Writing himself into Irish history

 

MEMOIR: Tim Pat Coogan - A Memoirby Tim Pat CooganWeidenfeld Nicholson, 356pp, £18.99

'I ENJOY MANY friendships with both men and women, my house is warm and comfortable, and there is an abundance of wine on my sideboard." Thus, Tim Pat Coogan, at 73, contentedly frames the world about him. To this store of happiness, a few lines later, he adds the blessings of six children, 12 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Editor of the Irish Pressfor almost two decades, author of a dozen books on Irish history and culture, Tim Pat Coogan's many-stranded memoir is an instructive prism through which to view some aspects of the evolution of post-independence Ireland.

The Coogans were a family that did well - initially - out of the founding of the new State. "Ned" Coogan, Tim Pat's father, an IRA and Sinn Féin organiser in his native Kilkenny, was appointed as deputy commissioner of the new police force. He married Beatrice Toal, a policeman's daughter, considered to be one of the most beautiful women in Dublin. There was financial security, servants and a lively social life in the Coogan home in Monkstown.

But these happy conditions receded when Ned Coogan's police career collapsed in the aftermath of Fianna Fáil's accession in 1932. He died in 1948, having qualified as a barrister and having served as general secretary of Fine Gael. He had also for a time held a Fine Gael Dáil seat in the Kilkenny constituency. Ironically, it had been as a result of a public altercation at the Gresham Hotel with the general manager of the Irish Pressthat he had been removed as deputy commissioner.

In 1954, Tim Pat's history teacher in college called Vivion de Valera and told him (in the author's words) that he had a boy in his class who would "either break his heart or turn out a genius". De Valera hired him for the Evening Pressas an "editorial assistant", and the young Tim Pat never looked back. In 1968, aged 33, he became editor of the Irish Press, the daily voice of Fianna Fáil and the flagship of the newspaper company established by Éamon de Valera in 1931.

The paradoxes here are manifold. The son of a Fine Gael official and TD becomes editor of Fianna Fáil's newspaper.

The man whose father's career was blasted by an Irish Pressexecutive is appointed by the de Valeras to fill one of the most influential jobs in Irish journalism. A Monkstown-raised, Blackrock College "old boy" is set to run a newspaper whose dialogue is supposed to be with the smallholders and the people of little property. Coogan brought instinctive patriotism and a love of native Irish culture to the job. Some of the most evocative material in the book describes his frequent visits to the Aran Islands. And he was a man of the 1960s, bringing with him a sense of modernity.

But the descent of the Irish Presswas already under way. Circulation had dropped from 132,000 in 1932 to 102,000 in 1968. He slowed the decline and even briefly reversed it. But it was just 87,000 when he departed.

He achieved a good deal with limited resources. He initiated New Irish Writingunder David Marcus. He developed a good finance section. He modernised layout and pagination. He appointed a first-class team of newsroom specialists and a small cadre of talented women writers. Many of his proteges moved on, frequently to the advantage of The Irish Times. But with The Irish Timescornering the upper middle-class readership and the Independentholding the centre ground, there was little room for even an improved Irish Press. The de Valeras would not or could not guide the Press titles towards a viable identity in the new Ireland.

ONE SENSES COOGAN'S FRUSTRATIONthroughout. He titles one chapter Editing the Shambolic. And it gets personal. "I should have realised the words 'generosity' and 'de Valera' taken together were pretty well oxymoronic," he writes.

One also senses that Coogan came to an early realisation that his capacity to change, much less save, the Irish Presswas limited. He threw much of his energy into a personal engagement with the Troubles. There is detail on back-door communications that helped to end the H-Block hunger strikes. There are revelations also of the author's role in facilitating early dialogue between Sinn Féin and Charles Haughey. He comes at the North from the singular perspective of traditional, 32-county nationalism. It indicates why - family political background notwithstanding - Vivion de Valera saw him as a future Presseditor. It is arguable that Coogan's most acco mplished years were before he reached and after he had left the editorship. He is that combination of journalist and historian that, at its best, puts flesh and blood on the bones of dry narrative. With Ireland Since the Rising(1966) and The IRA(1970) he worked a new genre in Irish history writing in which he used not only documentary sources but also interviewed and quoted those with living memories of events. And his most provocative work - the Collins and de Valera biographies - was produced after he had been freed of editorship.

At 73, Coogan's is a life that has been - and continues to be - a full and eventful one.

There are irritating errors of nomenclature in the book but the narrative flows easily and enthusiastically. It bespeaks love of country and love of life and it is punctuated with the sharp, dry humour that characterises the man.

Conor Brady was editor of The Irish Timesfrom 1986 to 2002