Absorbing collection of hard fact and human touch

Great reportage heightens the senses while supplying the facts, as this compendium shows


Great Irish Reportage, edited by John Horgan

The late John Healy, aka Backbencher, was proud of the title “reporter”. He preferred it to “journalist” or “writer”, arguing that it described exactly what he did. That was not quite the full picture, of course. Healy made his reputation as a columnist and polemicist, turning out a vivid weekly commentary on Irish public life for more than 30 years. Some of the dubious traits he highlighted are still discernible in the culture.

It is fitting that Healy should have his place in this absorbing compendium of Irish reportage. He was a master craftsman in what Olivia O’Leary in her foreword describes as the “descriptive writing” part of journalism. It “returns the human dimension to journalism,” she says. It goes “behind the headlines and the statistics and puts people and their quirks and their lives at the centre of the story”.

There are 57 contributions, plus O’Leary’s foreword and an introduction by John Horgan, the book’s editor. Some of the most powerful writing here comes not from career journalists but from diplomats and novelists.

Horgan acknowledges the challenge in selecting the material. “I have had to omit many excellent pieces by superb journalists that would have found their places in a lengthier collection or in one with slightly different criteria,” he admits.

He has done well in his structuring of the exercise. There is a considered spread of topics, from war to social justice to emigration to famine. There is a good chronological span. (The selection opens with Frank Geary’s gripping account of the taking of Cork by National Army forces in the Civil War summer of 1922.)

There is, however, something of a gender imbalance, with just 22 female contributors, very few of them from the younger generations of women writers. Perhaps there is some compensation for this in the inclusion of the prescient and courageous criticisms of de Valera’s draft Constitution by the reporter Gertrude Gaffney, which she wrote for the Irish Independent in 1937.

It would be impossible, one suspects, to get any two editors to agree on a final selection for a project like this. Another editor might even have included some of Horgan’s own writing: his landmark reportage from the Second Vatican Council or, indeed, some of his despatches from the Biafra war of the late 1960s.

Wherever the line is drawn, an exercise like this has to have limitations. An argument could be mobilised for going back beyond the 20th century to include the epochal dispatches from Crimea of the Dubliner William Howard Russell. So too could a case be made for the post-Famine reports in Thackeray’s The Irish Sketch Book. And, by definition, even the greatest Irish broadcast reportage must fall outside this survey. What of the RTÉ cameraman Gay O’Brien’s historic filming of the RUC attack at Craigavon Bridge in Derry on October 5th, 1968? Or Seán Duignan’s epic 24-hour radio commentary as the train carrying the body of the slain Bobby Kennedy made its way across the United States?

The best reportage combines hard facts and descriptive narrative. It will offer accurate information about the story at a macro level while enabling the reader to sense or feel the atmosphere.

There are superb examples of reportage here that combine hard fact and descriptive narrative: Kevin Myers’s 1987 report from the Ethiopian famine; Emily O’Reilly’s account of the night in 1983 when Gerry Adams was elected to Westminster; Conor O’Clery’s description of travelling in the Afghan war with the mujahideen, in 1980; Nell McCafferty on the deaths of 15-year-old Ann Lovett and her newborn baby in Granard, in 1984. These, and others in the compendium, impart both factual information and a sense of what it has been like on the ground. One can almost feel the jarring of O’Clery’s jeep as it climbs the Zabul mountain passes or sense the scorched, eroded earth that Myers traverses in the Great Valley on the way to Tigre. O’Leary’s own essay from Buenos Aires, where she was sent by The Irish Times to report on the 1982 Falklands War, is possibly as close as one can get to a perfect exposition of the craft.

Within the limitations of 2,000 words she gives the reader the history, politics and self-delusion that brought Argentina to war. She describes the “extraordinary mixture of bluster and insecurity” she finds among the citizenry. There is a concise analysis of where the country will go politically after defeat.

One is given the sense of the people and the place. She writes of the “Paris-like parks” and the “shops full of Italian shoes”. She describes the “prickly sensitivity” of the Argentines. “ ‘Don’t you think we’re very European?’ they beg the stray visitor. ‘We’re no banana republic,’ they argue.”

When she finishes, she leaves the reader with a real sense that he understands something more of what this story is about. Perfect.

“For the sake of waving a flag over a set of forgotten islands they are risking their shaky economy, whatever political stability they had, their international relations and the lives of those dark-eyed, slim-waisted young men of whom they are so proud . . . They are paying for an unacceptable use of force. They are paying because they are wrong.”

Two of the most compelling contributions come from diplomats.

Sean Ronan of the Department of External Affairs witnessed the 1965 exhumation of the remains of Roger Casement, executed at Pentonville Prison in 1916. All of the clinical details are recorded: the precise time of the grave’s opening; the sequence in which each bone is recovered – thumb, tibia, rib, skull and so on. But Ronan also powerfully captures the grim prison atmosphere: the officers shovelling out the black earth; the water oozing into the grave at five feet down; the inscrutable features of the Home Office officials on hand.

John Maffey (later Baron Rugby) was appointed as British representative in Ireland in 1939. His remarkable account of his first meeting with de Valera is not just sharply perceptive of his subject but written in clear, flowing prose that might grace the pages of a Victorian novel. He captures immediately the cultivated ambiguity with which de Valera dealt with critical diplomatic issues in the Emergency years.

Some of the reportage has probably been selected for the elegance of the writing more than the information conveyed. Kate O’Brien’s account of the burial of WB Yeats at Drumcliffe is beautifully written but short on detail. Eamon Dunphy’s 1984 report from the Los Angeles Olympics is a delight even though we learn little about the games. Mary Holland’s account of the lynching of two British soldiers in Belfast in 1988 tells us nothing we did not know about the killings but speaks passionately of the helplessness and guilt of the individual witness.

There are some oddities. For all its worth as entertainment it is difficult to rationalise Myles na gCopaleen’s essay on Dublin pubs as reportage. But the reader must take the broad view. This is a book about reportage rather than reporters. Things happen in pubs too. John Healy would insist there were more stories – and more interesting stories – to be got in the Dáil bar than sitting in the press gallery.

Conor Brady was editor of The Irish Times from 1986 to 2002.

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