Read all over – An Irishman’s Diary on the Sunday Press
No Irish newspaper has surpassed the sales of the Sunday Press and none ever will. Launched 70 years ago, on September 4th , 1949, the paper’s circulation peaked in 1963 at well over 500,000 sales, almost equal to the combined current sales of all Irish Sunday newspapers. (Audit Bureau of Circulations figures show that the total average sales of Irish Sunday newspapers during the first half of this year was a little over 500,000).
The 1963 peak was for a December 22nd Sunday Press that contained a four- page full- colour supplement on John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the US president who had been assassinated four weeks previously, less than six months after his visit to Ireland. “Considerably more than half-a-million copies of the paper were printed and distributed, but even this huge production – by far the greatest in the history of the Sunday Press and the greatest single issue ever produced by an Irish newspaper – was not sufficient to meet the demand”, it reported a week later.
Average weekly net sales during the second half of 1963 were 466,599, “an all time record for any daily or Sunday newspaper in Ireland”, and they stayed well above 400,000 every week for the remainder of the 1960s and the first half of the 1970s.
During those years the paper boasted that it was “read in two out of every three houses in the Republic” and “by three in every four adults”.
The Sunday Press was the second of three national newspapers launched by the dominant Irish politician of the 20th century, Eamon de Valera, during the years that he and the party that he founded, Fianna Fáil, were not in power. The seminal Irish Press, launched in 1931, and the Evening Press, first published in 1954, also became bestsellers, but neither came near the sales totals of the Sunday title.
Just four years after its launch, with future Irish Times editor Douglas Gageby as its deputy editor, the Sunday Press described itself in 1953 as “the infant prodigy of Irish journalism”.
Two years later it became “the first Irish newspaper to sell more than 400,000 copies” and it hailed “the greatest net sales ever attained by any newspaper in Ireland”, commanding just over 51 per cent of all Sunday-newspaper sales.
News and sport filled nearly half of the paper, and the features section included full pages of fashion and crossword competitions, as well as a page of cartoons and a page on books, the theatre and the cinema.
Long-serving columnists during its heyday included the Jesuit priest Robert Nash, who wrote each week from 1951 to 1985; journalist and broadcaster Breandán Ó hEithir, whose Irish language column ran until 1963; and the pioneering advice columnist Angela MacNamara, whose Questions Answered appeared from 1963 to1981, (sample headlines: “You won’t find a husband in a dancehall” and “Saint Patrick would be ashamed”.)
Veterans’ accounts of the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence appeared almost every week, backed by regular arguments against the partition of Ireland and for the repatriation of the remains of Sir Roger Casement from Pentonville prison in London.
This led to accusations in the Dáil that the paper was “glorifying the gun’. That same Dáil debate culminated in all parties except Fianna Fáil condemning de Valera for continuing in the role of controlling director of all three Irish Press titles while serving as taoiseach. (Earlier, Brendan Behan, himself a 1940s-IRA veteran, quipped that his instinct on opening the pages of the Sunday Press was to duck lest he be hit by a stray bullet).
Sales fell below 400,000 for the first time in over a dozen years in 1975, the year de Valera died. Decline thereafter was at first gradual and then inexorable. It stopped publishing ABC figures in 1982 and it dropped its claim to have the “Biggest sale in Ireland” in 1988.
The Sunday Press ceased publication in 1995. Among its final, futile attempts to arrest circulation decline was the recruitment of Republic of Ireland international soccer manager Jack Charlton to provide a weekly ghost-written column. Fresh from his World Cup triumph at Italia 90 and en route to the 1994 finals in the US, Charlton was the face of an advertising campaign that proclaimed: “He manages one team; he writes for one newspaper – the Sunday Press”. But when he was asked by an English journalist which newspapers he read, Charlton replied: “If I’m in Ireland I buy a few of the Irish papers — I do a column for one of them but I can’t remember its name”.