Post the sad news: An Fear Rua is gone

HE doesn’t look like An Fear Rua.

Post the sad news: An Fear Rua is gone

Instead, the spherical glasses, the prim shirt, tie and jumper combo, the combed white hair and the cleanly shaven face make him look more like a stern university lecturer plucked straight from the 1960s. But Liam Cahill had the strangest habit. “I used to love Friday nights, around midnight I’d sit down at the computer with a couple of cans of Guinness and it was like a cloak descended on me and I became him.” He now even smiles at the idea he’ll have to keep an eye out for the next set of GDP figures and if there’s any upturn he’ll call it the An Fear Rua effect. After all, the next plan he had for his site was a button that would turn the page black and white, remove the logos and make the computer screen look like a Word document. That way when bosses wandered around offices, they’d never realise what their employees were, and more importantly weren’t, doing.

In fact all this week he’s felt like An Fear Rua because of the reaction. A few months back when he revamped the website, he asked for a facility to be installed where he could freeze it all and bring it to an end. It was a sign of how he was thinking. “On the forum over the last couple of years, maybe it’s a microcosm of Irish society. Everything has gotten angrier. Coarseness is the wrong word, maybe it’s despair.” Then in the first few minutes of Monday morning he used that new facility and after 12 years it was finished in a click. “The easiest decision I’d taken in a long time. I didn’t sleep for much of that night with the amount of adrenaline and joy that was running through my veins.”

If you think it’s an overreaction, consider this. Of the 60 or so emails he received in the aftermath, one was from a guy living abroad, looking for the name and email address of another who’d emigrated to nearby that he used to converse with through the site. One was from a man who told the tale of his 75-year-old father. When he came home from work and in the door, he was greeted with a terrifying message. “There’s been some bad news,” said the old man. “What?” replied the son, startled. “An Fear Rua is gone.” Even the National Library of Ireland dropped Cahill a line, saying they had recognised the importance of internet content, were putting together a web archive, had noted his site was of social and cultural importance and wanted to include it.

So if it is a death of sorts, it’s first worth doing an autopsy and considering the cause. “I would now say somewhat sardonically that it may have been a disadvantage that I was a journalist because I was sensitive to issues of defamation, probably more than the average forum administrator. On top of that, I was trained in law and that made it worse. Maybe I was overly sensitive but I don’t think I was and it was getting to the stage where it was gone too far.

“Here’s an example. A certain county, a championship was going on and generally speaking I didn’t even go into those threads. But after three pages of discussion, someone put in a comment saying such and such a club mightn’t do so well now because player x was caught down the town molesting secondary school girls. I caught it, but still...

“Someone in cold blood posted that and quite frankly, true or not, that’s not okay.

“There were always people starting topics as if there’d been convictions. Gangland killings, drug dealers — my concern always was I wouldn’t catch something. The lightning conductors were Dónal Óg Cusack and I’m proud I drove homophobia out of An Fear Rua. DJ Carey to my puzzlement was a lightning conductor. Seán Óg Ó hAilpín and John Mullane to some extent. I was always ashamed of the anti-traveller stuff and I examined my conscience a bit when Eoin Kelly retired recently and had a parting shot at forums. I’m from his club, I know his father and I don’t think it was An Fear Rua he was annoyed about but, you know, I began to fundamentally question what is the purpose of a large forum of anonymous users where a small percentage think they can say what they like about these amateur players. I began to question the validity of that as a project.”

The final straw was after he recently deleted a topic regarding a gangland murder. Soon after a new topic opened and questioned his actions, with one poster suggesting the message board was like North Korea and there was no freedom of speech. “The discussion and analysis that had been going on in my mind for 18 months to two years crystallised,” he says. But if it’s a death of sorts, it’s worth considering the birth and the life too.

Cahill had been a senior correspondent in RTÉ before being offered a role in a burgeoning Intel as their director of communications in Ireland. It was there in 1994 that he first saw the internet long before the rest of the country had, was blown away by its power to the extent he asked to become Irish editor of the company’s own private intranet and started doing reports on their inter-firms games. As a kid in Waterford, he’d had always loved the Irish Press and particularly the name of their Gaelic games correspondent, An Fear Ciúin. Considering a byline for his own reports, he went with An Fear Mór, but changed it to An Fear Rua. He didn’t know it way back then, but he had laid the first brick in a place that was to be a meeting point for tens of thousands.

A few years later in 1999, with Tommy Dunne making Pentium chips during the week, and becoming a bigger force in the Tipperary team at weekends and collecting his second All Star award, Cahill got a work experience student to do a profile of the Toomevara midfielder. It went viral, getting nearly 50,000 readers across Intel’s worldwide staff and that was the Eureka moment. Off he went to a designer of French-Lebanese extraction who worked in the plant and when he mentioned the idea the reply was in a stereotypical accent. “Ah oui, An Fear Rua, the GAA unplugged.”

“To be honest,” says Cahill now, “I still don’t even know what that means.”

When he told the designer he wanted to write quirky, satirical columns on the site as well, the reply again came back in the same treacle-thick tone. “Ah yes, the chronicles of An Fear Rua.” Next was the logo which Cahill sketched himself, but when he gave it to a woman who worked in the plant as a graphic artist, a more feminine version came back. He stuck with it though and soon after, in September of 2000, An Fear Rua was launched as a single page on a friend’s website.

“Throughout 1998 and 1999 there were large companies and if you had a website going for six months they’d buy it for two or three million quid. That was in the back of my mind but that option went completely because six weeks after I left Intel and set up An Fear Rua, the dot-com collapse happened. I’d say I spent €50,000 on advertising and suddenly realised the traffic was not going to happen and I had to hastily get myself a job in PR. If you looked at the readership or traffic to the site, for the first five years it was minimal. But around 2005 it started to climb up. My own feeling was that was to do with the greater availability of broadband.”

From annual revenue of €3,000 in the early days, that had increased to €18,000 by 2007 and €26,000 by 2008, although the economic climate saw that fall back more recently. However the numbers the site attracted continued to grow. In August, 74,000 individual people clicked on the site, there were 450,000 total visits and it resulted in just under two million page reads. Three-quarters of that was for the forum, yet there was only the one high court writ over the years and that was ironically to do with two articles copied and pasted from two national newspaper websites regarding a court case and both were inaccurate. The other 25% of traffic was there for the journalism side of it. Even when the site was slow to attract people, he paid some of those involved in writing and it expanded over the years.

One of those who had a column was An Maor, a nameless Croke Park steward who once wrote about his experience with Charlie McCreevy and his wife when the Hogan Stand was being rebuilt. With dignities on the Cusack Stand side, the then Minister for Finance was brought to the wrong seat, and one which was situated under a load of pigeons on the edge of the roof. Within minutes of throw-in, McCreevy was dotted with droppings, but worse still, his wife’s fur coat looked like a chess board. The week after it was published, at a meeting before a game, the chief steward said if he ever found out who it was, he’d drag him by the neck back out through the gates of Croke Park.

“When I set it up, a friend said you are creating a space for the ordinary GAA fan and that worked very well and to my satisfaction for 10 of the 12 years and that was when the site was still small enough for one man and I could get my arms around monitoring. I had help with people reporting posts and I’d get texts saying I should have a look at this and that. But the problem was it became much more of a challenge when it grew. There were a number of aspects to it, I’m not crying into my coffee but I’d spent a lot of money and there’s no way I could spend more and I think it was too late to involve other people in it. And weighing in on my mind, I deleted several libels that would make your hair stand on end and they’d make a journalist sick to the pit of their stomach.

“It almost got too big for its boots and became too successful for one person alone. My wife used to kill me. It was that time consuming. I’d go home in the evening and the kids were young and I’d just go down to the PC and work until two o’clock in the morning. Now there’s a routine I’ll have to unlearn.

“For years now, I get up in the morning, turn on laptop, check the stats from the previous night and have a look for any potentially controversial topic. I’d get in the car, go to whatever office I’d go to in Dublin and spend half an hour checking it again. I’d keep in touch with it during the day and if an offensive post came up, I’d deal with it. When I got home I’d either go and write stuff, upload photographs, edit stuff, whatever. I’m now not going to do that and that will take some getting used to.”

He says he’d considered selling the site in the past, especially when he was Director of Elections for the Labour Party and didn’t have a free moment. And he’s had an offer in recent days and thinks the site would be ideal to be taken over by a major Irish media website and consumed into their content.

Whether that happens remains to be seen, but this week a lot of GAA fans have had a large amount of extra time on their hands. Meanwhile for the first time in 12 years, when he opened a can of Guinness late last night, it was Liam Cahill that was sipping away on it, and not An Fear Rua.

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