Out With a Bang - Frank McNally on the cult of the newspaper “knock-down”

A time-honoured ritual

In the Irish Times offices on Wednesday, we gave the traditional “knock-down” to Malachy Logan, retiring after 48 years of service, 34 as sports editor.

No editorial animals were harmed during this tribute. But before leading it, my colleague Éanna Ó Caollaí joked that when he described the ceremony to his 16-year-old daughter, she said it sounded “cultish”. She had a point.

Like other newspaper rituals, the knock-down was inherited from the printing profession, which used to mark the completion of an apprenticeship, and later of a career, by serenading the subject with a cacophony of metal equipment beaten against the nearest hard surface.

In Britain, it’s called “banging out”. How it became a knock-down on this side of the water is unclear. In any case, it has long outlived the demise of the old-school printers to be adopted by journalists too, although in modern newsrooms, often, the nearest thing to a heavy metal object is a stapler.


For this week’s version, in an office that had been severely decluttered since the pandemic, some of us were reduced to banging desks with our hands.

The cultishness of newspaper life doesn’t end there, either. The aforementioned Éanna was speaking as joint “Father of the Chapel”, who like the “Mother of the Chapel”, presides over our local chapter of the National Union of Journalists.

Such undertones of religion are another inheritance from printing. Mind you, the Father of the Chapel is usually called “FoC” for short, an acronym that hints at the less-than-spiritual language for which journalists are probably better known.

James Joyce was well versed in the jargon. In the Aeolus chapter of Ulysses, set in the offices of the Freeman’s Journal and Evening Telegraph, he has Leopold Bloom visit the inner sanctum of the printers’ cult, where a suitably named compositor is at work:

“He walked on through the caseroom, passing an old man, bowed, spectacled, aproned. Old Monks, the dayfather.”

Old Monks was the real-life Edward Monks, a Dublin printer who, despite his alleged antiquity in 1904, somehow lived for another 37 years, to die aged 91.

Like all experienced compositors, he would have been fluent in the cultish practice of reading stories backwards, the metal letters being set right-to-left in their cases.

And the point of his title “dayfather” is that he was the most senior member of staff on duty then. But newspaper printers were creatures of the night, so Monks’s role was secondary to the overall father, who took charge in the late hours when the next day’s paper “went to bed”.

As was mentioned at Malachy Logan’s farewell, unsociable hours are also standard in sports journalism, with many big events happening not just at night but also at weekends or other times, including St Stephen’s Day, when normal people are off work to watch them.

I can claim some fellow suffering here as an accidental sports reporter for the newsroom, who has spent decades writing “colour” pieces on events deemed worth of mention outside the sports pages.

On one memorably stressful night at Lansdowne Road, my reputation for deadline-stretching having gone before, I was given a strict 9.15pm guillotine to file all but the opening paragraph on an Ireland World Cup qualifier, which would just have entered the second half at that point.

I was then to send the one-par intro five minutes after full time, or it would be added by the Newsdesk, whichever was quicker.

Attempting to summarise an event in such circumstances, and to do so in prose bordering on elegant, you soon abandon any patriotic feelings you might have had at kick-off. I still blush with shame at the gratitude I felt to Germany for winning 6-1 that night. At least I had a story line early.

Malachy Logan’s extraordinary career began with 1974′s “Rumble in the Jungle” and ended with a rumble in the sports department that, like the rest of the paper, has been empty throughout the pandemic, with most people working remotely.

There have been many big stories in his 48 years. But one stands out, probably. It fell to him to publish, three days earlier than first intended, the interview that led to the Great Schism of 2002, or as it’s known to the less religious, Saipan.

Another measure of his career’s longevity, noticeable through the third-floor windows behind him while he spoke, is that it outlived even Hawkins House.

That was still a new, progressive office block when he started work at the old Irish Times on D’Olier Street. But it had long become, by common consent, the ugliest building in Dublin, before being subject to its own knock-down ceremony earlier this year.