March of time kills off venerable Northern newspaper

 

The sports paper known variously as ' Ireland's Saturday Night' and the ' Ulster' has lost the struggle with new media, writes Fionnuala O'Connor

AS NEW institutions sprout like mushrooms in Belfast, a venerable one closes down on Saturday after 114 years. The sports paper known variously as Ireland's Saturday Night, the Pinkand the Ulsterand beloved of generations has finally conceded the battle with new media. Announcing the closure Martin Lindsay, editor of the Belfast Telegraphwhich publishes it, called the economic climate the last straw. But the paper's day was long gone.

It was born of very different times, when people waited for news as newsprint rolled off presses and delivery vans roared off, its heyday probably the 1950s and early 1960s before local radio arrived with instant results. The Pinkthen was the first place the serious fan, in those days always male, got the news he needed: everything from school sport to the big games in the day's English and Scottish soccer.

Sports during the week would often be covered, league tables printed. The name stuck long after the colour changed. It was printed on pink paper to distinguish it from the main Telegraph, for only a few years after its launch in 1894 as Ulster Saturday Night. When the first two years were a roaring success the Ulsterbecame Ireland's Saturday Night, with an edition produced for the South. Many went on calling it the Ulster.

Most of the target market was male and Protestant, fresh from watching a match live on Saturday afternoons and headed for the pub. A couple of hours later the Ulsterarrived to help them relive the triumph or tragedy of their own team's performance, the fate of rivals, and their teams across the water: Rangers, Man United, Liverpool, Spurs.

Major sports-lovers and their sports will scarcely lament the closure. They now have 24-hour coverage in papers, radio, television and - increasingly - the internet. They can have results sent to their mobile phones, access reports and results on the internet. The humble newspaper cannot compete.

You can take the view that the Telegraphsustained the Ulsterin deference to unionist parochialism, the "great wee country" mentality. Or you can be kind and look beyond soccer's senior leagues, admittedly the paper's mainstay. For many the appeal was that it reached the spots others ignored: the lower and amateur levels of major sports, the world of boxing, darts, badminton, cycling, indoor bowls, and many more. Adverts offered the personal effects of deceased pigeon-fanciers, columnists opined on fishing, piping and amateur radio. Hopelessly upstaged for years, the Ulsterin its day was a miracle of speed, technology, distribution, and also of reporting.

A remarkable network of unpaid "corrs" would phone in results and reports - until recently in a pre-mobile age, remember - as soon as fixtures ended. The pages fairly hummed with the quirky enthusiasm that keeps sport alive. "It was a cold and windy afternoon for Team Route hill climb at Millbrae, Finvoy today, but it did not stop some fine performances . . . the majority of the birds have flown France or the parents have flown France . . . then a terrible blunder by full-back Armstrong gave Higgins possession . . . "

The paper was produced and distributed inside a couple of hours. Newsagents stayed open to sell it: "newsboys" as young as 10 or 11 - another defunct institution - shouted " Ulster, Ulster" as they sold it round the pubs, competing with the Salvation Army selling the War Cry. At the end of the night the War Crylittered the pub floor. Ireland's Saturday Nightwent home with the drinkers.

It occasionally ran its own weak jokes about its alternative titles, suggesting it was Ireland's Saturday Nightin Derry and the Ulsterin Belfast. Random sports fans consulted for this column remembered what their fathers thought.

"My da got it every week for the pools, to check his pools coupons . . . my daddy couldn't go to bed until he'd read it, and if he couldn't get it in Lurgan he'd drive to Portadown for it . . . my da stopped buying it after Belfast Celtic were forced off the field by Linfield's bigots . . . my late father told me he used to buy it regularly as a young fellow in Letterkenny in the late 1920s, early 1930s, waiting for the English football results . . . for my da, it was just that his first loves, hurling and Gaelic, never featured; it was no excuse that GAA games were on a Sunday, they could have had previews and reviews."

A "minority sports" follower remembered looking for water polo results in the early 1960s "only to find a story saying far down that we'd won some cup with a picture of the Protestant team we'd beaten, and the story was about them".

Last Saturday's penultimate edition had no mention of the upcoming Ulster Gaelic football championship final between Fermanagh and Armagh. It might be a sporting gesture if Ireland's Saturday Nightbowed out by wishing both teams well in this Sunday's replay.

" It might be a sporting gesture if the paper bowed out by wishing both teams well in this Sunday's replay