Square PegBy Dennis Kennedy Nonsuch Press, pp 191, €14.99
THE SQUARE peg referred to in the title of this book is the author, Dennis Kennedy, who, despite his name is a Northern Protestant who worked at The Irish Timesfrom 1968 until 1985. Many might have thought he would have fitted right into the newspaper, but Kennedy was of the non-conformist tradition and not of the Church of Ireland, which in The Irish Timesof the past so often came with a sort of sense of ownership and entitlement.
Square Pegis an affectionate and somewhat wry account of working at The Irish Timesand living in Dublin – both get about equal billing – for nearly 20 years. Kennedy has no axe to grind; instead he offers reassessments of former colleagues as well as some finely observed moments and some surprising recollections, such as Vincent Browne reporting for The Irish Timesfrom Prague as the Soviet tanks rolled in.
Despite the constant presence of the Troubles in Northern Ireland throughout this book, it has a nostalgic feel. It recalls the journalism of a different time; The Irish Timescould push the liberal agenda with confidence, and when the giant rotary presses rolled they printed a newspaper whose voice was listened to in Dublin, Belfast, Downing Street and even Washington.
The tone is sometimes that of a rather hapless innocent let loose among an eccentric community of journalists who produced newspapers after a good lunch and before heading to the pub. He gives a lovely account of being approach by British intelligence in the late 1970s, which must have assumed his Northern Protestant background would make him amenable to passing on information. A British academic seemly working for a research institute invited him for regular lunches with a payment for his time. All went well, with Kennedy enjoying explaining the intricacies of Irish politics and relations with Northern Ireland, over a good lunch and something for his troubles with the dessert, until the meeting was moved to Belfast’s Europa hotel. His “contact” then said he was working for the British foreign office. Kennedy made his excuses and left.
His outsider status allows him to reassess the role of many of his former colleagues and none more so than the late former editor Fergus Pyle. He suggests Pyle was unlucky to be editor when he was and that the near collapse of the circulation at that time was more due to factors outside the paper than inside. Much was made of Douglas Gageby's rescue of the paper when he returned as editor, a time known at the paper as the Second Coming, in 1977, but Kennedy says both the Irish Independentand the Irish Pressalso enjoyed remarkable increases in circulation without having the Gageby factor. The cover has a cartoon of Kennedy by Martin Turner, who was brought to The Irish Timesby Pyle.
The Chinese curse “may you live in interesting times” does not apply to journalists and Kennedy had the good fortune to work as a diplomatic correspondent during very interesting times. He travelled the world with Irish presidents and taoisigh, reported from South Africa and India and attended the United Nations in New York.
But at the end of the day it was not his Methodism nor being a Northerner that made him a square peg, but his view of his own place in Ireland. As he says he was not a narrow nationalist nor a unionist, though it was a sort of romantic Irish nationalism that brought him to Dublin in the first place. Rejecting one does not mean you embrace the other, but so strongly have these two positions held that it became impossible to criticise one without being labelled “wrongly” as the other, he maintains. That, in Ireland, is probably as good a definition of a square peg as we might get.
Michael Foley is head of journalism at the Dublin Institute of Technology and a former Irish Timesjournalist.