Farewell Rita Byrne - carrier of words that kept the beast fed


TIPPING POINT:We lost Rita Byrne the other day. At her funeral on Saturday morning out near Marlay Park we stamped our feet in the cold and caught up with old heads.

It was just coming up on lunchtime when the hearse pulled out of the church car park and as it did, the thought struck that if you wound the tape back a few years Rita would at just that moment have been standing over a photocopier with the front page of The Irish Times sports section folded and flattened against the glass.

A Saturday in November invariably meant a rugby international and sooner or later that was going to mean a handful of foreign players with hard-to-spell names. She wouldn’t have had the first clue who any of the Fijian players were – nor the vast majority of the Irish ones for that matter – but the one thing she’d have guaranteed was that their names would be correct to the letter when they made the paper.

She printed them out at lunchtime so that she didn’t have to go scavenging for them after the game.

For Rita was a copytaker. She put down a good quarter of a century in the Sunday Tribune and did plenty more besides in her time but to anyone who worked with her, a copytaker is what she was.

She might not have been the last one in the business but there can’t have been more than a dozen people in the country still making a living from it after she finished up in 2010.

It’s hard to imagine there were even that many.

Where once they were the red blood cells of any newspaper, ferrying the oxygen of words to the various desks, technology made them redundant. Email came along and snuffed out a whole profession just like that.

Copytakers were, with the very occasional exception, women. They were very often recruited from secretarial courses and typing speed was their stock in trade. It wasn’t important that they knew anything about the subject of whatever report was coming down the line to them. It was far more important that they could do it quickly.

It’s for that reason that everybody who ever worked in a newspaper has a cache of copytaker stories.

The late great soccer writer Peter Ball once filed a preview of a Wales international that held out little hope for their chances in the absence of Ian Rush and Mark Hughes. When the piece appeared, readers were perplexed as to quite what Russian Jews had to do with the Wales football team.

Rita wasn’t immune by any means. One time, back in the mid-1980s, the newspaper sent Kevin Cashman out to do a piece on Michael Kiernan, the Ireland centre who was just returning from injury. He phoned in his report and Rita dutifully stitched it together and passed it on to the sports desk. It was only at that point that someone idly wondered what he could possibly have meant when he said that, “Michael Kiernan’s first action upon his return was a slice of cake.”

This was long before mobile phones so there was no way to check with the writer and in the end they decided that Kiernan had most likely just sliced his first kick into the crowd.

Copytakers have always been the butt of these yarns when the truth is that the reporters were just as culpable. Far more, in fact.

One Saturday afternoon around 2002 or so, Rita was taking copy from a Premier League match involving Bolton Wanderers. This was Sam Allardyce-era Bolton, their big muscular side just back in the top flight and captained by the Icelandic veteran Gudni Bergsson.

In classic soccer reportage, the first mention of him in the report referred to “Bolton captain, Gudni Bergsson”.

Somewhere along the way the comma got lost, which led to Rita henceforth referring to him as Captain Gudni Bergsson, as if he was a soldier taking time out from fighting a war somewhere to keep the Trotters in the Premier League. Snarky know-it-alls that we were down on the sports desk, we knocked endless craic out of Captain Gudni Bergsson.

We imagined him as some sort of Corinthian warrior, feeding hopeful punts up to Jay-Jay Okocha on a Saturday after a long week of defending Iceland’s borders, possibly in some fish-stock-related armed struggle.

Of course there was no earthly reason for Rita or any other copytaker to know a single thing about Gudni Bergsson beyond how to spell his name. Or any other sportsman, come to that. Why would they? The fact that most copytakers usually had a picture of a grandchild or two on their desk tells you they had far better things to be concerning themselves with.

They’re gone now. Copytakers are a quaint notion even at this remove; in a decade they’ll be figures from the bronze age. But once upon a time they kept newspapers humming all over the world, battalions of them lined up to feed the beast and carry the news. Rita Byrne was one of them and her death was sudden and so very sad.

Sleep well, Rita.

Slice all the cake you like.

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