“The bastards are trying to get in!” The former Republican prisoner raced through the caseroom and down the back stairs, cursing and puffing. His voice trailed away as we sat, nerves flickering, in the light of the night-town reporter’s TV. I lit a ciggie, convinced I wouldn’t have it finished before the Swat team of security guards swarmed into the newsroom.
“They’ll never take us alive,” someone said, drily.
“Oh yes they bloody will,” I replied, fully intending to be first under a desk when the baton charge kicked off.
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It was Saturday, May 27, 1995, and the presses had stopped rolling at Burgh Quay. The Irish Press had been founded with IRA money and so it seemed fitting that former Republican prisoner Gerry O’Hare had gone down fighting at the back door.
“That’s the last we’ll see of him,” I thought. I was wrong, Gerry re-emerged a few minutes later. Management had not ordered a storming of the building. It had been sealed off though. We were now fully committed to what would be one of the most bizarre four-day sit-ins in Irish history.
It all began on Thursday, May 25, when our NUJ chapel went into mandatory session over the sacking of Colm Rapple. The finance journalist had been fired for comments he made in the Irish Times about the management of the paper, which had been founded by Éamon de Valera in 1931.
The Press workers had laboured in a Dunkirk atmosphere for years, producing newspapers with meagre resources and poor pay (we hadn’t had a rise in a decade). Loyalty to the titles and each other was what kept us going. Rapple’s sacking was the final insult. No paper was produced that day.
Management ultimately refused to engage in a meaningful way. They wanted to liquidate the business, clear their debts, and carry on as a company that no longer produced papers. They succeeded in this but we weren’t going to give up without a fight. We would find an examiner and force Dev Jr and Co to talk and walk.
The day after Rapple’s sacking, management ordered us to leave the building. We ignored them. Technically we would remain at our desks available for work.
That evening, I took my ‘cutline’ break in the Regal bar on Hawkins St. I was depressed and scared. I had entered the paper as a copyboy, aged 18, in 1985, working my way on to the sports sub-editors’ bench. I knew no other way of life or work.
I started just as ‘hot metal’ [typesetting] was ending. I remember the smell and the noise of the old caseroom, with its snarly overseer and inky men sitting behind tall, elaborate Linotype machines. This was a world of archaic work practices — where you could be reprimanded or ‘chapeled’ for touching a page proof without permission.
It also had its own language. There were nonpareils, ems and ens, widows, orphans, galleys, and Dragon’s Blood (Google them). Then there was The Stone, where pages were laid out back-to-front. The Stone sub-editor was not allowed to stand on the same side as the compositor/printer so had to be able to read stories back-to-front and upside down.
Three months after joining, the papers closed and re-opened over a dispute involving new technology. Editorial direct-input computers had been bought, negating the need for the Irish Print Union. A compromise was reached where stories were written on computers, printed off and sub-edited by pen. They were then sent to the caseroom to be retyped back into the system. It was an untenable situation. It was also one fraught with danger, depending on the time of evening and amount of alcohol consumed.
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On one occasion, a story about a famous ballerina “walking into the room and heading straight for the exercise barre” appeared as ‘Famous ballerina wa*ks into room and heads straight for the bar’.
There were also cases of the English soccer team “wearing the shite [white] shirt with pride” and boxers being out for something that nearly spelled ‘count’.
The madness of this solution was not out of place in a national institution with the emphasis on ‘institution’. The place heaved with characters. Most of the milder nut cases self-medicated in Mulligan’s of Poolbeg St. Booze was central to everything. My ‘interview’ for copyboy had been conducted in Mulls and consisted of me buying the chief sub a pint.
Levels of inebriation varied throughout the week — peaking on a Wednesday evening when we had been paid in cash. Work started at 4.30pm with our first pub break between 9.30pm and 10pm. There were strict rules about not abusing this privilege. I recall a sub receiving a bollicking for being tardy.
“You’re five minutes late,” scolded the chief sub.
“Well YOU try drinking four pints in only half an hour,” came the reply.
Then there was the hack who fell on ice, breaking his leg, as he walked to the last bus. The next day, colleagues reported that he had broken his leg in two places: Mulligan’s and the Regal.
I remember one evening going for drinks in the Irish Times Club on D’Olier St at 3am and waking up on a cliff ledge on Killiney Beach — 13km away — several hours later. A drinking companion was asleep and snoring happily on the sand below.
One particularly bonkers journo was renowned for eating raw fish (heads and all) in a pub. One night he was asked to hold a tenner while two punters sorted out a bet over a soccer result. He ate that too.
This was the world I knew — before the advent of mobile phones, social media, and selfies. It was ending while I sat in the Regal on the second day of the dispute. At closing time, I went back to the office. I had suggested the previous day that we do our own newspaper. Those present, including Liam Mackey (now of the Irish Examiner), began to write and assemble the basics. I raided the caseroom looking for a masthead and other ‘blocks’ (graphics).
The XPress was born and continued to be published until after the All-Ireland final of that year. It raised much-needed funds and kept us in the public eye.
The paper cost a penny, but the public were generous and money poured in to support the workers’ families. It was sold in bars and on street corners, at the Fianna Fáil ard fheis and the races. Celebs queued up to be photographed in it: U2, Norm from Cheers...
Household names were quoted in it, bemoaning the IP’s fate: Mick ‘Miley’ Lally, Liam Clancy, Joe Duffy, Dave Fanning, Neil Jordan, Bono, Eamon Coghlan, Gerry Adams (when he wasn’t fashionable), the current President, members of the UUP, and more.
Politicians of all hues lent their support, except for one ‘socialist’ TD who told our chief sub that we “couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery”. This was ironic as he was walking into a piss-up at the French Embassy for Bastille Day at the time.
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PJ Mara dropped in a cheque for £250 (not in a brown envelope) and Tim Pat Coogan donated £200 made payable to Mulligan’s. Mackey’s Hot Press connections came in handy. He got a world exclusive interview from U2 for the XPress. It’s still being read online today.
He also brought Jack Charlton’s team to the back door to lend support. Steve Collins was with them, looking slightly confused — as was Jack. Liam later pointed out that there was always some confusion when Jack was around.
“How long are you here, Liam?” he asked through the back door.
“Five years in total,” replied Mackey.
“Five years?!!” Jack was impressed with our staying power, until it was pointed out that Liam was referring to his tenure as a Press scribe, not the length of the occupation.
Brendan O’Carroll arrived too. “I’ve come to get the solution to yesterday’s crossword,” he said. It may not seem funny now, but it was hilarious at the time.
Looking back, it was hard to believe the support we got. Sky News came to the back door and our protest went international. There was even a letter of support from one of Russia’s leading dissident poets, Yevgeny Yevtushenko.
What made the Press sit-in different to other industrial rows was that the titles were still woven into the fabric of Irish life. They had the power to challenge at a time when politicians and the Church still held sway. We were white collar workers occupying a landmark building. Journalists are an inert bunch; we report on other people’s actions. Now we were taking direct action and the public loved it. I did too: I was 28 and sticking it to The Man. The dispute was a breath of fresh air after years of stagnation on Burgh Quay.
The 18 occupiers would have given anything for a (literal) breath of fresh air. The roof had been closed off, so there was no access to the elements. The place stank of cigarette smoke, curries, and BO. We were manky and one of our number had to be treated for septicaemia after cutting his leg in the canteen. The joke was that he got foot poisoning where others might have got food poisoning. Hot water was cut off. I showered only once, descending into the deserted machine hall to use the facilities. I lost certain parts of my anatomy when the freezing water hit me.
We worked on the XPress and were kept busy with various tasks allotted by the beleaguered Mother of the Chapel, Louise Ní Chríodáin. Gifts flooded in and the newsroom resembled BBC’s Swap Shop, with tables groaning under the weight of food, booze, toys, clothes.
There was a steady stream of smokes arriving too. Tom Kitt TD even got off a flight from South Africa to drop in duty-free cigs to the hacking hacks. Cork looked after us well: Murphy’s made a special delivery to keep us hydrated.
Sleep was always elusive. The newsroom was filthy and there was always the fear of rodent activity. I had worked with a few rats — I didn’t want to sleep with them too. I spent my nights on a desk in the subs area. The phones rang throughout the night and there were 5am fire alarm ‘calls’. The lights flickered non-stop.
The fatigue bred giddiness and irritability, but also forged strong bonds. Since then, I have always looked up, with affection, to Mackey as an older, cooler brother in the business.
On Day 4 we were instructed by the NUJ to vacate the building as Labour Court talks were beginning. That night, as Sky News broadcast funereal reports from the back door, we barrelled into the beer. Despite our depression at the impending evacuation we did a chariot race on swivel chairs around the newsroom.
Friends and colleagues left Mulligan’s and serenaded us from the street below the canteen windows. We sang back. I think I croaked ‘The Rare Ould Times’.
The following morning, we assembled in the canteen and waited to be ‘liberated’. I expected a few friends, my girlfriend (now my wife), and others to attend. Then I heard the drumming... a 1,000-strong parade was marching up to the back door.
I walked down the steps and was absorbed into a crowd of people who would never reassemble under such extraordinary circumstances again.
The Press closure was a coming-of-age thing for me. Even though we failed to keep the papers open, the dispute taught me to stand up for myself. Its biggest achievement was the creation of a single-minded entity in an industry populated by mavericks.
Our unity proved that, despite the outcome, it is always worth standing up to despots. Even if it’s just to irritate and embarrass them.
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