Journalist and politician who enjoyed gilded career
Ted Nealon: November 24th, 1929-January 28th, 2014
Ted Nealon who has died, aged 84, was immersed in politics all his life. It was a fascination that led him first into political journalism in print and television, then a role as party spokesman and ultimately reaching what surely was his pre-destined goal: a politician and member of Dáil Éireann.
His diverse curriculum vitae included appointments as minister of State in four different government departments. At various stages in his career he found himself, during his early newspaper days, interviewing Eamon de Valera as the Chief rested on a bed during an election campaign, making candles in a factory in England, playing semi-professional rugby league in Lancashire under an assumed name to avoid the GAA ban that could have barred him from playing on the Sligo senior football team, being invested by the French government as Commandant dans l’Ordre des Arts et Des Letres when minister of State in charge of Arts and Culture, heading up the Government Information Services in the 1970s, and winning the Jacobs National Television Award for interpretation and analysis of the general election results in 1973.
He had no academic degrees in psephology but his enduring passion for politics led him to deploy his hands-on political experience in the production of Nealon’s Guide To The Dáil And Seanad, the definitive reference book on general elections, Irish politics and the people involved in it. In lighter vein, six years ago he published an amusing fly-on-the-wall book, Tales From The Dáil Bar, lifting the lid on the often hilarious foibles and peculiarities of some of Ireland’s best-known political personalities and their comical shenanigans in Leinster House.
Nealon was born in Coolrecull, Aclare, Co Sligo in 1929 and at the age of only two encountered a terrible sadness with the death of his young mother, Una, leaving his father, also named Ted, to rear him and his older brother Mike Joe.
His father had a deep interest in politics, though never letting on, not even to his sons, which party he supported. When he was nine, Nealon watched mesmerised as the dad and a few neighbours applied some tallyman legerdemain to the results from the local polling stations in a recent general election, figuring out exactly how every family in the parish voted.
Career in journalism
Such grassroots political skills became second nature to him later in life and were made good use of when he fronted election programmes on RTÉ’s Seven Days current affairs show. He attended St Nathy’s College, Ballaghdereen, where he formed a life-long friendship with John Healy who even then was telling class-mates of his determination to become a journalist.
Unlike Healy, Nealon was not immediately bitten by the journalism bug and for a period was at a loose end searching for a job. By then he was also playing senior football for Sligo, turning in some commendable performances. His job search led him to England where for a time he found himself in the odd occupation of making candles while also playing rugby league on a semi-professional basis. Returning to Ireland, his mind turned to journalism.
Eventually, he got a start as a reporter on the Monaghan and Dundalk Argus and from there moved to the Irish Press to begin making his mark on national journalism.
He was attracted to political reporting by such experiences as, during a byelection, finding himself with de Valera in a hotel bedroom in Ennis, while the great man expounded on his vision for Ireland as he lay with his eyes closed on the bed.
In the early sixties, he became news editor of the Sunday Review, a tabloid edited by John Healy and published by The Irish Times. The Review never reached the required circulation to make it viable but it brought about a revolution in Irish political coverage through the launch by Nealon and Healy of the Backbencher column which ended the bland and docile reporting that prevailed until then.
Backbencher, written initially by both men, and then by Healy alone after it transferred to The Irish Times when the Review closed, possibly was the most widely read and arguably the most influential political column ever published in Ireland.
After the Review, Nealon joined RTÉ as a presenter on Seven Days where he spent l2 years and won his deserved Jacobs. Switching directly into politics he was made head of the Government Information Services, then director of the Fine Gael press office.
He was first elected to the Dáil for Sligo-Leitrim in 1981, subsequently becoming in succession minister of State for arts and culture, communications, posts and telegraphs and agriculture.
Ted Nealon is survived by his wife Jo (formerly Loughnane), daughter Louise and son Fergal.