The greatest story I ever told
Irish Times journalists recall stories they wrote that had a major impact, nationally, globally or personally
Telling the story: an Iraqi Kurdish child at Isikveren refugee camp, on the Turkish border with Iraq, in 1991. Photograph: Nabil Ismail/AFP/Getty
Telling the story: Annie Murphy with her son Peter. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
Telling the story: the blind photographer Audrey Tormey. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
Telling the story: Kevin Fitzpatrick, “the man in the skip”, as a boy. Photograph courtesy of the Fitzpatrick family
Telling the story: people watch for an apparition at Knock Shrine, in Co Mayo. Photograph: Julien Behal/PA Wire
Telling the story: a photograph of Hana Muammar Gadafy that Mary Fitzgerald found in Bab al-Azizia in 2011
Telling the story: a vigil outside Leinster House, in Dublin, to remember Savita Halappanavar. Photograph: Julien Behal/PA Wire
OF TORY ISLAND
Charlie Haughey, then leader of the opposition, looked up at me from under hooded eyes and said, “You want me to comment on Bishop Hegarty’s decision to remove Fr O Peicin from Tory Island?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Write this down,” he instructed. “While I don’t want to interfere in diocesan affairs . . .” And then he went on to do just that, by criticising the decision by the then bishop of Raphoe. Which in matters of church and State was brave enough for 1984.
Not that it made a blind bit of difference. The bishop had his way, and Fr Diarmuid O Peicin, as an obedient Jesuit, grudgingly accepted his marching orders.
I was writing for the Irish Press at the time. As a young journalist with the Donegal Democrat three years earlier, in the late summer of 1981, I crossed the rough waves to Tory for the first time to meet Fr O Peicin and several of the islanders who were battling to save the island from depopulation.
A semiretired African missionary, O Peicin had arrived on Tory in 1980 to learn Irish and stayed on as its pastor when he learned the awful conditions under which its population of 150 just about survived.
I was involved in the story for several years, starting with a three-part series in the Donegal Democrat that ended up as a pamphlet called Tory’s Darkest Hour.
I later uncovered an official paper that had four proposals for the island after the people had been removed: make it a holiday-home centre for American tourists, build a high-security prison, turn it into a quarantine centre or use it as a firing range for the Army. It helped prove that there was a secret will to rid an island of its people.
Fr O Peicin’s tussles and the surrounding publicity caused anxiety and division that prompted Bishop Hegarty’s move – and Haughey’s intervention. It all seemed lost at the time.
But even though we didn’t realise it, the tide was turning in the island’s favour. Gradually, under all that pressure, conditions improved, and gradually the island’s future was secure. That couldn’t have happened without Fr O Peicin – who died, aged 91, five years ago – and the islanders who campaigned with him.
I like to think my reporting, as Haughey might have said, also did Tory some service.
KURDISH REFUGEES IN IRAQ
Deaglán de Bréadún
My first big foreign assignment for The Irish Times was to cover the Kurdish refugee crisis at the end of the first Gulf war. President George HW Bush had encouraged the Iraqi Kurds to rise against Saddam Hussein, but then the Americans decided not to proceed as far as Baghdad, and the Kurds were left at the mercy of the brutal dictator. About two million of them fled, mainly to Turkey and Iran. In April 1991 I was sent to the Turkey-Iraq border, where I witnessed horrific scenes that still haunt me.
My lack of experience in foreign reporting at the time put me at a certain personal risk – although this was nothing compared with what the refugees were facing. I got no medical shots in advance, despite being about to go into a situation with considerable potential to contract illness and disease. It was all a bit rushed, and I didn’t quite know what to expect.
I flew to the Turkish capital, Ankara, but there was an internal airline strike, so I hired a car with two American aid workers, and we drove for 24 hours to the border town of Cukurca, population 8,000. In a ravine close to the village was a camp housing up to 80,000 refugees, enduring heavy rain and insanitary conditions. The number of deaths at Isikveren was estimated at 170 a day, two-thirds of them babies.
After my stint on the Turkey-Iraq border, with the Irish Times photographer Frank Miller I covered the plight of the Kurdish refugees fleeing into Iran.
When I arrived back in Dublin I was brought to hospital and put in an isolation ward. References in my stories to cholera outbreaks had caused concern. I didn’t have cholera, but I did have shigella dysentery, and it took some time to recover. In professional terms the trips were a success, but the close-up experience of man’s inhumanity to man left memories that would never be erased.
BISHOP CASEY’S SON
Just before The Irish Times broke the story of Bishop Casey, in 1992, I asked him to tell us his side of the affair. He agreed to meet me and the newspaper’s religious-affairs correspondent at the time, Andy Pollak, at the Skylon Hotel in Dublin. But the bishop of Galway didn’t turn up. My request had triggered a hasty trip to Rome. The Vatican silenced him and exiled him to South America.
I have been associated with breaking the news of Annie Murphy, but in fact the story came to us. Murphy’s partner, Arthur Pennell, rang John Armstrong on the news desk to say he was helping to raise the bishop’s son in Connecticut. I drove to their home. Why The Irish Times, I asked? If we published it, people would know it was true, he replied.
Conor Brady, the paper’s editor at the time, put together a small team, including Armstrong, Pollak and Eugene McEldowney, the news editor, to work on the story in strict secrecy. There was considerable apprehension about accusing a bishop of fathering a secret love child.
But Annie Murphy disclosed to me that the bishop had channelled money to the United States to educate their son, Peter. There is a catchphrase popularised by the film All the President’s Men: “Follow the money.” That was the line Brady took. I spent many weeks tracing the source of cheques and cash. We were able to establish that the bishop had provided Murphy with more than $100,000, and negotiations were going on for more.
Before publication we looked at the story from all angles. What if the bishop was not the father and was being blackmailed? Casey had never admitted paternity. If both parties reached a settlement and Murphy denied everything, what would we do?
But Casey had no known personal wealth, and we established that the money was misappropriated from diocesan funds. This was a scandal. We ran with the story of the money. The bishop resigned and admitted paternity. Over a week we published the details we had accumulated.
It was personally very satisfying, not just breaking one of the most important watershed stories of the 1990s, but beating the opposition every day.
WHAT DO THE BLIND DREAM?
The best thing about being a reporter is that you get to explore the subjects that make you curious. I thought that the day I started writing articles, 16 years ago, and I still think it.