The best of times, the worst of times

The death of Seamus Heaney seemed to unite the country. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

The death of Seamus Heaney seemed to unite the country. Photograph: Aidan Crawley


One January morning, Julie Howley from Dublin noticed that a homeless man who had been sitting in a doorway every day, had disappeared. In his place were flowers. Not knowing who he was, yet seeking to make sense of his death, she wrote a letter to the Editor of The Irish Times, suggesting that in the centenary year of the Dublin Lockout, his story posed the challenge of our time. “As a society we collectively share a responsibility to challenge the systemic issues that stack the odds against certain people and lead to them living, and sometimes dying, in appalling conditions,” she wrote. “But it is also our job to enable the individual’s story to be heard so that they won’t be just a statistic but a real and full human being.”

In a way, she was articulating an important element of the Letters page: allowing readers’ individual stories to be heard.

She was not alone in drawing attention to the wider political dimensions of a personal story. Among the many letter- writers who did so, Ade Stack in September highlighted how the lack of a homecare package for sick children had impacted on the last months of her son’s life, her message sparking a debate in the news and health supplement pages.

While letters such as these led to news stories, the majority of letters were written in response to major news events. The death of Margaret Thatcher, Seamus Heaney, Nelson Mandela each evoked a large and varied response from our readers. Thatcher divided comment in death as she had in life, summed up by two letters: “From iron to ashes, the Lady’s not returning!” (Eileen Hahessy, Ennis) and “As a mother and teacher of young girls throughout Margaret Thatcher’s long term in office, I feel her greatest legacy was as an example to them that a woman could be a leader,” (Jean Farrell, Athlone).

On the other hand, the death of Seamus Heaney seemed to unite the country in a grief summed up by John Threadgold of Carlow: “Did the world stop turning there for a moment? Rest in peace, Seamus, your digging is done.” A stream of personal memories of gracious encounters with our Nobel laureate; and an outpouring of readers’ verse (which was carried on the Features page) continued for several days. Nelson Mandela’s long-expected death, later in the year, evoked a less personal, but nonetheless wide-ranging response, including letters from an ex-commander of a commando unit in Durban, and those who had campaigned in the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement.

Throughout the year, the question of legislating for abortion, and the inquest into the death of Savita Halappanavar generated a sometimes heated debate, in which some of the country’s foremost medics, legal experts, nuns and priests participated on the letters page.

It was perhaps predictable that the referendum on the Seanad would draw in many multiple-signatory letters (on both sides of the debate and from at home and abroad); as well as missives penned by legal experts and present and former politicians, from Alan Dukes to John Robb; while the Court of Appeal amendment generated a far more muted response.

Sometimes it was the seemingly trivial political story, such as Pat Rabbitte’s comment (relating to the broadcasting charge), that there were “no cavemen in Ireland” that provoked letter-writers to respond most rapidly, angrily and wittily. After many letters from those who claimed to be cavemen or cavewomen, Angela McCarthy from Co Waterford suggested “Judging by the quality of the replies to Pat Rabbitte’s ill-judged remarks, the cavemen should be running the country.”

Another phrase that touched a nerve was Church of Ireland Archbishop Michael Jackson’s reference to “Polyester Protestants” in an Irish Times article in October, sparking a deluge of thoughtful and humorous comments, such as that from the Very Revd Tom Gordon, Dean of Leighlin: “So now we have it. The ructions caused by Archbishop Michael Jackson’s ‘Polyester Protestants’ address is the fault of The Irish Times (Letters, October 25th). Keep digging, your Grace – the South Pole is only a shovelful away.”

Meanwhile, in relation to the Catholic Church, debates focused primarily on the silencing of Fr Tony Flannery, the Magdalene laundries, the departure of Pope Benedict, and the arrival of Pope Francis.

Many other regular topics flowed onto and off the page throughout the year: climate change, Israel and aspects of Northern politics (the flag-flying in particular), which typically generate a polarised debate. More localised subjects, such as the naming of the new Liffey Bridge, generated a slow but steady response (“ ‘Provisional Bridge?’ (Mick Bourke, May 1st). More like the ‘Continuity Bridge’ to me”, wrote Frank Greaney, from Fromby in England). Inevitably there have been the “first” and “last” letters too, the most recent of which referred to the “last mows of summer” (Jerry Crowley, Dublin 20), as lawnmowers were heard in the unseasonably mild December air.

While the announcement that Ireland was entering an IMF-EU bailout programme back in 2010 generated hundreds of letters, the exit of the programme on December 15th, perhaps surprisingly, prompted just a trickle of (mostly dismissive) missives.

So the year on the letters desk closes as it opened, with the question of homelessness deplored, this time by Pádraig Ó hUiginn, a former secretary general in the Department of the Taoiseach, who suggests the Army should be called on to help (as happened in the past). The debate it is generating seems far from over.

Changing times on the Letters page

A recent major change in the way The Irish Times processes stories and images for the newspaper and the web has increased our flexibility as a news organisation, and led to changes in the way that we present the Letters to the Editor in the newspaper and online.

This has brought some benefits. We are now able to put links into Letters to the Editor, as they appear on, so that where, for example, we insert “(Opinion, December 28th)” in the middle of a letter, if you are reading it online you will see the bracketed phrase highlighted, and can click on it to read the article referenced.

This makes it easier to follow the thread of a debate. It means if you read an interesting letter, but missed the item the writer refers to, you will be able to check back to it more easily by clicking on the link.

Irish Times journalists are increasingly using the microblogging platform Twitter. This allows us, among other things, to draw our readers’ attention to interesting news and features. In recent months, as Letters Editor, I have been using Twitter on a trial basis to highlight letters and exceptional pieces of Irish Times journalism, using my personal Twitter account (@FionnualaM). From now on the letters page will also have its own dedicated Twitter account, which will post links to letters and related matters: @ITletters

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