Ex-Irish Press London editor Aidan Hennigan OBE dies at 90

Journalist covered Birmingham Six, Guildford Four, Maguire Seven and IRA bombings

Peter Hain (left), then secretary of state for Northern Ireland, presents Aidan Hennigan  with an OBE at a reception at the Irish Embassy in London in April  2006, in recognition of his long service to journalism. File photograph:John Stillwell/PA

Peter Hain (left), then secretary of state for Northern Ireland, presents Aidan Hennigan with an OBE at a reception at the Irish Embassy in London in April 2006, in recognition of his long service to journalism. File photograph:John Stillwell/PA

 

Former Irish Press London editor Aidan Hennigan OBE died today a few weeks short of his 91st birthday.

Francis Aidan Bernard Hennigan, to give him is full name, was originally from Ballina and was for many years synonymous with the Irish in London in particular and in much of the rest of the UK.

Hennigan , who was also a qualified barrister, had a wide-ranging career covering a number of beats, but it was as London editor of the Irish Press - a post he held for 34 years - that he came into contact with a great many who knew him.

He also took pride in continuing to work as a journalist after his nominal retirement (and the closure of the Press), for the Irish Examiner and other outlets.

His passing comes just months after that of his friend, fellow journalist and former London editor Jim Downey.

For many years, Hennigan treated his year of birth as a state secret (it was 1925), to the consternation of some of his younger but nevertheless established colleagues, because he would claim they had started out as cub reporters together.

To that end he was always circumspect about letting them know he had covered de Valera’s last general election campaign as a TD in Clare, and he would “telescope” decades by saying he and they had worked in the west of Ireland together or were all past pupils of Muredach’s College in Ballina.

Irish emigration

But it was London that defined him. During his stewardship of the Irish Press’s operations in Fleet Street - a period which coincided with a great wave of Irish emigration to the UK - he held court over a bureau that included wiremen/telex operators, a number of reporters and sales and administrative staff.

That office, and also his home, was open house to any number of journalists, writers, diplomats and politicians, British and Irish - many of whom have since become household names.

The cohort included Jim Downey, Maeve Binchy, Henry Kelly, Edna O’Brien, Andrew Neil, Jon Snow, Airey Neave, Daithi O Ceallaigh and many others.

Hastings Banda used to call, as did Stephen Ward, best known through his link to the Profumo scandal, Hennigan would recall.

The Irish Press always got far more from him and its association with him than it ever returned, but such a thought would never have occurred to him.

Many of his colleagues in Ireland sought to caricature him or think they had him defined or easily summed up, but he was a private, shrewd, kind and sophisticated soul with a great many aspects of his life that would surprise them.

Hennigan had firm friendships right across the political spectrum, unionist and nationalist, Tory, Labour and Liberal, which he forged over many years in the House of Commons.

In late middle age he took a degree in economics to enable him to take a qualifying law degree and be called to the bar.

Fellow law students at the time included the late Clarissa Dickson Wright (of Two Fat Ladies fame, who was burning her way through her million pound inheritance) and Dominic Grieve, later to become attorney general in Britain.

Hennigan never practised as a barrister but it was very important to him that he had qualified and it widened his circle of contacts, always invaluable to a reporter.

Big Irish stories

He covered, or supervised the coverage of, all the big Irish-related stories a reader would expect - the Birmingham Six, Guildford Four, Maguire Seven, Judith Ward, the IRA bombing campaigns and the abuses of the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

Such were his soft skills and brass neck, indispensable to any good reporter, that he was always able to do so without becoming alienated from the British authorities. That personable quality applied across the board.

On one occasion, when called into Sky News as a pundit on Irish matters, the anchor person turned to him and started asking questions about agriculture, mistaking him in the running order for the president of the National Farmers’ Union.

Ever gracious, and with the cameras about to go live, he said that as he had grown up on a farm he’d be very happy to wing it and answer her questions but perhaps she had the wrong guest.

He maintained his place as an Irishman and reporter for Irish newspapers in the Palaces of Westminster and Courts of Justice with pride and as an earned right, without apology.

As a reporter, the one person he remained thrilled throughout his career to have interviewed was American musician Louis Armstrong.

Hennigan’s last years in London were made more comfortable and dignified by the tireless and loving efforts of his grandniece Bernadette Hennigan, an NHS professional.