Keeping thousands of readers puzzled for over 70 years

Nuala Considine obituary: a colourful life from diplomatic beginnings to crosswords

Nuala Considine: a setter of crossword puzzles for some of the best-known newspapers and magazines of the English-speaking world. Photograph:  The Daily Mail

Nuala Considine: a setter of crossword puzzles for some of the best-known newspapers and magazines of the English-speaking world. Photograph: The Daily Mail


Nuala Considine

Born: October 10th, 1928

Died: July 24th, 2018

Fionnuala – always known as Nuala – Considine was an Irishwoman who built a remarkable career as a setter of crossword puzzles for some of the best-known newspapers and magazines of the English-speaking world. Starting in 1945 at the age of just 18, she had an unbroken, and very possibly record-making, career which lasted up until her death last month at the age of 89.

Apart from her professional life, the circumstances of her birth and upbringing, and her marriage in 1948 at the age of 20 to ex-RAF Battle of Britain Hurricane pilot Brian Considine, from Limerick, were about as colourful as it was possible to get for an Irishwoman of her generation.

Both were working at the time for Aer Lingus, Nuala (nee Kiernan) as an air hostess and Brian as a pilot. They were careers considered romantic and daring at the time. Providing an outlet to the wider world of post-war Europe, without the necessity of permanent emigration; opportunities very rare for young Irish people at that time.

Diplomatic beginnings

Born in London in 1928, Considine was the daughter of Dr Thomas Kiernan, one of the Irish Free State’s earliest diplomats, who at the time was first secretary at the Irish High Commission in London. He was later, successively, head of broadcasting at Radio Éireann, Irish minister as it was then called, to the Holy See during the second World War, Ireland’s first-ever ambassador to Australia, and, during the presidency of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, ambassador to the US.

Her mother was the folk singer Delia Murphy, who became famous among Irish communities globally for her recordings of classic Irish songs such as If I were a Blackbird, Three Lovely Lassies and The Spinning Wheel.

In an interview with her nephew, Dr Garvan Browne, recorded in recent years, Nuala Considine gave a vivid account of the perilous wartime journey in October, 1941, by seaplane from Foynes, Co Limerick, to Rome via Lisbon and Spain with her family, necessitated by her father’s appointment to the Vatican.

During the Kiernans’ period there, during 1943-’44 after the overthrow of Mussollini and before the arrival of Allied forces, German bombs fell within 100 yards of their home, and German troops and Italian partisans conducted running battles immediately outside their house.

Nuala and her siblings, sisters Bron and Orla and brother Colm, were educated at local Roman schools. On returning to Dublin at the end of the war, she spoke fluent Italian.

Her career as a crossword puzzle-setter began when Brian Considine and herself sent in a joint puzzle to The Irish Times as a joke. To their amazement, it was published, and thereafter Nuala Considine became a regular contributor of puzzles to the newspaper.

Move to London

On her marriage to Considine in 1948, she was obliged to resign from Aer Lingus in accordance with the then-operable Irish regulations which forbid female employees in the civil service or semi- State companies from working after marriage. Brian Considine also resigned and the couple moved to London. It was there, in 1955, that Considine had a very significant breakthrough when she joined the Morley Adams press agency on Fleet Street as a client contributor, supplying crosswords to what became a huge variety of publications.

Initially, Considine turned her hand to virtually every kind of freelance journalism. Writing in recent years to one of her editors at the Press Association (which had taken over the Morley Adams agency), Peter Stirling, Considine described the variety of her work:

“For instance, I wrote a weekly horoscope. I told them I knew nothing about astrology, but was told to buy a few books about it [the money to be taken] from petty cash. I wrote theatre and film reviews. Once, I was asked to write a piece about a Buddhist monk, the next week I had to write about rearing pigs. Never a dull moment. [But] it was very hard work. Sometimes a 15 x 15 cryptic crossword had to be compiled in an hour, and [in the 1950s] there was no electronic help.”

Demand for puzzles

Focusing on crosswords, she started contributing five puzzles weekly to the [now long-defunct] Daily Sketch. Work for the London Evening Standard, for which she compiled the Friday puzzle, followed, and a prodigious amount of work also for The Daily Express (five puzzles a week for 10 years), The Daily Mail (a giant puzzle called “The Stinker” every weekend for 25 years, a total of 1,248, the last of which will be published next December), and a large number of magazines, including Women’s Realm, Amateur Gardening, and even New Scientist. The latter was especially difficult work, as Considine was no scientist, and had to learn a range of new words and terms for the job.

Her work for the London Telegraph group was especially notable. Starting in 1986, she set over 1,000 puzzles for The Daily Telegraph, and, from 1992, over 800 puzzles for The Sunday Telegraph. When a need was identified in 2008 for a more challenging puzzle, and the Telegraph’s “Toughie” was launched, Considine set over 100 of those puzzles, even though by then she was 80.

Considine never stopped working until some six weeks before her death in London from inoperable pancreatic cancer last month. Never using computers to compile her grids, she wrote them all out by hand, and then either faxed them or scanned and emailed them to her editors.

Brian and Nuala Considine never had children, and she was predeceased by her siblings.