Finding a crossword maker in the middle of a crossword

An Irishman’s Diary: ‘Her mother was Delia Murphy, the singer, her father Thomas J Kiernan, one of our first and most distinguished diplomats’

The name of Nuala Considine had somehow escaped me until this week, when I found it among the answers in a cryptic crossword.

The crossword was one of those sado-masochistic puzzles (in the Spectator magazine), wherein they omit part or all of some clues, in favour of an overall theme you also need to crack before filling the grid. This is where advanced crossword addicts, for whom the normal stuff doesn't work any more, get their hits.

Part of the theme was a straightforward tribute: “In loving memory of 20 41 Considine (10/10/27- 24/718), the doyenne of crossword compilers.” But when I closed in on the two words in question until 20 began to look like “Aisling” while 41 resembled “Fionnuala”, it still didn’t ring any bells.

So I had to seek confirmation from Google. And sure enough, Aisling Fionnuala Considine was the full name of a veteran crossword compiler who died last month, aged 90, after 72 years on the job and, according to one account (the Daily Mail obituary) setting more puzzles than anyone else in history.


That she may have been unknown to most of her solvers is unsurprising. Anonymity, or at least the use of pseudonyms, is as standard among crossword makers as among racing tipsters, and for some of the same reasons. The Mail obit cites a puzzle she compiled once, called "The Stinker", that led some people to request her picture from the newspaper so they could pin it on a dartboard.

But if I had never heard of the London-born Considine until now, I had certainly heard of her forebears, because as her names suggest, she was of Irish extraction.

Her mother was Delia Murphy, the singer, her father Thomas J Kiernan, one of our first and most distinguished diplomats, whose many postings included Washington in the early 1960s, where be presented shamrock to JFK and mooted the possibility of a visit to Ireland.

Crossword puzzler

If that wasn’t a colourful enough back story, the crossword puzzler had a maternal grandfather who made his fortune in the Klondike gold rush. And then there was her husband, Brian Considine, a Limerick man who joined the RAF in 1939, fought in the Battle of Britain, and survived being shot down.

After the war he became a pilot with Aer Lingus, where the young Aisling Fionnuala Kiernan was a stewardess. One thing led to another and that’s how, two years later, she became Nuala Considine. It’s also how she found her vocation.

Some long-married couples can boast that there was "never a cross word" between them. But the courting Considines actually compiled a crossword between them, in 1946, for fun. They sent it to The Irish Times, which printed it.

Easy if you were Irish

So Nuala made some more herself, and soon joined a London agency that supplied them to the British press. Seven decades later, she still hadn’t run out of ideas. In her later life, of course, there were computer programmes to assist the work, but speaking of schools, she was of the old one to the end, and never used an app.

Getting back to the Spectator, meanwhile, "Aisling" and "Fionnuala" did not in themselves crack the tribute puzzle. There remained a number of clueless answers, or answers where the clue's overall definition was omitted. Some of those looked like anagrams, but with letter combinations unusual in English.

And then it hit me: they were all Irish names, like the departed’s. Thus the answer for “travelling bohemians leave me out” was an anagram of “bohemians” minus “me”, ie Siobhan, while “some French tribe” was de + clan: Declan. After that, even the answers with no clues were easy: “Maeve”, “Niamh” and “Dervla” among them.

Easy if you were Irish, that is. But the Spectator is a London magazine, Tory in outlook, some of whose stylish but usually pro-Brexit columnists would be interested in Ireland mainly as a place to buy horses. This might explain why the Irish-name theme seems to have caused at least some consternation among solvers.

On the crossword help forums which double as victim support groups, there was much English grumbling, which I shouldn’t have enjoyed nearly as much as I did.

One irritated user, faced with the clue “novelist rejecting material (5)” and the letters E-IO-, wondered if “EAION” might be a theme-name. But that clue had nothing to do with the theme. The novelist was Eliot (Toile backwards, hence the “material”). As the confused party commented, post-enlightenment: “Hunting down all the Irish names was bad enough without adding more”.