Life and ‘Times’ – An Irishman’s Diary on Douglas Gageby

   Douglas Gageby: centenary of his  birth. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Douglas Gageby: centenary of his birth. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill


Great men and women do great things. But a lot of the time they are mere mortals, just doing what they do to get through to the end of the day.

This month marks the centenary of the birth of Douglas Gageby, who was considered by many the greatest Irish newspaper editor of the 20th century. Like the bulk of those who worked under him through two periods as editor of The Irish Times I simply considered him “The Editor” or Mr Gageby, a man above the rest.

Well certainly a man above me. I first met him when I joined The Irish Times in 1973. He was the Editor and I was coming in as a copyboy in the subs’ department, ie the first rung of a very steep ladder. Not exactly equals. But as I was walking in the door he was walking out. Well not quite but near enough. Within months of me joining up, he was skedaddling out the door a few hundred thousand pounds richer after then chief executive Maj TB McDowell had orchestrated the sale of the newspaper into a protective trust which he would cleverly control long into the future. Between them they had worked a magical trick over the previous decade by turning the almost bankrupt Irish Times company into a prosperous business and the newspaper title of the moment.

Gageby would return in the late 1970s as his successor Fergus Pyle struggled to drag the newspaper through the recession engendered by the first oil crisis amid dramatically falling circulation. Once again he worked his magic and the newspaper prospered. And this time I was there for the fun and games. All those who worked with him have their Gageby stories – and they are not universal in their love and appreciation – and I have mine.

Gageby was a veteran of the Army. Note no “Irish” and uppercase “A” – woe betide the innocent who might describe an “Irish army soldier”; it would be the first and last time – and both the way he led his journalists, and what he expected of them, reflected his military training. Respect flowed both ways but he was always the Editor. It wasn’t that he was a stickler for discipline – though he could be brutally tough – but he expected and rewarded serious commitment to the newspaper, to the craft of journalism. He was also an Irish republican – woe of even greater dimensions would befall anyone who might idly describe the Six Counties as “Ulster”.

In general I had few angry run-ins with him save for an ill-judged interview I conducted with British rock star Tom Robinson in the late 1970s. Robinson was a gay activist who had hits with 2468 Motorway and the anthem Sing If You’re Glad To Be Gay. He was not behind the door about his sexuality or the politics of it. The interview was lively and included a section where he questioned anyone’s right to tell him who he could have sex with. All fine except he worked himself up to a fine lather with frequent references to the “f” word which Boswell here felt worthy of publishing in The Irish Times. All of them. God that’s a powerful quote, I remember myself thinking as I transcribed it from tape.

Normally, sub-editors would catch such naiveté when processing the copy. But as it was late and I was a sub myself in my other Irish Times life, I processed the copy and sent it down to the printers. Even so, the page editor should have caught it the next day when he reviewed the page but for some reason he didn’t.

The day it was published I arrived into work at 8.30pm for the late shift. “You’re lucky you’re on the late,‘ said a colleague. “Gageby’s gone home but he was gunning for you – something about that interview you had in the paper. Said he never read so many fucks in one paragraph. He’s furious.”

I opened the paper and read the piece for the first time in print. As I read the multiple transgressions of the unwritten rule about expletives – use them if you must but sparingly and only if they are essential to the story – I’m sure I turned pale. What was I thinking? “Stay out of his way and maybe he’ll forget about it,” my colleague offered.

Luckily I had a few days off. And it had faded from my mind when I returned to work. Late in the evening I was running down the stairs to the caseroom when who should pass by? “Hey you”, he shouted almost in surprise as I rushed by him. “Come here.” I did as instructed, cowed, awaiting the metaphorical blow. “Don’t ever again use the word ‘fuck’, ‘fucker’, ‘fucking’ or any other variation of that word without the express permission of me or the deputy editor. IS THAT CLEAR?” I mumbled a suitably contrite “Yes, Mr Gageby”. I turned to leave, desperate to find sanctuary anywhere fast, but he was not quite finished. “Oh and by the way he wasn’t worth half that fucking space.”

Another strong memory involved a happier outcome. In May 1979, I was offered an interview with Abba. Then features editor Conor Brady suggested that instead of doing a phone interview I might do it in person in Stockholm. I warmly agreed – foreign assignments were then rare. London maybe, but Stockholm seemed another world. Abba also agreed and so arrangements were put in train to get me there. I was advised to get an advance on expenses as Sweden was then known to be very expensive. It was agreed that I would be given £150 but that the Editor would have to sign off on the advance. So off I went to the Editor’s office. “Excuse me, Mr Gageby, but the accountants asked me to get you to sign this for advance expenses.” I handed him a form.

“What’s this for?”

“I’m going to Stockholm to interview Abba.”

“Who are they?”

And so I began to describe who Abba were even though I half knew I was being gently played – he would have agreed in advance that it was a worthwhile project.

He cut me short. “Do you know how expensive Sweden is? You won’t get very far on £150. Tell them to make it £300 and tell them I said so.”

And he was right. Stockholm was seriously expensive.

Happy birthday, Mr Gageby.

Douglas Gageby will be remembered on Bowman on RTÉ Radio 1 at 8.30am tomorrow (September 30th)

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