Unfolding history observed

Joe Carroll

As the editor warns the reader, this book is not “a shadow history of Ireland since 1922 covering all major events and phenomena through the lens of contemporary journalism” but it is probably unbeatable for showing how Ireland has changed in that time.

In ‘The Taking of Cork’ in August 1922 written by Frank Geary of the Irish Independent, he takes note of the Sacred Heart badges pinned on the caps of the Free State troops. In 2006, Frank McDonald and Kathy Sheridan of The Irish Times are reporting how the Belmayne luxury development in north Dublin was launched using raunchy posters showing sex on top of a kitchen island unit.

The editor has done a remarkable job selecting the 57 pieces of descriptive journalism at its best. Some are tragic like Mary Raftery and Michael Viney on life for children in industrial schools. Some are hilarious, if also cringe-making, on the antics of Irish soccer supporters abroad written by Joseph O’Connor and Donald Mahoney.

There is the combination of harrowing description and reflection in pieces by Denis Johnston in the just liberated Buchenwald, Mary Holland on the lynching of two British soldiers at a funeral in West Belfast and Kevin Myers on famine in Ethiopia.

There are interesting parallels. In 1942, Anglo-Irish novelist, Elizabeth Bowen, interviewed the then Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, over tea, as part of a report on neutral Ireland she sent to the Ministry of Information in London. She was “struck by the balance he kept, in his point of view, between the mystical (we discussed visions) and the practical – belief in good cooking, intelligent domestic life etc.” 

In 2011, Catriona Crowe wrote a profile of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, not about “good cooking” but his struggle to persuade the Irish Church to face up to its responsibilities for widespread child abuse by clerics.

The article by a foreign reporter, Michael Lewis of Vanity Fair, entitled The Economist and the Crash should be re-printed every year in all Irish newspapers to remind us how Ireland went mad in the Celtic Tiger years.

Professor Morgan Kelly of UCD describes to Lewis how Irish banks were allowed to drag the country into near-ruin by reckless lending which he was warning about in 2007. The Irish Independent refused to print Kelly’s article as it was “offensive”. The Sunday Business Post just sat on it so he offered it to The Irish Times which printed it in September 2007 but it was dismissed as the work of a nutty professor.

Several of the pieces were never intended for publication as they were confidential reports by diplomats. When Sir John Maffey, about to be appointed British Representative in Ireland in September 1939, met the Taoiseach, Eamon de Valera, he discovered that he was practically blind but totally in command.

Sean Ronan of the then Department of External Affairs made a detailed report in 1965 of the exhumation of Roger Casement’s remains in Pentonville Prison before transfer back to Ireland for re-burial as part of the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising. The report makes grisly reading but is astonishingly detailed.

Other first-class reporting will be new to many readers as they appeared in small circulation magazines like the Dublin Review. A lengthy interview with Mary McAleese by Vincent Browne for RTE television in September 1997 was never transmitted as she declared her candidature for the Presidential election soon afterwards. It was printed in Magill in January 1998 and shows that her outspokenness about women’s role in the Church and acknowledging the numbers of gay men in the priesthood are not of recent vintage.