Journalistic career begins in the west and ends in the west

 

In the beginning was the word, and it's not much different at the end. Words, always words. Michael Finlan looks back at a lifetime in newspapers

By MICHAEL FINLAN

WHEN I decided to become a newspaper man, my father bought me an obese dictionary bursting with words, figuring I'd need every one of them. He was sceptical about journalism, seeing it as a raffish, and disreputable trade plied by people whose elbows were perpetually soaked in porter stains.

Perhaps the dictionary was a gesture of resignation to the fact that he'd lost a son to this second oldest of the professions.

Those in the oldest profession were far better paid, though. Ten bob a week was my starting stipend on the Western People and then extant sister paper the Ballina Herald enough for 12 pints or eight packets of fags or four hops in the local dance hall if you weren't paying the way in for a girlfriend.

The new found power of the press regularly got you the best seats in the town's two cinemas for free. This carried a temptation of venality as the privilege was withdrawn if you gave a picture a bad review and when you dared to do it, you felt immensely independent and intrepid just like Jimmy Cagney with his press' card in his hat band.

Cagney and other Hollywood front page hotshots endowed the Fourth Estate with breathless glamour. Up there on the screen, they hammered their Underwoods to death with trip hammer index fingers, racing against a deadline with the scoop of the century for the Five Star Final. Reality was something else.

My first "newsroom" was a rough wooden bench in the print shop with an ancient Oliver typewriter that had a life of its own. When you hit a key on the Oliver you never knew what letter would appear on the page.

There was never a chance to do a Jimmy Cagney and tear into the newsroom screaming "stop the presses". The deadline was weekly and leisurely and the need never arose to hold the front page.

The deathless prose being punched out on the Oliver dealt with things like fluctuations on the cabbage plant market, verbatim blow by blows of the windy rantings at town council meetings, fearless expose's of the nefarious bicycle lamp transgressors in, the district court and endless GAA match reports made easy by re course to an inexhaustible supply of diche's. Not much chance to practise the good advice about news writing you had read some where keep it lean, use Anglo saxon words, shun the adjective worship, the verb.

John Healy had been a controversial GAA correspondent on the same paper and, when he moved to Dublin to join the newborn Irish News Agency, he wangled a job for me too. This was the early 1950s and Dublin had just come out of the Stygian Emergency blackout when the glimmer man was drawn like a moth to any illicit flame.

People blinked to get accustomed to the neon lights after they were switched on again in O'Connell Street. Nelson still towered above the city on his pillar, his one eye no help at all in foreseeing the inevitable fate that awaited him. The streets were crime free, though you could get yourself shot from the rear platform of a green double decker by Bang Bang, the fastest draw west of Ringsend with his smoking index finger and cocked thumb.

The pubs were dark and smoke stained with sawdust and spit on the floor. Time was called for the holy hour but often you remained inside behind the bolted front door, sipping more silently, conversing in more hushed whispers.

After hours, the session could legally continue if you travelled to the bona fides outside a three mile perimeter. At sunrise, a wailing dawn chorus shivered the rafters of the early hour market pubs from customers who could not delay the cure for their exploding heads.

The Irish News Agency had been set up by John A. Costello's inter party government and its detractors saw it as nothing more than a propaganda medium feeding the good news about Ireland to the rest of the world.

It was under the wing of the then Department of External Affairs which tried to foster an antipartitionist mentality among the journalists. But the INA was staffed by some of the most accomplished news people in the State and their sheer news papering professionalism insulated them from whatever Machiavellian machinations might be afoot in Iveagh House.

The INA had developed into a serious, respected and impartial purveyor of news by the time de Valera returned to power, but one of his first acts was to close it down. This was shortsighted for, when the North erupted in 1969, the Republic could have done with its own news agency to counter the spin doctoring of the Northern Ireland office.

In 1952, the INA sent me to Belfast to work with bureau chief Paddy Scott in a pokey upstairs office opposite the Irish News on Donegall Street. Going North for the first time was like discovering some alien land. As the Flying Enterprise train approached the terminus, the Prepare To Meet Thy Maker billboards of fundamentalist Christianity hove into view alongside self conscious, no surrender Union Jacks.

It might be Rome Rule south of the Border but up here it looked like King Billy was boss.

I was reassured, though, when I went into the Crown pub across from the station, with its Victorian snugs and mirrors. This didn't look like a place that would harbour Bible thumpers ready to pounce on an errant reporter and Shanghai him into heaven. The accents were different but the patrons hovering over their pints looked much the same as the denizens of any Dublin pub and the repartee was every bit as cutting and irreverent.

It seemed a good place to escape from the born again preachers belching salvation on the street corners outside.

My digs were in the semi detached home of the only Catholic family living in a small suburban street off the Castlereagh Road. The staunchly middle class Protestant neighbours, though meticulously polite, enjoyed quizzing me about life in Eire as though I were an immigrant from outer space.

And yet it was possible to cross the tribal barriers. Even though they knew I was a Papist, a loyalist family entertained me right royally in their home on the Protestant Sandy Row late into the night on the eve of one Glorious Twelfth. Next day they spotted me in The Field at Finaghy and sat me down among the lambegs to share their sandwiches and tea.

On Sunday nights the Protestants stayed home, presumably reading the Good Book, but we Romanists happily violated the Sabbath in search of romance, gasping for air as we struggled to dance in the sweaty overcrowded confines of the tiny Club Orchid on Divis Street at the bottom of the Falls. Our bodies moved to the music like syncopated sardines but the perpetual crush provided a sort of lingering carnality that barely stopped short of being indecent.

A couple of years later I wash back in the North again, this time for the Irish Press, covering the abortive IRA raid on the Omagh army barracks. My halting knowledge of Irish came in useful after photographer Paddy Barron risked getting his head blown off by the B Specials when he pointed his camera from his hotel bedroom into the back of the RUC station next door.

He found himself staring into rifle barrels aimed directly at him by a squad of Specials. "Take a W..ing picture and you're a dead man," one of them shouted and in the same instant he was almost blinded by the flash from Barron's Speed Graphic.

No shot rang out and Barron slipped the film to me as he waited for the Specials to rush in and confiscate the camera. Assuming the phones to be tapped, I used my dodgy Irish to alert the Press news desk that a real scoop was on its way by taxi and Barron's picture, one of the most dramatic ever to come out of the North, was splashed across the front page next morning.

Some things could be said better without any words at all.

AFTER 12 years in Canada, I returned to Ireland in the 1960s and resumed work at the Press before joining The Irish Times in 1969.

Almost immediately I again found myself back in Belfast and this time had to talk myself and two colleagues out of a jam, not through Irish, but by assuming a North American accent, easily done after years in Canadian radio and television.

The northern city was a powder keg of sectarian tension and Home Secretary Jim Callaghan had arrived to calm the situation after first sending in the troops.

Fellow Irish Times journalist Jack Fagan, Aengus Fanning, now editor of the Sunday Independent, and I found ourselves stranded on the loyalist Shankill at a moment when anyone from the hated Republic could be a legitimate target in such a place. The Catholics had been burned out of their homes in Bombay Street by loyalist gangs the night before.

A tough looking character covered in Red Hand tattoos, who clearly didn't like the look of us, asked suspiciously. "Who do you'se represent anyway?"

Luckily Fagan and Fanning sang dumb, realising that their Meath and Kerry accents could get us all lynched, and I replied in a supercharged transatlantic accent. "We're from American television, here to cover the big story and in particular, to get the Protestant angle on it.

Tattoo man was suddenly all smiles and calling a taxi to get us out alive and back to the city centre. I said. "Gee, thank you fella!" for myself and my two silent companions.

Four years later I was made Western Correspondent of The Irish Times and headed back across the Shannon to tap into the Connacht roots from which I had sprung. It was a good time and now it is over.