Joe Joyce obituary: Award-winning journalist, writer and biographer

Joyce had an astute understanding of government and the political system, of politicians and how they worked

Joe Joyce twice won the national Journalist of the Year award

Born August 1st, 1947

Died June 6th, 2024

Joe Joyce was one of the outstanding journalists of his generation. He twice received the national Journalist of the Year award, and his consequential reporting included revealing the ill-treatment of suspects while in Garda custody, and the unexplained alleged confessions of the Hayes family in what became known as the Kerry Babies case.

He was also co-author of The Boss, a biography of the 1982 government of the former Fianna Fáil leader and taoiseach Charles Haughey, and of Blind Justice, a forensic examination of the Sallins mail train robbery and subsequent court cases.


In later life he became an accomplished fiction author, penning a series of thrillers, historical novels, as well as a biography of the Guinness family and a play.

Joyce was a quiet and soft-spoken man who eschewed the limelight. His death aged 76 prompted praise from President Michael D Higgins, who said in a statement that Joyce would be remembered “as an outstanding investigative reporter” who “showed a flair for challenging cases, putting a spotlight on injustice and helping campaigns for the undoing of damage to those wronged”.

Joe Joyce was born in Galway in 1947 and grew up in Ballinasloe and nearby Aughrim. His parents were Martin Joyce, a teacher and national school principal, and Meta Joyce (nee Glennon), who had two other children, Marie and Cepta.

Joe attended his local national school and was later a boarder at St Joseph’s College, Garbally Park, Galway, before going to University College Galway, now known as University of Galway, where he studied English, sociology and politics.

He claimed to have taken a somewhat laissez-faire approach to attending lectures, in preference to writing for the student newspaper, Unity. Nonetheless, he graduated with a BA in 1968 and soon obtained his first reporting job, with The Irish Times.

Joe Joyce: The quiet man who was a great journalist, funeral toldOpens in new window ]

Early work included examining, with colleague and later broadcaster Forbes McFall, the effects on Ireland of the 1970 oil crisis. Joyce could turn his hand to most tasks but quickly gravitated towards politics, as well as justice and policing matters.

As his daughter Molly noted in a eulogy at his funeral, his commitment to journalism was underpinned by an “absolute belief in questioning the accepted narrative and following the facts, wherever they might lead”.

In the face of republican terrorism in 1970s Ireland, one such narrative led to the government, An Garda Síochána and judicial system, turning a blind eye, at best, to allegations of ill-treatment of suspects while in Garda custody and to consequent miscarriages of justice, prompting alarm in human rights organisations, in Ireland and abroad.

Together with two colleagues, Don Buckley and Renagh Holohan, Joyce wrote a series of Irish Times investigations into the activities of the Garda’s Murder Squad, known more colloquially as the Heavy Gang.

Many of the oversight reforms introduced in the decades since have their origin in aspects of policing and legal procedure highlighted by the Joyce, Buckley and Holohan reports.

In 1984, and writing this time in the Sunday Independent, Joyce and Buckley revealed the Kerry Babies incident. In it, an entire family had confessed to gardaí, many of whom were members of the aforementioned Murder Squad, to a murder that subsequent forensic evidence proved they could not possibly have committed.

For this report, Joyce, together with Buckley, received his second Journalist of the Year award.

Joyce had gone freelance in 1978 and worked variously for Southside, a free sheet newspaper in Dún Laoghaire; Hibernia magazine, edited by John Mulcahy; and as Dublin correspondent for Reuters news agency and the Guardian. At the same time he had become known for his political writing.

In 1983 he and the then Irish Times security correspondent Peter Murtagh cowrote a book, The Boss: Charles J Haughey in Government, an acclaimed account of the 1982 Fianna Fáil government. It was described by the historian and broadcaster John Bowman as “one of the most significant books written about modern Irish politics”, and it caused a sensation and was widely read.

The pair followed this volume with another: Blind Justice, a forensic examination of the Sallins mail train robbery and subsequent miscarriages of justice.

There was a soft-spoken kindness and warmth about him ... I can’t recall him ever being cruel or unkind to anyone, including politicians

—  Peter Murtagh

Continuing as a freelance mainly for the Guardian, in 1989 Joyce began a more creative writing period with a thriller, Off the Record, followed a year later by The Trigger Man. Both drew on his experience reporting crime and events relating to Northern Ireland.

In 2009 he wrote The Guinnesses – the untold story of Ireland’s most successful family, a meticulously researched profile of the brewing dynasty. Similar skills, and a lot of creativity, were deployed in the research and writing of 1691, an account of the Battle of Aughrim, reimagined through the eyes of the main players – an homage, at least in part, to his late father’s lifetime interest in the subject.

The years 2013 to 2015 saw the publication of his trilogy of novels – Echoland, Echobeat and Echowave – set in second World War Dublin and centred on the fictional Defence Force’s intelligence officer Lieut Paul Duggan. Returning to the wartime setting, his final novel, No Second Take, was set in Nice, a city he knew well and to which in latter years he went regularly with his wife, Frances.

As well as books, Joyce wrote three plays – one a juvenile effort at age 10 and to which his audience had to pay two pence to see in the family garden. More seriously but still aged just 15, his The Wayward Son was staged in the parish hall in Aughrim. In 2013, The Tower, a fictionalised one-act play centred on a supposed late-life encounter between James Joyce and Oliver St John Gogarty. It was critically well received and has been staged in Bewley’s Cafe Theatre and at the Joyce Tower in Sandycove. In between, he was deputy editor at the Sunday Tribune when Murtagh was editor in the mid-1990s. Giving a eulogy at his funeral, Murtagh described his friend as “a really great guy, a real gentle man and a reporter’s reporter. There was a quietness about Joe. And he had pronounced streak of decency in him and all that he did,” Murtagh said. “There was a soft-spoken kindness and warmth about him ... I can’t recall him ever being cruel or unkind to anyone, including politicians.”

He said Joyce had an astute understanding of government and the political system, of politicians and how they worked. Long after his time as a reporter, his counsel was sought by others in media and politics.

Away from current events and journalism, Joyce had a range of diverse interests. They included watching Formula 1 racing and precision shooting at inanimate targets, which he pursued through the East Coast Shooting Club.

Joyce met his wife, the Canadian-born business journalist Frances O’Rourke at a party in the journalist and broadcaster Henry Kelly’s house in March 1969. It was the start of a 56-year partnership that was rooted in love, as well as in conversation, books, politics, music (Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Bruce Springsteen were favourites) and wider culture.

She survives him, along with their children, Catherine, Joanna and Molly, and their partners; his two grandchildren; his sisters Marie and Cepta; brother-in-law; nephew and a wide circle of friends.