Diarmaid Ferriter: The multilayered genius of Martyn Turner

The cartoonist thinks in words not pictures, which is why his satire carries such power

On August 31st, 1976, this newspaper announced that Martyn Turner "will be contributing drawings exclusively to The Irish Times on a regular basis from today". On that same day the newspaper provided samples of his work, including a cartoon of fulminating Ian Paisley, with one observer of Paisley noting "I understand he's employed by foreign governments to encourage emigration".

Tribal bigotry and intransigence were to remain the backdrop to much of Turner's work for the next 20 years; the "reigns of error" of that black period were a gift to the cartoonist, but Turner never lost sight of the victims as reflected in his 1995 book of Troubles cartoons, Pack Up Your Troubles. A southern audience also needed to see those cartoons to be reminded of its preference for compartmentalisation: as Turner recalled, there was a tendency to think "the North is foreign and really we wish it would just go away. But I felt sod 'em; if they lay claim to the North they can, at least, look at a few cartoons on the North."

Harry Barton, a Belfast writer and broadcaster who was also adept at satirising Ulster zealousness, observed of Turner: “You can be too far away or too close. Martyn’s genius is that he stands at the right distance.” He managed to keep maintaining the right distance, and it is fitting that an exhibition of his work at Epic, the Irish emigration museum on Custom House Quay, has opened in order to pay tribute to a genius we have been exposed to for more than four decades; a sustained excellence and brilliance that is unmatched.

Another cartoon from 1976 depicted the minister for defence Patrick Donegan eating his foot; Donegan insulted the president, Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh, who had referred the Emergency Powers Bill to the Supreme Court to test its constitutionality, much to the chagrin of the government. Ó Dálaigh subsequently resigned. What Turner was later to describe as a “fistful of Dáilers” have provided him with ample material ever since.


Humanity and humbug

He has, in his own words, spoken for a wide audience “who aren’t entirely convinced that our political masters really have our best interests at heart”. Single-handedly he has provided us with a potted history of Irish political leadership and lack thereof over the past 40 years, as well as a broad sweep of Irish culture and society, incorporating farce, ferocity, humanity and humbug.

We’ve got quite used to patting ourselves on the back about how far we’ve come in recent years but Turner’s work, while charting considerable social progress, also provides constant reminders of the stubborn continuities. Drawing with what has been described as exquisite sympathy and wild humour, he has always been adroit at signposting the trouble we store up while never absolving the electorate from blame due to its tendency to embrace and reward the incompetent. Nor has he ever shirked the task of exposing those who speak out of both sides of their mouths in relation to human rights.

As Kathy Sheridan noted some years ago, Turner “would often settle for two words when other freelancers would use 100”, and Turner thinks in words rather than pictures, which is why his satire carries such power as he cuts the ego men and their strategies down to size.

As a historian, I find Turner’s cartoons a remarkably layered guide to turning points in modern Irish history. I remember a heated debate in UCD in 1992 over the X case, when an impassioned speaker held aloft Turner’s cartoon of a girl in the middle of an Ireland surrounded by barbed wire, holding her teddy bear, accompanied by the devastating words: “The introduction of Internment in Ireland for 14 year old girls.” It retained its relevance and potency, like many of his finest cartoons.

Libel laws

Turner has in the past invited us to “Look at the countries where there are no political cartoonists. Would you like to live in those countries?” It is an important reminder of press freedom, and Turner is a great champion of that, but Ireland is not always a beacon of liberality in this regard, and Turner has rightly criticised what he describes as “our chronically one-sided libel laws”. One of his cartoons about Charles Haughey’s corruption was not published but one that was depicts Haughey’s gravestone with this pithy but devastating inscription: “Here Lies CJ”.

What I admire about Turner is that the ferocity of his intellect is marked by a relentless independence. Asked to explain himself, he has said “This is my proper job, drawing silly pictures. Yes, it’s a queer thing for a grown man, but just be grateful: the alternative was to teach your children geography”, a reference to his time studying history at Queen’s University Belfast in the late 1960s. I would be quite happy for my children to be taught geography by Turner, but we should all be grateful that he chose the path he did.