Book review: The Press Gang

The journalists at the Irish Press group were as hard drinking as they were hardworking. Sue Leonard hears many tall tales and true from David Kenny, who was there before its demise in 1995.  

DAVID KENNY comes from a line of journalists and writers stretching back five generations. His father worked on The Irish Press; but when, as an 18-year-old, David decided to eschew the place he had won at college, and instead applied for a job on The Press, he didn’t inform his father, who had recently retired.

He duly turned up at Mulligan’s pub in Poolbeg Street for his first interview with the chief sub, Seán Purcell.

“The only question I remember him asking, was ‘what are you having?’ I asked for Guinness. I was a skinny kid, and I struggled my way through it.

“I was employed as a copy boy, and I learned how to drink,” he says.

“There was no canteen, and on nights at 9.30 you went to Mulligan’s and drank as much as you liked, but you had to be back by 10.00. One sub, getting back at 10.05, was given out to. He said, ‘You try drinking four pints in half an hour and see how you fare?’”

It was an exciting time for Kenny, who was eventually promoted, becoming a sub-editor, and a contributor.

“While madness persisted there was huge professionalism,” he says. “We were tough. We drank, but we had to keep it together. There was a great sense of camaraderie. If a colleague was locked, we would cover for them.”

Started by Éamon de Valera in 1931, supporting the ideals of 1916, The Irish Press Group rode high for decades. But from 1985, when Kenny arrived, until the Press Group’s sad demise 10 years later, there was a Dunkirk spirit.

“We were always on the brink of closing. Soon after I started a dispute closed us for a month; that was a taste of things to come.”

Fifty-five former employees have contributed to The Press Gang; tales from the glory days of newspapers. Their sometimes hair-raising memories highlight a bygone world; where, without Google, journalists had to be resourceful.

“If you didn’t have change for a public telephone, you didn’t ring in the story, it didn’t get in the paper, and people missed out.” The office was a dirty and noisy space.

“If you walked in at the time an edition was getting printed, there was this subterranean clanging, roaring, trembling, and thundering going on below you. It was like a ship’s engine. You clanged along the metal gangway as you walked in, and you had the clank of typewriters, shouting of arguments, televisions blaring. It assaulted your senses.”

In the foreword, former editor Tim Pat Coogan claims he brought feminism to Ireland by recruiting Mary Kenny as woman’s editor. And Mary Kenny remembers fondly the strong campaigning pieces she commissioned to the likes of Rosita Boland and Anne Harris.

A later recruit, Maureen Browne remembers a colleague getting badly caught out when she wrote of flags flying above the new basilica in Lourdes, not realising it was an underground basilica. She hadn’t bothered to travel beyond Paris.

Reporter, sub-editor, and columnist Eanna Brophy devotes his piece to his colleague Michael Hand. Admiring his colourful character, unerring nose for a good story, his contacts, and ability to build up a rapport with everyone, as well as his writing skill, he remembers, particularly, the pieces Hand wrote after Bloody Sunday in Derry.

“He visited the home of every family of those who had been shot dead, and was made welcome in every one.”

Michael Keane, who rose to editor of The Sunday Press, ends a hilarious collection of anecdotes on a sombre note.

“In the space of two weeks I had the pleasure of meeting Prince Charles, President Clinton, Hilary Clinton — and Miss Kelly at hatch 19 at the dole office.”

Continuing this theme, Michael O’Kane, the group chief news reporter, recalls the pangs of depression he felt after the groups’ closure.

“Despair at the thought of all those years of hard work and journalistic idealism gone down the drain.”

It was a feeling shared by most. Kenny, appalled at the injustice, was one of many who took over the press building in protest. “I was 28 — and a cranky little fucker. It was the final injustice. I had no contacts. I thought I would never work again.” He couldn’t have been more wrong. For a few months Kenny worked on the Xpress — raising funds and awareness of the ex-employees’ plight.

“Then Tony O’Donoghue, the sports editor in RTÉ, got me a job writing scripts on evening TV news. And Michael Carwood, The Sunday Press sports editor, brought me in as his deputy on the new paper, The Evening News, even though I knew nothing about sport and cared less.”

The Evening News folded after a few months. But soon afterwards, David was offered a job on the Evening Herald. “Paul Drury, who took me on, liked Irish Press journalists. He said we were self- starters. He asked me to recommend other journalists.

“We’d had to work hard to keep the paper running. In The Press, when you had finished what you had to do, you turned to the person beside you and said, ‘let me give you a hand with that.’ Everyone mucked in.”

He stayed at the Evening Herald until 2006, working his way up to acting deputy editor. A move to The Tribune followed; and when that paper folded in 2011, David felt real despair. “Freelancing was really difficult from a position where you are cosseted. You’re ringing an editor who doesn’t know who you are or that you can produce. I can write anything. I’m a hack. And I will throw myself into a story, and do anything you want. I was so crestfallen. I wanted to lecture, but couldn’t without a degree.”

David has never recovered financially, but loves the variety of his career today. He’s written books; composed the theme music for an Italian horror movie; worked as a talking head on TV, and presented Kenny Wild, performing stunts on the Wild Atlantic Way.

“I do a bit of everything. In February, I’m bringing out my Dad’s book On Maire Nic Shiubhlaigh. I’ve just written a children’s book about a pigeon who won’t fly; he travels in taxis and on buses. I’ve written a fantasy book for teenagers, and I’m developing a kids’ cartoon. I’m always pitching ideas, and I’ll do whatever comes up in the meantime.”

Feeling on the scrapheap in his 40s made David realise how the older journalists on The Irish Press must have felt. Feeling the twentieth anniversary of the paper’s closure should be marked, David found his publisher, then posted on The Irish Press Journalist’s Facebook Page asking people to write 2,000 words.

“I said no score settling; talk about yourself and write in the first person. And it must be entertaining. I didn’t chase people, and I edited very lightly. Every entry is beautifully written.”

He’s proud of the book; and delighted that Roy Greenslade praised it in The Guardian.

Meanwhile, he still dreams about his time at The Irish Press.

“It’s a really mournful, sad, longing to be back. I was unhappy there. I had a nervous breakdown in my early 20s. I should never have worked nights. But I learned the industry from the top down.

“I dream of walking up the back steps. I can see the cracks in the steps, and Seán, the night watchman who was missing a couple of teeth. Every night I’d say, ‘Hiya Baldie,’ and he would say, ‘It’s Mr fucking Baldie to you.’

“You walked over the dimpled metal gangway, and looked down at the stokers who were black with ink. It got into you. You could feel it in your feet.”

The Press Gang

Edited by David Kenny

New Island, €16.99;

Kindle, €9.01


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