The seventh issue of the ‘Examiner’ carried its first letter to the editor in 1841. They’re as popular as ever, but who is writing, and why?finds out
— Samuel Johnson, from James Boswell ‘Life of Johnson’ 1791
Joy, despair, anger, encouragement, agreement, or outrage. When you want to make your point, where do you turn? Providing a platform for responses to issues of the day has long been a function of the media. These days, we have social media that offers instant reaction to whatever irks or excites. Every radio programme urges its listeners to ‘get in touch’ by various means. TV doesn’t want to lose out either, running polls, reading out messages, and generally trying to make us feel like we are part of the programme.
However, long before any of these came into existence, newspapers carried their readers’ opinions, thoughts, questions, and outrage on the news of the day. This newspaper was first published on August 30, 1841, and by the seventh issue, a letter less than complimentary concerning the political leader of the time was published, the Examiner’s first letter to the editor. From that day on, every publication of the newspaper has included letters — long, short, serious, funny, and insightful.
But who are the people that take the time, effort, and interest to regularly write (or more often now email) in their views on government action or inaction, sporting triumphs or disasters, huge moral questions, or simple requests for information?
Tommy Roddy, from Galway, is a serial letter writer. He describes the process of writing a letter as “a form of therapy”.
“I write basically because I have something to say. My letters to papers both local and national reflect the personal journey I have been on for a number of years.”
Richard Barton, from Wicklow, began his letter-writing ‘career’ in the early 1990s. “The reason I have been writing letters for 26 years now is because I really believed that I could help to change some people’s thinking by expressing an honest opinion and/or pointing out facts.”
Railing against the administration of the day is a common theme for letter writers, as is evident on these pages almost every day.
As Noel Harrington, from Kinsale, put it succinctly, “I write to highlight the incompetence of successive governments and their huge departure bonuses for doing a lousy job.” Tony Leavy, from Dublin, is even more direct. “I class myself as an ordinary yob who writes to the media giving out about my elders and betters.”
Anthony Woods, from Ennis, is a passionate advocate of writing to the press. “The reason I write letters to newspapers is to express my feelings on topics that I find interesting. I enjoy sharing my words with people.
“People tell me they look forward to reading my letters, and that makes it even more worthwhile. I try to inspire people, and make their day happier, and give them some food for thought... Here in this land, we are lucky to have freedom of speaking our mind. We must always treasure that right. The pen is mightier than the sword.”
Cal Hyland, from West Cork, has written on topics varying from the condition of our roads to republican violence over many years. He echoes those positive opinions on why he writes to newspapers. “It derives from a belief that I have something important to say, that what I have to say might be worthy of consideration by those who should know better and, if I do not say it, no one else might.”
A wish to see more female voices being featured in the letters page was a strong part of why Alison Hackett, from Dun Laoghaire, started writing around eight years ago.
“The reason I started writing letters to editors in the first place was because I so rarely saw my own view being published anywhere in the media and it was so annoying that far more men wrote to the paper (and thus got published) than women.”
But in this day of instant response, why do many people still regard it as important to write a letter to a newspaper? John Fitzgerald, who has been writing letters since the 1970s, strongly believes newspaper letters still matter. “Since the arrival of social media, I’ve written posts and commented on various online forums, but I’d hate to think that these will ever replace letters to the editor. Social media and forums are more
accessible, since any comment or piece of writing can get ‘out there’, but the downside is that any kind of rubbish can get published when there’s no editorial process.”
Dennis Fitzgerald, an Australian national who keeps an eye on the world, is another who decries the perceived fall in standards brought about by social media. “The art of letter writing is apparently a dying one, although it should be one that is encouraged especially in this era of fake news and opinion sent out by some tweeting twits and the (un)social media that so wastefully occupies the time of our youth and too many other citizens.”
Jack Power, associate editor of the Irish Examiner, is similarly encouraging of the art of writing to newspapers. “In a world where social commentary is now almost free of any kind of professional oversight — or curating, to use today’s vernacular — the letters columns of mature, honest newspapers are, as they ever were, a reliable weather vane of how a society feels on certain issues. They are a kind of a social pulse giving an insight into the health — in the broadest terms — of the nation. They are direct, from-the-heart commentary.”
Brevity, an ability to make your point in as short a composition as possible, is one that all readers appreciate.
Jack Power has some salient insights on what makes a good letter. “The best letters are brief and sharp. They are usually just two paragraphs of watertight argument well expressed and always engaging. Really good letters might cause a reader to at least reflect on their own position or even occasionally change it.”
John Williams, from Clonmel, says he tries to keep everything as short as possible. “I enjoy giving expression to some thought which I think worthy of consideration. Hence most of my letters consist of one sentence which is in the form of a question. Writing such a letter is just asking someone to consider something rather than telling them what to think.”
Williams says he has been surprised how many people he knows who read his musings. Indeed, sometimes the feedback can come through a most circuitous route, as happened when a letter of his was published in a Sunday newspaper. “My late parents were in Donegal the weekend it was published. They were having a meal and heard someone at the next table discussing my letter. I do not recall the subject but the words ‘eejit’ and ‘Clonmel’ were in the conversation.”
Dennis Fitzgerald has insights on the universality of some issues. “Letters commenting on, or condemning, the latest President Trump tweet seemed well received in British and Canadian papers, whereas poking fun at the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un, was frequently published everywhere.”
For others, their letter writing is crucial to a campaign that they are involved with. Derek Linster has fought for years to get justice for survivors of Bethany Care Home. Many children died in the Protestant institution while others were abused, mistreated and malnourished.
“I am part of a very small group,” he says. “My letters have been very helpful when I have had them in and have kept my story alive.
“Most Irish readers and more have been behind me for 20 years as most people don’t like seeing a small group not been treated correctly. Without your letter editors, I could not have kept my case going.”
John Fitzgerald has written extensively on animal cruelty and blood sports. “I wrote those as part of a campaign I’ve been involved in since the late 1970s. But I’ve written on every conceivable subject at one time or another.”
One topic he feels compelled to write about is suicide. “I write from time to time on the theme in the hope that maybe someone reading it will reconsider that awful decision to end his or her life.”
As could perhaps be expected, expressing very strong views has often provoked strong reactions. “I rarely get letters by post now, just emails and messages on Facebook, but I used to get strong reactions to letters all through the ’80s and ’90s… especially the ones on blood sports. When I opened a letter I had no idea if it would be favourable or hostile. Responses always went to the extremes: I was either gushingly complimented for being anti-hare coursing or subjected to ferocious tirades of abuse… It fascinated me that some people would take the trouble to write 14- or 20-page letters trying to persuade me how wrong I was and what they’d like to do to me.”
Psychiatry is a topic that exercises Tommy Roddy particularly. “Many of my letters have a strong personal aspect to them. I have been critical of biomedical psychiatry for years based on personal experience.”
A feature of all letters pages is the back and forth that develops between letter writers, although many of our letters writers would welcome even more interaction. Whether in support or disagreement, to correct a perceived inaccuracy, or introduce a whole new strand to the argument, letters can often develop a life of their own.
The late taoiseach Jack Lynch, in 1964, responded not to a political attack but one far more important: Christy Ring. Responding to a letter claiming Lynch had asked the famous Cork hurler to leave his club Cloyne for Glen Rovers, Lynch replied to correct the record, stating that Ring had already left Cloyne when he was asked to join the Glen.
Major issues of our time always provoke reactions, whether it be abortion, water charges, homelessness or historical events. But Jack Power has a warning for individuals or groups seeking to push a particular agenda. “As we may discover in the coming months if we have not already, an orchestrated letter campaign is so obvious and biased as to be almost counter-productive.”
But writing can consume a considerable amount of time and effort. John Fitzgerald appreciates that his level of output — 2,000 published letters — is not the norm.
“Some people I know have each written one letter to a newspaper in their lives. That’s probably the norm. I imagine some people think that prolific letter writers like myself are a bit daft or obsessive, but I suppose it’s a bit like any passionate hobby or compulsion that takes on a life of its own.”
Others have found their interest fluctuating over the years. Richard Barton is one who has not always found it possible to maintain his enthusiasm. “Three years ago, I wrote to your paper stating that I was not going to write any more letters because nothing ever changed. Clearly, me using valuable time writing letters changed nothing. However, seven or eight months later, I got so angry about something that I wrote another letter. Then, like many addictions, I wrote some more.
“I am on the verge of stopping again. Then, by coincidence, today, I got angry again at two stories on the Irish Examiner’s front page — the closure of garda stations and also another subtle plug for these outrageous flu vaccinations by some bishop. So off I go again.”
Indeed, the letters page of the newspaper may not be the last place we see Richard’s contributions, as he has retained a copy of all his letters for a possible book. Someone who has compiled her letters into a book is Alison Hackett, who published her collection called Yours etc last year. Since then, her views have been aired on a variety of topics: Equality, health, cross-border politics, even poetry. “Most mornings, I read the papers and within a couple of articles find myself reaching for the laptop to write a letter to the editor of whichever publication I have been reading.
“By writing letters to editors, I practised finding my voice, my tone, but always seeking economy so that I might ‘land’ in the limited printing space available.”
Interestingly, Alison’s letter writing campaign draws parallels with previous generations of her family. Her mother wrote letters to the Examiner in the late-1960s with regard to reform and changes to Protestant schools in Cork, something Alison was unaware of when she began her writing, and her great grandfather wrote letters concerning the poorer children in Cork needing somewhere other than the streets to play in the early part of the 20th century.
Dennis Fitzgerald has a simple aspiration for anyone contemplating a life of letters, stating that “the world would be a better place if everybody wrote letters to the editor”.
But perhaps the final word should go to Alison Hackett. “My motivation was to be heard, to no longer remain silent. But, I warn you, getting published can be an addictive pursuit.”
JACK LYNCH’S LETTER TO THE EDITOR (OCT 29, 1964)
Sir – I wish to correct a statement made in a letter in to-day’s (October 28) “Examiner” from your anonymous correspondent, “Nineteen Thirty-Nine,” to the effect that I asked Christy Ring to leave his own club to join Glen Rovers.
When I spoke to Christy in the early 1940’s about joining Glen Rovers, he had left the Cloyne club for a considerable time and was not then a member of any other club. This, in fact, was well known at the time. Otherwise, I would not have invited him to join the Glen.