The best of Times – Joe Breen on Irish Times design editor Andy Barclay

An Irishman’s Diary

As the Christmas tree lights were carefully placed in the same weathered box of years past, I noticed the date of the copy of The Irish Times that would be their bed: December 30th, 1998. And though I had probably glanced at this edition over the years I’d never opened it.

The yellowed pages would probably have revealed little, even to an interested historian. The world of 1998 was innocent of what was to come.

But that was not my concern. I was thinking of Andy Barclay, a former Irish Times design editor who passed away last year. Was he on that night? The clues would be in the layout. His signature included dramatic crops of photographs and elegant presentation that transformed relatively quotidian copy and images into something with a higher value.

The year of 1998 had been momentous. In April, the Belfast Agreement, aka the Good Friday agreement, had been signed after tortuous negotiations. I remember the night well, though the timings of what happened are a blur. The deal was on, the deal was off, the deal was on again. If the agreement didn't happen, then the planned 12-page supplement would be redundant. In 1998, I was then production editor of the newspaper so while I fretted about the what-ifs, work continued on the supplement with Andy at the helm.


Andy was an imposing figure, both physically and intellectually. The only child of a Newcastle working-class family, he started working in advertising in London after he graduated from Cambridge with a degree in geography. And it was his advertising career that brought him to Belfast in the early 1970s when he worked on a project with the Northern Ireland tourist authority. The Troubles may have been a challenge too far for tourism but by then Andy had turned to journalism. Initially he worked on the Irish News in Belfast before heading south to work with editor John Mulcahy, first on Hibernia, and then on the Sunday Tribune, where he built up a formidable reputation for daring, impactful design. In his book Up With the Times, Conor Brady, who edited the Tribune in the early 1980s, described his work as brilliant. So it was no great surprise when Andy joined this newspaper as design editor in the late 1980s – among the first crop of new faces after Brady was appointed editor in 1986.

His integration into The Irish Times fold was helped by the fact that he had fallen in love with Patsey Murphy, then a rising star of this parish. They would later have two children, Annie and Ben, whom he adored.

Among Andy’s first tasks was one that has stood the test of time. The Irish Times masthead was then squeezed between two earpiece ads. He removed them, increased the size of the Times Bold type. It was simple yet the impact was immediate, giving the newspaper a strong and clear visual identity that has lasted through numerous redesigns. He also brought in a number of other subtle design changes that modernised the look of the newspaper without causing fear or flight in readers. His designs conveyed a strong sense of authority, elegance and flair.

He was also always generous in sharing and helping others, particularly young journalists. A gift note, found after his death, stated simply: “For Andy, colleague, teacher and friend ...”

He was all of those, plus an avid collector of all kinds of fascinating bric-à-brac, old books, posters, stuffed animals, images, paintings, things that just caught his scholarly magpie eye. His locker in The Irish Times overflowed with all manner of quirky stuff such as a 1926 edition of Dan Breen’s My Fight for Irish Freedom which he presented to me one day with a typically shy smile and a quip: “Was he your uncle?”

He also had a great interest in the natural world which led to one of his stranger episodes when Charles J Haughey invited him on to Inishvickillane, his private island in the Blaskets off the Kerry coast. Haughey had refused all visit requests from journalists, but somehow Andy managed to convince him of his good intentions.

The resulting article in the Sunday Tribune in 1984, "The King of Paradise Island", featured a memorable quote from the former leader of Fianna Fáil: "I was asked would I declare a republic here and I said 'No, it would be a monarchy.'"

If Andy knew a good quote when he heard one, he was even more astute visually. On that Friday in April 1998. as the fact of the agreement became clearer, there was the question of what image should be used on the front of the supplement to capture what was an indisputable moment in history. As ideas and images got tossed around, Andy quietly pulled up Trevor McBride’s photograph of Maurice Herron’s striking sculpture Hands Across the Divide, at Craigavon Bridge in Derry, and focused in on the hands.

It was perfect. Text, images, layout, all fell into place. He was in the zone. A creative wizard at the top of his game when history called.

In recent years Andy had been unwell, but he remained in thrall to his books, his collections and to the natural world. A remarkable character to the end.