An Irishman's Diary


There he was, the man who had once controlled the largest publishing empire in the world, waiting for a bus on the Stillorgan Road in Dublin, writes Wesley Boyd. In his hand was a plastic bag with the handles of a couple of small gardening tools protruding from it.

He got on the bus, unsteadily, and sat close to the door. At the stop in front of Donnybrook Garda station he got off and disappeared into the adjoining overgrown cemetery.

The last time I had seen Cecil Harmsworth King he was striding imperiously down Fleet Street, all the burly six feet four of him, oblivious of the minions scurrying among the newspaper offices. Like his uncles before him, the press barons Northcliffe and Rothermere, King believed he knew better than the politicians how Britain should be run. He used his newspapers to meddle in politics and to flirt with treason. But he was toppled himself and now, years on, he had come to spend his remaining days in Dublin, a place he had always regarded as home.

King's paternal grandfather was from Co Louth and his maternal grandmother was of Ulster Protestant stock. His father, Lucas White King, worked for the British Colonial Service in India and later became professor of Arabic, Persian and Hindustani at Trinity College, Dublin. His mother was Geraldine Harmsworth, sister of Alfred (later Lord Northcliffe) the founder of the British popular press. King, himself, was born in London in 1901 but came to live in Dublin in 1905 when his father was appointed to Trinity. The family lived in a large house near Dundrum and Cecil went to a local day school. At the age of 10 he was dispatched to a prep school in England and went on to Winchester and Oxford.

After university Cecil was sent by Lord Rothermere to learn the family business at the Glasgow Record .

His career began to take off when he progressed to the commercial department of the Daily Mirror in London in 1926. With a combination of ambition, arrogance and ability he steadily climbed the ladder and became chairman of the International Publishing Company, the largest publishing group in the world. It owned scores of newspapers and magazines, ranging from Woman's Weekly to the Daily Mirror, in King's day the biggest-selling newspaper in the world, with a circulation of more than five million.

King was not content with running his empire. He began to dabble in politics. His particular obsession was the Labour government led by Harold Wilson. He believed Wilson was leading the country to ruination and started to explore the possibility of bringing him down and forming a national government. He talked about his plans to the Royal Family's favourite uncle, Lord Mountbatten of Burma, former Chief of the UK Defence Staff. King had him in mind as head of his proposed coalition as he felt he would command the loyalty of the armed forces if there was trouble in the streets.

In May 1968, under a photograph of himself, he wrote a front-page article in the Daily Mirror headed "ENOUGH IS ENOUGH".

He proclaimed that Wilson had lost all credibility and would have to go.

Inevitably his fellow directors on IPC came to the conclusion that King's antics were undermining the stability of the company and they summarily sacked him before the month was out.

In 1974 King and his second wife, Dame Ruth Railton, decided to retire to Dublin and bought a modest (for them) house in Greenfield Park opposite the RTÉ studios at Donnybrook. Dame Ruth had spent much of her career developing an appreciation of music, particularly among young people, and she became a member of the board of the National Concert Hall.

King continued to write the occasional article and, perhaps, inspired by the example of another of his press baron uncles, Lord Harmsworth who had spent much time and money in restoring Dr Johnson's house off Fleet Street, he dedicated himself to the task of cleaning up Donnybrook Cemetery.

It can be clearly seen from the top of the buses that pass the Garda station. The last burial there was around 1880 and it has been used as a rubbish dump on several occasions. It is now in the care of Dublin City Council which maintains it in a reasonable state. The elaborate stone gateway was erected in 1890 by members of the Dublin Stock Exchange in memory of Thomas C. Seawright, their registrar. The stockbrokers obviously did nothing to tidy the cemetery because when a Rev Mr Maffett went there around the same time to look for the tomb of a Protestant Archbishop of Dublin, Dr King, (no relation) he gave up after removing over 200 tin kettles and buckets from the area. This Mr Maffett may well have been a relative of Cecil King's maternal grandmother, Geraldine Maffett.

With his hand tools Cecil King laboriously unearthed the graves of some illustrious men. Dr Richard Madden, the historian of the United Irishmen, world traveller and anti-slavery campaigner, is buried there. He was a friend of some of the survivors of the Ninety-Eight Rising, including Jemmy Hope, the Belfast weaver, Mary, the sister of Henry Joy McCracken, Mathilda, the widow of Theobald Wolfe Tone and Anne Devlin, the housekeeper of Robert Emmet. Ironically, the bones of Leonard McNally, who betrayed Emmet, lie close to Madden's grave.

In a booklet published in 1966 to mark the centenary of the Parish of the Sacred Heart, Donnybrook, Leon Ó Broin, the distinguished public servant, historian and writer, tells of going to the cemetery to look for the grave of Madden, whose biography he was writing. He could not find it because of the untidy undergrowth.

However, he had an important clue: Madden had brought home some cypress trees from Napoleon's grave at St Helena and planted them around his family grave in Donnybrook.

Ó Broin returned with a friend who knew about trees and found the grave.

It is pleasant to dwell on the image of the toppled Emperor of Fleet Street grubbing around under trees that once gave shade to the fallen hero of France.