Michael Viney was an Englishman who opened up Ireland for Irish people, writes Fintan O’Toole

Tribute: The late journalist, a sensitive observer of nature and weather, turned an equally sharp eye on Irish society

Michael Viney, who has died aged 90, lived many rich lives. The most obvious shift was from the flat over a fish and chip shop in Brighton where he spent his early childhood to Thallabawn, the smallholding in west Mayo that he made famous. The weekly column he wrote about it in The Irish Times for 45 years (making it surely one of the longest continuous columns in any newspaper in the world) was called, of course, Another Life.

But he also had at least two lives as a journalist. The acute and sensitive observer of nature, weather and the seasons turned an equally sharp eye on Irish society.

In his investigative series for The Irish Times he carried into the world of daily newspapers the kind of long-form personal inquiry that had previously been confined to small magazines. Whether he was writing about the state of the Irish language, or the fate of rural Ireland, or the way the Civil Service functioned, he brought to Irish public life a unique mixture of intimate sympathy and an outsider’s ability to notice and express things that insiders took for granted or preferred not to notice.

These reports have a potent afterlife as cross-sections of Irish life at a time of epochal change fired by the Whitaker/Lemass revolution of the 1960s. The Ryan Report on the industrial school system appends Viney’s Irish Times series about it as essential historic documents – a status that many of his articles are sure to retain.


Two things brought these different sides of Viney’s work together. One was a very personal combination of warmth with toughness. His love of people, of nature, and of Ireland was deep but never blind. He was a kind of romantic – but not the sentimental kind. His eye was too keen ever to go misty.

The other maker’s mark that was always on his work was the combination of words and pictures that readers so loved in his Another Life columns. From his youth, painting and writing went together in his imagination. In his journalism, his words always had a pictorial quality and his pictures had a simple eloquence of direct expression.

He was, like his friend Tim Robinson, an Englishman who opened up Ireland for Irish people themselves. His curiosity about the people and the place made us more curious about ourselves and the beautiful land we should never take for granted.

That’s a great legacy for any journalist to leave: generations of readers who are, for his presence, more alert to the social and natural worlds around them. He did not believe in the afterlife but this is the one in which his spirt will linger.