The greatest story I ever told

Irish Times journalists recall stories they wrote that had a major impact, nationally, globally or personally



Gerry Moriarty

Charlie Haughey, then leader of the opposition, looked up at me from under hooded eyes and said, "You want me to comment on Bishop Hegarty's decision to remove Fr O Peicin from Tory Island?"

“Yes,” I said.

“Write this down,” he instructed. “While I don’t want to interfere in diocesan affairs . . .” And then he went on to do just that, by criticising the decision by the then bishop of Raphoe. Which in matters of church and State was brave enough for 1984.


Not that it made a blind bit of difference. The bishop had his way, and Fr Diarmuid O Peicin, as an obedient Jesuit, grudgingly accepted his marching orders.

I was writing for the Irish Press at the time. As a young journalist with the Donegal Democrat three years earlier, in the late summer of 1981, I crossed the rough waves to Tory for the first time to meet Fr O Peicin and several of the islanders who were battling to save the island from depopulation.

A semiretired African missionary, O Peicin had arrived on Tory in 1980 to learn Irish and stayed on as its pastor when he learned the awful conditions under which its population of 150 just about survived.

I was involved in the story for several years, starting with a three-part series in the Donegal Democrat that ended up as a pamphlet called Tory's Darkest Hour.

I later uncovered an official paper that had four proposals for the island after the people had been removed: make it a holiday-home centre for American tourists, build a high-security prison, turn it into a quarantine centre or use it as a firing range for the Army. It helped prove that there was a secret will to rid an island of its people.

Fr O Peicin’s tussles and the surrounding publicity caused anxiety and division that prompted Bishop Hegarty’s move – and Haughey’s intervention. It all seemed lost at the time.

But even though we didn’t realise it, the tide was turning in the island’s favour. Gradually, under all that pressure, conditions improved, and gradually the island’s future was secure. That couldn’t have happened without Fr O Peicin – who died, aged 91, five years ago – and the islanders who campaigned with him.

I like to think my reporting, as Haughey might have said, also did Tory some service.

April 1991

Deaglán de Bréadún

My first big foreign assignment for The Irish Times was to cover the Kurdish refugee crisis at the end of the first Gulf war. President George HW Bush had encouraged the Iraqi Kurds to rise against Saddam Hussein, but then the Americans decided not to proceed as far as Baghdad, and the Kurds were left at the mercy of the brutal dictator. About two million of them fled, mainly to Turkey and Iran. In April 1991 I was sent to the Turkey-Iraq border, where I witnessed horrific scenes that still haunt me.

My lack of experience in foreign reporting at the time put me at a certain personal risk – although this was nothing compared with what the refugees were facing. I got no medical shots in advance, despite being about to go into a situation with considerable potential to contract illness and disease. It was all a bit rushed, and I didn’t quite know what to expect.

I flew to the Turkish capital, Ankara, but there was an internal airline strike, so I hired a car with two American aid workers, and we drove for 24 hours to the border town of Cukurca, population 8,000. In a ravine close to the village was a camp housing up to 80,000 refugees, enduring heavy rain and insanitary conditions. The number of deaths at Isikveren was estimated at 170 a day, two-thirds of them babies.

After my stint on the Turkey-Iraq border, with the Irish Times photographer Frank Miller I covered the plight of the Kurdish refugees fleeing into Iran.

When I arrived back in Dublin I was brought to hospital and put in an isolation ward. References in my stories to cholera outbreaks had caused concern. I didn’t have cholera, but I did have shigella dysentery, and it took some time to recover. In professional terms the trips were a success, but the close-up experience of man’s inhumanity to man left memories that would never be erased.

May 1992

Conor O'Clery

Just before The Irish Times broke the story of Bishop Casey, in 1992, I asked him to tell us his side of the affair. He agreed to meet me and the newspaper's religious-affairs correspondent at the time, Andy Pollak, at the Skylon Hotel in Dublin. But the bishop of Galway didn't turn up. My request had triggered a hasty trip to Rome. The Vatican silenced him and exiled him to South America.

I have been associated with breaking the news of Annie Murphy, but in fact the story came to us. Murphy's partner, Arthur Pennell, rang John Armstrong on the news desk to say he was helping to raise the bishop's son in Connecticut. I drove to their home. Why The Irish Times, I asked? If we published it, people would know it was true, he replied.

Conor Brady, the paper's editor at the time, put together a small team, including Armstrong, Pollak and Eugene McEldowney, the news editor, to work on the story in strict secrecy. There was considerable apprehension about accusing a bishop of fathering a secret love child.

But Annie Murphy disclosed to me that the bishop had channelled money to the United States to educate their son, Peter. There is a catchphrase popularised by the film All the President's Men: "Follow the money." That was the line Brady took. I spent many weeks tracing the source of cheques and cash. We were able to establish that the bishop had provided Murphy with more than $100,000, and negotiations were going on for more.

Before publication we looked at the story from all angles. What if the bishop was not the father and was being blackmailed? Casey had never admitted paternity. If both parties reached a settlement and Murphy denied everything, what would we do?

But Casey had no known personal wealth, and we established that the money was misappropriated from diocesan funds. This was a scandal. We ran with the story of the money. The bishop resigned and admitted paternity. Over a week we published the details we had accumulated.

It was personally very satisfying, not just breaking one of the most important watershed stories of the 1990s, but beating the opposition every day.

February 1998

Rosita Boland

The best thing about being a reporter is that you get to explore the subjects that make you curious. I thought that the day I started writing articles, 16 years ago, and I still think it.

One of the earliest pieces I wrote was on a topic that had intrigued me for years: when you have been blind from birth, what is your aesthetic experience of the world? What do you dream? What do you think the ocean is like? What would you most want to see?

I interviewed five people, aged from eight to 62.

Christina McCarthy, the child, showed me her drawings. Like many children, she drew her house. But it was a house that showed only the parts that meant something to her – the front door, for example, which she went through daily. There were no windows, because to her they were blanks.

Tony Murray, who was 17, told me that when he was a child he always imagined monsters to be very small, “toy-sized, on the scale of what I knew”. He said he had no idea what a mountain was; it was on a scale beyond his imagination.

Audrey Tormey, who was 27, was a keen photographer. She took pictures to have records of events like Christmas to show new friends in the future, although she would never see them herself. She said she could not understand perspective – how something as large as the Eiffel Tower could fit into a tiny photograph.

The first memory Emer Mulhall, who was 29, had was of her mother standing in a door, singing about a bird flying. “And I didn’t know what a bird was.” She had since held a bird in her hand, but she couldn’t understand flight, because it was not something she could touch. What Mulhall most wanted to see was a lion. “No toy can give me that sense of power or of their movement, because they run fast, don’t they?”

Joe Bollard, who went blind at two, did not know what colour his wife’s eyes were. Colour was meaningless to him. He had never asked her.

I think that early piece is the most important article I’ve written. It was about trying to gain an insight into the everyday lives of people who have different experiences, and make that meaningful.

July 2006

Patsy McGarry

It was August 2005, and I heard a remarkable story from my hometown, Ballaghaderreen, in Co Roscommon. Felicity MacDermot, better known as Madam MacDemot, had organised a 90th-anniversary Mass in Monasteraden, about five kilometres from the town, for her brother-in-law Lt Hugh MacDermot, who was killed at Gallipoli in August 1915, at the age of 18.

I was amazed on two counts: that anyone at home should have such a close living link with a soldier killed in the first World War; and that a young man from there had died in that war.

By 2005 I had reported annually on the Drumcree crisis, near Portadown, in Co Armagh, for about eight years. It is about 150km northeast of Ballaghaderreen. The service at Drumcree on the first Sunday of July each year commemorated the 24 young men from the parish who had been killed in the first World War. All were Protestant.

MacDermot’s Mass made me curious. The MacDermots are one of the oldest surviving Gaelic Catholic families and can trace their lineage to AD 157. They have survived famine, war and confiscations.

With MacDermot’s assistance I established that 39 young men from the parish of Ballaghaderreen had been killed in the first World War. All were Catholic. They went to war encouraged by their priests and politicians. I heard of none of them as I grew up.

In all I found out that 317 young men from Co Roscommon were killed in the war. All had been airbrushed from our history.

I wrote an article about this that appeared on Saturday, July 1st, 2006, the 90th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. It was headlined “Bringing their memory back to life”.

In February 2008 a delegation of Roscommon county councillors and staff visited Flanders as a mark of respect for the young men from the county who had died there. I was invited along as a guest. It was one of the most moving experiences of my life.

Madam Felicity MacDermot died in March of last year. She was 89.


September-October 2007

Mac Cormaic

On a Monday morning in September 2007, workers sorting through piles of rubbish at a recycling plant in Limerick found a man’s body. He had been crushed to death when the skip in which he was sleeping was emptied into a refuse lorry.

The story of the rough sleeper and his lonely death struck a chord with people, but, apart from his name and reports of a connection to the English midlands, nothing was known about Kevin Fitzpatrick, so within a couple of days his death faded from the news pages.

My brief was simple: find out who he was.

I travelled to Derby with those bare facts. There I found some of Fitzpatrick’s old friends and teachers, who helped me sketch his early life. I visited his old haunts, went along to the funeral and took a stroll around the graveyard where he was buried alongside his father.

Fitzpatrick’s family invited me into their home and tolerated my questions with grace and generosity. I knew they feared being judged, but they were also keen to share what they knew of the rich, complex life behind the monochrome cipher of the news reports (“the man in the skip”).

As I collected people’s stories, the narrative turned in unexpected ways. Fitzpatrick’s milieu in Derby was almost exclusively Irish. His story was a window into a community – second-generation Irish emigres in the old industrial belt of the English midlands – and the questions of identity and belonging they grappled with.

The piece was the work of a callow 25-year-old less than a year in the job, but, rereading it now, I’m relieved to see I had the sense to resist reaching for facile answers to the big questions that hang over the piece. Most of them are left unanswered, and it’s a truer piece for that.

I’ve had more difficult assignments, and ones with larger implications, but none that left a deeper impression. I remember writing it quickly, in a single sitting on the night I flew back to Dublin, and feeling that once I’d found the tone of the piece the story wrote itself.

Above all I remember the Fitzpatrick family: their grief, their warmth, their dignity. The memory of May Fitzpatrick throwing herself on her son’s coffin as the pallbearers prepared to carry it from the church is as vivid as yesterday.


October 2009

Patrick Freyne

In 2009 I was sent by the Sunday Tribune to report on the second apparition at Knock foretold by the mystic Joe Coleman. About 4,000 people turned up at the basilica, where Coleman led a noisy congregation in prayer.

At 3pm, when the Virgin was expected to appear, Coleman began acting as if he could see something, but most people seemed a bit baffled. Twenty minutes later someone shouted, “She’s in the car park!” and a few thousand people ran out and saw what I took to be the sun coming out from behind a cloud. Some gasped as soon as they looked up. Others initially saw no apparition but, on seeing the effect it was having on their neighbours, squinted their eyes before gasping too.

From talking to people afterwards, most had seen the sun “move” in the sky. One lady saw “the Sacred Heart and the Virgin Mother, and it was absolutely beautiful”. A sceptic who had previously been wandering around looking “for projectors” saw the sun move and said, “I can’t explain that.” Nearly all claimed to have seen some sort of mystical phenomenon.

I found their certainty disturbing. But I found it almost more disturbing that the journalists and photographers were immune to the phenomenon. Most wrote pieces gently mocking what they saw as mass hysteria.

It got me thinking about consensus. Why was our journalistic consensus so different from that of the pilgrims? Are we especially freethinking and nonconformist? Not really. We just find it easy to judge the views of people we perceive as different from us, whom we don’t see as our peers. Journalists see apparitions, too, arguably more dangerous ones: infinitely inflatable property markets, “floods” of immigrants or unprecedentedly crime-ridden streets. As much as anyone else, we look to our immediate neighbours to see what they can see before forming our opinions.

I worried about all this much more after not seeing an apparition at Knock.

August 2011

Mary Fitzgerald

It was August 2011, and Tripoli had just fallen to rebel forces seeking to oust Muammar Gadafy. The Libyan leader had been routed from the capital, leaving his Bab al-Azizia compound wide open to triumphant rebel fighters, curious onlookers and looters.

After picking my way through a residential building bombed by the US in 1986, and preserved in that state by Gadafy, I entered an annex of newer buildings.

In a room filled with books and study materials I found passport photographs of a woman, dressed in medical clothes, who appeared to be in her mid 20s. Some of the rebels sifting through the room’s contents shouted excitedly, “It’s Hana, it’s Hana, the daughter Gadafy lied about. This was her room.”

For decades Gadafy and his apologists had invoked Hana’s name as evidence that he had personally suffered as a result of the 1986 bombing of Tripoli. They claimed an adopted infant daughter of Gadafy, named Hana, had died in the US raid. Many Libyans had long doubted the story, claiming in 2011 that she was quietly working as a junior doctor in Tripoli.

In Hana’s room I found an examination paper from a Libyan university medical faculty that was signed “Hana Muammar Gadafy” in Arabic. A British Council certificate showed she had completed an English-language course at its Libyan centre in 2007, achieving an A grade.

My front-page exclusive for The Irish Times, which included the first photographs of the adult Hana the world had seen, was picked up by TV channels and newspapers across the globe. Follow-up stories included claims by former regime insiders that this Hana had been adopted after the first Hana had been killed and named in her memory – an explanation that begged more questions than it answered. If that was the case, why did she not feature in family appearances? Why did Gadafy appear to want to hide her existence?

More stories trickled out, including interviews with staff at hospitals where Hana had worked. They explained that everyone knew but that nobody said anything because they feared the repercussions – hardly surprising in Gadafy’s Libya.

I often wonder what became of Hana. Her current whereabouts are unknown. Many believe she fled Tripoli for Algeria with other family members and then moved on to Oman. I hope to some day meet and interview her, so that the full story of Hana Muammar Gadafy can finally be told.

November 2012

Kitty Holland

Her name. Her face. Both have become iconic and been appropriated and used to further and dispute agendas with which she had nothing to do.

When I first heard of her my contact wasn’t sure of her name (“Sabita, or Sinita or Savita or something”). All she knew, when she called me at home on November 7th last year, was that a woman had died at Galway University Hospital a fortnight before. The woman had been miscarrying a 17-week foetus and asked for a termination a number of times but was refused because this was a “Catholic” country.

A search on Google found her death notice on the website, with her address. En route to Galway I managed to get a phone number for Halappanavar’s widower, Praveen, who had just buried her at home in southwest India.

The story he told that evening appeared in The Irish Times on Wednesday, November 14th, last year. It convulsed Ireland and shocked people across the world.

This was a human and needless tragedy, but the use of the term “Catholic” in explaining the refusal of her request for a termination transformed the situation from one of medical treatment denied to one of medical treatment ideologically denied.

When people heard her name and her husband’s voice, many felt she could have been any one of us, whether mother or husband or partner, or her brother or her sister. Halappanavar became someone we all believed we could relate to.

Many didn’t like what her death seemed to say about Ireland. They mobilised in their thousands, demanding that it never again happen. Her death led to three inquiries and, arguably, galvanised the Government to enact the Protection of Life During Pregnancy legislation.

All of this means little to Praveen Halappanavar and to Savita’s parents, Andanappa and Akamahadevi Yalagi, or to her older brothers, Santosh and Sanjeev. Her father told me in June this year that he and his wife cannot bear their future now. “She was such a sweet daughter for us,” Andanappa Yalagi said.