Remembering Seán Flynn

Seán Flynn covered the ebb and flow of the education landscape in Ireland from his appointment as education editor in 1999 until his untimely death last week. Colleagues and friends recall the journalist, his contribution to education, and the man

Tue, Feb 4, 2014, 01:00

Conor Brady

The remarkable thing about Seán Flynn was that in each successive phase of his career he grew in stature, in his judgment and in his analytical capacities.

He covered three of the most difficult and contentious areas of news, developing further in each one and building a reputation for accuracy, honesty and absolute integrity.

His first specialisation was crime and security.

It was at the time a largely undeveloped area but he succeeded in building confidences and trust with security personnel who hitherto would never have dreamed of speaking with a journalist.

He carried the same qualities into Europe when he was promoted to Brussels. In an environment characterised by intrigue, bluff and diplomatic manipulation he came to be trusted and confided in even by those with whose agenda he clearly disagreed.

It was his judgment, his ability to see through the self-serving officialese and his energy that saw him promoted and returned to Dublin as assistant editor. He was a wise counsellor with a mind that was as generous as it was sharp.

His work as a member of the editor’s policy team or “think tank” was an important element in building and maintaining the newspaper’s reputation for authority and fairness.

He was, moreover, blessed with an enormous sense of humanity and good humour. He needed it in his later incorporation as education editor. But even here, in another area, noted often for high political intrigue and controversy, he earned trust across the board and made many firm friends.

– Conor Brady is former editor of The Irish Times

Gráinne Faller

‘God the league tables again. Dreadful things. Awful. Dreadful. Has Trinity come through?” This refrain started around September and continued until the end of November when the tables were finally published. Afterwards, you’d get the smile and the mischievous glint in the eye with a, “It’s a bit of craic all the same isn’t it?”

By that stage the tables had become an annual event but remember that when, in 2002, Seán got his hands on the raw information about which schools sent students to college, its publication was a complete game changer.

Irish education has many positive attributes but transparency is not one of them. Finally, parents had some concrete information about how their school was doing compared to others in their area. They loved it. The educational establishment did not. There was an awful lot of giving out and the craic ensued.

He loved ruffling a few feathers did Seán, and the school league tables were an event that reliably ruffled many, year in, year out. It takes a particular talent to be presented with pages and pages (that’s what they were in the beginning, paper, pages, lots of them) of figures and to know exactly how to present them in a meaningful way to readers. That’s what Seán did.

Don’t get me wrong, we all know the tables are flawed, but Seán firmly believed some information is better than none. He credited parents with the intelligence to know the difference between challenges faced by schools in deprived areas and those in wealthier places. The bump in circulation for the tables was testament to the thirst for knowledge, any knowledge, about how our schools are doing.

Seán was relentless in his pursuit of transparency in education. When true college progression figures become available (because they will, eventually) parents will have him to thank.

As for the school league tables, well, they will continue. Just without Seán’s infectious, infuriating, concentrated, funny and ridiculously energetic presence overseeing it all. It won’t be the same. We’ll miss him so much.

– Gráinne Faller, education writer, The Irish Times

John Walshe

Seán Flynn was the most competitive journalist I ever came across. He hated to miss a big news story to a rival. He loved to write stories nobody else got, but he never crowed about it. And he got quite a few exclusives as education editor of The Irish Times.

We were rivals for a dozen years when I worked in the Irish Independent. The odd disagreement arose but you couldn’t stay mad with Sean for long. We developed a healthy professional respect for each other, and a deep friendship.

Seán pushed stories for all they were worth.

He championed annual league tables of college “feeder” schools, he forced the question of State support for fee-paying schools high up the political agenda and his reports certainly helped kill off Minister Noel Dempsey’s plans to re-introduce tuition fees.

His Teacher’s Pet column informed, infuriated and delighted every Tuesday and was essential reading for education insiders.

He took a brave stand during the bitter ASTI pay dispute some years back telling teachers the national pay agreement was “the only show in town”. At one conference a delegate approached me late in the evening and demanded to know “which one are you again – that effer Flynn or that effer Walshe?”.

He clearly loved his job, his music, golf and football but everybody who knew him also knew that his biggest loves were his wife Elaine and their five children.

I had lunch with him on February 21st last year, the day he collapsed with what turned out to a cancerous tumour.

Typical of Seán, he turned his hospitalisation into a joke and quipped when asked what happened, “that fellow Walshe spiked my drink and then he stuck me for the lunch bill”.

Seán was a journalist’s journalist and I will miss him dearly.

– John Walshe, adviser to Minister Ruairi Quinn and former education editor, Irish Independent

Ferdinand von Prondzynski

Seán was an exceptional journalist, because he didn’t just report on education, he influenced it. He had a strong belief in transparency, and in the idea that people had a right to know.

They had a right to know how good a school, college or university was.

They had a right to know how money was spent. They had a right to know what teachers at all levels did. But he also understood the problems and dilemmas that people in education faced.

This mixture of empathy and challenge was a powerful one, and it prompted politicians, principals, presidents and teachers to engage in self-examination and to aim for something better.

He was also extraordinarily well informed. I learnt early that if I wanted up-to-the-minute information on what was going on, Seán was the man to ask. More than once he turned out to be better informed about some project I was working on than I was myself.

He had a network of contacts that was unparalleled in Irish education. However, Seán never used information improperly or carelessly. I always knew I could trust him completely, and I know everyone else had a similar sense of confidence in him.

Once or twice he ran a story I found uncomfortable, but it never damaged our friendship. I hope in fact that I can say that Seán was a very good friend.

We had many a drink or cup of coffee reflecting on the funny aspects of our professions. And indeed on many occasions we chatted about the absurdities of English premier league football.

Journalists, like university presidents, come and go. Seán Flynn will be remembered for a long time.

– Ferdinand von Prondzynski is principal and vice-chancellor of the Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen and former president of DCU and Irish Times columnist

Emmet Oliver

Any journalist who covered the fall of the Berlin Wall could be forgiven for finding the remainder of their career a little . . . pedestrian. Not Seán Flynn.

Like most talented journalists, he often got lucky in his timing. That was so in 2000 with the bitter education strike, led by ASTI. While hardly Ireland’s miners’ strike (it was a very middle class affair for a start), it was one of the most divisive industrial relations campaigns of recent decades – and Seán loved every morsel.

He was education editor, I was education correspondent and the newsdesk derisively dismissed this fine reporting team as “Batman and Robin’’. I was a rather serious young man, whereas Seán was a streetwise reporter who refused to be too solemn about anything. You enjoyed life, you didn’t endure it, was his view.

While the strike was bitter, writing about it from Seán’s ramshackle office on D’Olier Street (he dubbed it his “cubbyhole’’) was just about bearable. Engaging directly with ASTI members, many fed up with the apparent lack of support from The Irish Times for their 30 per cent pay claim, at the union’s annual conference was another thing. Seán and I used to toss a coin for who would attend ASTI’s conference. Mostly Seán got ASTI, while I got the more sedate INTO affair, where they’d buy you a drink, not empty one over you.

Seán relished coming down to breakfast at conferences, observing the glowering teachers as they read his no-holds barred analysis over their corn flakes. The angrier they were, the more he seemed to enjoy it.

Seán thought the education system had been for too long about mollifying the providers – teachers – as opposed to teachers and parents working together as equal partners. Despite verbal tussles and some nasty behaviour he never budged an inch from this view.

A mark of the man was that he could spar with teachers all day over very charged issues, but in the evening you’d find him happily sitting in the bar sipping a pint watching football with the same teachers.

I remember long and belligerent phone calls accusing him of heinous acts against the teaching profession. He would listen politely, put the phone down afterwards and sigh, “you know what, that guy isn’t the worst’’.

– Emmet Oliver, director of corporate communications, IDA Ireland; Irish Times education correspondent 2000-2004

Brian Mooney

Seán Flynn, a passionate footballer, showed Alex Ferguson-like skills in building a team of education journalists, feature writers and columnists who would make The Irish Times essential reading for the education sector – teachers, students, parents. He was constantly scouting for new talent to strengthen the range and depth of educational coverage, and all of us who were privileged to work with him, from a journalistic background or otherwise, learnt so much from this wise, compassionate, witty and fun-loving man. Seán originally qualified as a teacher, and his skills were seen in how he mentored and honed those he recruited. He was quick to praise good work, but could just as easily, without creating the slightest offence, suggest a piece needed more work.

Working with Seán for 10 years, whether on a single news story or a 16-page supplement, the sheer fun he got from his work was clear. He was a total perfectionist, checking every last detail for accuracy. In the midst of this, Seán would regularly answer calls from his beloved Elaine or from Stephen, David, Jack, Julianne or Luke. There was never the slightest sense of impatience or irritation in his voice or demeanour; Seán was at his core a family man who expressed amazement at his good fortune to have found the love of Elaine and their five wonderful children.

Seán loved life. He travelled the world, was passionate about music, soccer, and played up to the night before his illness struck last year. Seán was a consummate professional as well as the most decent, caring human being I have had the privilege to work alongside. May he rest in Peace.

– Brian Mooney, education columnist, The Irish Times