Identity parade — Frank McNally on being recognised (or not) in public

Even regular readers do not recognise journalists from byline pictures, which are often hilariously out of date

Walking home along a dark alley the other night, I met a couple going in the opposite direction, the male half of which did a double-take, stopped, and said: “Are you Frank McNally?”

I pleaded guilty, wondering as usual if we’d met before somewhere and if I should pretend to remember this while waiting for a clue as to the man’s identity.

But no, we hadn’t met. He was just a long-time reader who knew me from the photograph.

He went on to say some nice things. Then he added: “I also saw you in the Secret Bookstore this afternoon. Have you been in town all day?”


This was worrying. Not the being in town all day part – just the idea that I had been unwittingly identifiable to him and many others, perhaps at times when I was picking my nose, or adjusting personal body parts, or in a state otherwise unedited for public view.

From long experience, my working assumption is that even regular readers do not recognise journalists from byline pictures. This is in part because the pictures are often hilariously out of date anyway.

The worst examples are like Dorian Gray in reverse: portraits preserving an illusion of eternal youth while the realities become daily more grotesque.

But perhaps many more people do recognise us than let on, whether because of shyness or a fear of being intrusive. Or maybe because, as a Cork friend recalled of an occasion when she and others ignored Bono somewhere: “You wouldn’t want to give him the satisfaction.”

Again though, experience tells me that two minutes on television makes you more visible to strangers than 10 year of byline pictures. Some people don’t seem to notice the latter at all.

Strange to say, however out of date mine have been at times, people have often expected me to be older in person. Or maybe they were just saying that to be nice.

Many years ago now, for example, I had to give a talk to a group of Irish expats in Brussels. I wasn’t used to public speaking then and was even more nervous than I would be today.

So as my hosts and I entering the hotel lift to ascend to the venue – it was on the 32nd floor – I might as well have been in a tumbril on the way to the guillotine.

My forlorn hopes included a break-down of the elevator that would trap us in the lift for the weekend. A more realistic possibility, also comforting, was that nobody would turn up for the talk.

Then, as the lift doors closed, a very distinguished-looking woman who had joined us said: “I’m really looking forward to this. If he’s as entertaining in real life as on the page, it should be good.”

I stared at her a moment in genuine wonder as to who she meant. Then the penny dropped (with the sound of a distant guillotine blade), further fraying my nerves.

When I broke it to her gently how dull the guest speaker was in real life, she seemed almost hurt: “Why do you say that?” Then the hosts introduced us.

“I expected you to be sixty-ish and wintry,” she confessed afterwards. I was about 43 and Indian-summery at the time. I’m sure my byline pic was even younger.

When I’m not being recognised as myself these days, the other thing that happens is that I’m being mistaken for the former governor of Mountjoy Prison, John Lonergan.

This confusion first became apparent a few years ago when I was out running in the Phoenix Park and a sports cyclist in full Lycra pulled up to greet me as a long-lost friend.

As always, I assumed we had met before and tried to recall where, but as he talked about his time in Mountjoy – which I been in only once, on a press visit – we both gradually realised it was a mistake.

I congratulated him on turning his life around anyway and we went our separate ways. But several times since, I have been addressed as “John” and “Sir” by strangers less fortunate looking and, knowing who they think I am, have given them sympathetic smiles.

It happened again on the Red Luas at the weekend. This time a drunk called me “Governor” as a joke. He knew I wasn’t the governor, really. I just looked like him. “Nice man,” he added.

John Lonergan does seem to have been universally liked by his former charges, which is just as well.

Even so, you’d expect that a prison governor must have a few enemies in his time. I worry that, one of these nights, I’ll meet those in a dark alley too.