An Irishman's Diary

 

Eddie MacSweeney, better known to generations of RTÉ radio listeners as Maxwell Sweeney, was a genteel figure by today's media standards, but enjoyed a career that was very modern in its scope and diversity, writes Hugh Oram.

He was born in England to an Irish father and an English mother. His father, Dominic, worked for the Royal Mint before coming home to work for the Currency Commission when it was set up in the new Irish Free State.

Dominic also had a close connection with the Holborn Empire in London, one of that city's great variety theatres. He passed on his love of theatre to his son, who subsequently wrote and broadcast frequently on the subject.

Eddie himself started work as a junior reporter with The Irish Times and spent the whole of the 1930s with this newspaper. One of his early "bloodings" came when he was sent to cover a story in Roscommon town, where it had been reported that IRA members were drilling in the castle. Eddie got his story - the reports had been accurate - but not before Jasper Tully, the tempestuous editor of the Roscommon Herald, had been thoroughly abusive in print to the young reporter from Dublin with what he described as an "Oxford accent" . Tully himself earned further notoriety after his wife died and he readdressed letters sent to her, "Not known at this address. Try Hell".

That wasn't the only excitement at the time for the young reporter. Aviation was one of his lifelong passions and when Sir Alan Cobham brought his flying circus of a dozen stunt planes on a tour of Ireland in 1933, Eddie helped with the publicity.

His next big newspaper job came in 1941, when The Irish Times decided to relaunch its weekly newspaper as the Times Pictorial, inspired by Picture Post in Britain. Eddie was made art editor of the paper and, along with his colleague George Burrows, devised and ran a very modern newspaper that broke with tradition and was also a useful training ground for many journalists.

He wasn't without a sense of humour, though he was an essentially serious, urbane man. Eddie and George Burrows devised a wartime photograph showing two men getting a fill-up in a tankard from a petrol pump at the Guinness brewery. Petrol rationing was at its height and the picture was never published because of wartime censorship.

Immediately after the second World War, Eddie decided on a change of career and became publicity manager for Metropole and Allied Cinemas in Dublin. This led to an even more stimulating job in the early 1950s with Rank Films at their film studios in Denham, Buckinghamshire. It must have been fun: the Rank starlets were in their heyday.

Eventually, he returned home to Ireland and developed many other interests. For many years, he edited a magazine about the hotel trade. For about 20 years, he wrote for Fodor's, the American travel guide. He also contributed for many years for the American show-business magazine Variety. He wrote features for Cara, the Aer Lingus magazine, and for Ireland of the Welcomes. He worked for the Law Society.

But his real claim to fame came at RTÉ. He had started freelancing for the old Radio Éireann in the 1950s, contributing many of the Topical Talks that ran after the lunchtime news. Shortly after Telefís Éireann started on the last day of 1961, he hosted a religious discussion programme called Enquiring Minds. When he was put in charge of Sunday Miscellany, which started on RTÉ Radio in 1968, he flourished.

He was its producer for the best part of 20 years, assembling an impressive array of talent, the likes of Agnes Bernelle, John Fleetwood, Shevaun Lynam, John Jordan, Ben Kiely, F.S.L. Lyons of Trinity, Val Mulkerns, Sam McAughtry, Sean MacCarthy, Michael Mulvihill, John Ryan and Bernard Share. The programme was introduced by Ronnie Walsh, the noted actor. It became an unmissable mix of music and musings, mandatory listening for many people on Sunday morning.

It had a wonderfully clubby atmosphere - so much so that many people thought that after each programme had been completed, all the participants repaired to some literary club, where they exchanged bon mots over generous libations. The reality was totally different, of course: there was no "club", as each of the contributors usually came in, recorded his or her piece, then left the Radio Centre in Donnybrook to go quietly about their business. Eddie was a very courteous and calm man, but like all good producers he knew exactly what he wanted, getting quite impatient if it wasn't delivered.

During his time in RTÉ, Eddie MacSweeney, aka Maxwell Sweeney, was legendary. Colleagues often said that he started full-time work at the station at an age when everyone else would have been thinking of retiring. He was working on Sunday Miscellany scripts in his hospital bed until just before his death on June 1st, 1991, just over 14 years ago. He had almost reached his 82nd birthday.

He is survived by two daughters, Anne and Colette. His wife and their mother, Maura, had died many years before, in 1974. She had accompanied him on many of his trips abroad and to the many social functions in the hospitality industry in Ireland.

It is largely a tribute to his theatrical and broadcasting skills that Sunday Miscellany, one of the longest-running of all radio programmes on RTÉ, is still going strong today, But there was only one Eddie MacSweeney.