Stop press: The race to get the first Irish papal visit out in print

It was a case of all hands on deck at Burgh Quay as the flight bringing John Paul II neared Dublin at around noon

The first newspaper picture of Pope John Paul II in Dublin in 1979. ‘The picture quality was disappointing. It looked dark and shadowy as if night had suddenly descended upon Collinstown at midday. And worse still, it was the wrong shape’

The first newspaper picture of Pope John Paul II in Dublin in 1979. ‘The picture quality was disappointing. It looked dark and shadowy as if night had suddenly descended upon Collinstown at midday. And worse still, it was the wrong shape’

 

The Page One headline on the Evening Press for September 29th, 1979, the day Pope John Paul II landed here, was “IT’S IRELAND’S GREATEST DAY”. I remember this because I was there when it was agreed and put on the page.

“Céad Míle Fáilte to the Holy Father” had been considered, as had “Pope’s Visit Makes Irish History”, but both were rejected as too obvious.

As production editor I had to “get the sheet on the street”, a daunting daily routine that never relinquished its grip in a newspaper of frantic energy and expectation. Getting the paper out on time was important, but getting it out before the opposition was vital. Having the best coverage in our daily head-to-head with the Evening Herald was imperative – but the best coverage in this case demanded the best picture as well.

At the final planning meeting the previous evening it had been made clear by editor Sean Ward – a hard-news man who thrived on “covering all the angles’’ – that this was a picture-led story.

So, on the morning itself it was a case of all hands on deck at Burgh Quay as the papal flight neared Dublin around noon and was being talked about in solemn tones on radio and television.

The heaving newsroom, always an excitable place, had taken on an international flavour as “observers” covering for foreign newspapers, testified to the international aspect of the occasion.

The paper had been almost totally prefabbed from the night before (put together with pre-written stories) with a massive space left for a picture of the Holy Father kissing the tarmac at Dublin Airport, his usual arrival procedure. This would be the first ever picture of a pope on the sacred soil of Ireland. We had to have it and we had to have it first.

And so, on that crisp autumn Saturday morning with Dublin in lockdown and cordons everywhere, I positioned myself before the big noisy cat-flap between the wire room and the editorial through which the papal picture would come – hopefully without a hitch.

Everything else had been done the previous night or early morning. The lead story was already in place, having been written the previous day by Michael O’Toole. It began: “Pope John Paul II took 24 slow steps into Irish history today.” Michael told me afterwards he had personally counted the steps on the Aer Lingus St Patrick just to be certain.

All we needed was just one picture, so what could go wrong? In those far-off days getting a picture wired to Burgh Quay or anywhere else, even from as nearby as Dublin Airport, was a dicey undertaking. Today, this would be a digital doddle even for a kid on an Iphone, but back in 1979 it was an accident waiting to happen even for seasoned professionals.

To begin with, airport security was so tight that the entire army of photographers – usually allocated up-front positions for big occasions – were crushed into the back of the viewing stand to make room in the front for the even bigger army of dignitaries, political and religious. For the snappers, this required long-lens shots as the pope descended from on high.

After he landed to the sort of cheering that greeted the first man on the moon, our photographer dutifully clicked away as fast as possible, then took the film reel out of his camera under cover of his jacket and placed it in a plastic container where it was put on a ball of string and reeled out over the stand wall to a waiting colleague below, who then passed it to another photographer in a makeshift tent-cum-darkroom for developing. Then it was wired to Burgh Quay.

At Burgh Quay, the whole staff, like myself, stood anxiously gazing at the cat flap as the word from the wire-room was that the transmission was dodgy and processing would be slower than normal. It seemed an age before the picture eventually slithered out under the flap – but what a flop. Pope John Paul was there all right but not visible to the human eye. On bending down to kiss the tarmac, a gust of wind blew his cape over his head and completely covered his face and head.

With the circulation manager chewing his nails even faster than normal, a different picture was immediately called for. This took another five minutes to process, but again the picture quality was disappointing. It looked dark and shadowy as if night had suddenly descended upon Collinstown at midday. And worse still, it was the wrong shape for the waiting hole in the front page.

So what could we do but utter the immortal words “It will have to do”.’ But even that was not the end. The picture was then sent for further processing to the lithograph department to be etched onto a metallic plate, a process of excruciating slowness.

And then there was a whole rake of other processes after that, now all encapsulated by two words – “old technology”.

So did we win the race with the Herald? A sad story that. In reality, there was no race at all. The Herald opted out of the glory stakes and went instead for having a full-colour pre-print glossy wraparound of the pope in full canonical regalia – probably taken in the Vatican a year previously. They hit the road the minute the plane landed and led the circulation race from start to finish.

In retrospect, it was all rather unsporting of the Herald, like opting out of a lineout at rugby. But the Evening Press did achieve its aim of carrying the first picture ever of a Pope in Ireland. It wasn’t great, but it was historic. And we never trusted the Herald again after that. Not that we ever did. Dick O’Riordan is a former production editor and later editor of the Evening Press

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.