apart from journalism.

Tommie Gorman, RTÉ’s Northern editor, got his first byline from Finn when, as a journalism student, he did a placement with the Sligo Champion. Gorman says that like John McGahern, Finn was “dedicated to the local”.

He remembers an editor with a “fiercely independent side” who was not afraid to be an outsider. “He was brave,” said Gorman, who believes it was fitting that Finn was the last ever Freeman of Sligo having won the honour just before Sligo borough council was abolished.

At a time when society still baulked at any challenge to the Catholic Church, Finn took the opposing view during the divisive abortion amendment campaign in 1983. An unfortunate priest was sent to the editor’s office as an envoy for the late Bishop of Elphin Dominic Conway, with a request that the bishop’s views on the matter be used “as is” in the following edition. The proffered statement was quickly scanned before being tossed into the bin, while the bemused priest was told gruffly that when Dominic was editor he could decide what goes into the Sligo Champion.

Terse response

Anyone with the temerity to arrive into the editor’s office pleading for a court case to be kept out of the paper was meet with an equally terse response.

While colleagues such as Jim Gray and his twin brother Leo, who went on to be editor and sports editor respectively at the Champion, admired Finn’s writing and integrity, younger reporters were less sure of themselves with the sometimes gruff editor, who never showed much enthusiasm for promoting women journalists.

Yet his love of a good story and his wry humour won him many admirers. One early adventure was a trip to the Border near Kiltyclogher, Co Leitrim, when Finn and his then colleague the late Irish Press journalist Gerry McMorrow got caught in crossfire between the British army and the IRA.

It was November 1971, Border crossings were being blown apart by the British army and the pair were gauging local reaction. An army helicopter tracked their movements as they cowered in a ditch in what they hoped was the Republic’s side of the Border, but a burst of gunfire reduced a nearby ditch to twigs

“There wasn’t much point in waving our press cards at them,” he later dryly recalled.

He is survived by sons Seamus (Barcelona) and Kevin (Australia), his sisters Eileen (Washington), Mary (Dublin) and Breege (Sligo), his grandson Ilan, daughters-in-law Keren and Ester and extended family.