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Death of a newspaper

County View

Death of a newspaper


John Healy

TWENTY years ago this month, the Irish Press newspaper closed down, making six hundred people jobless and leaving a sour legacy of bitterness in its wake.
It was a sad but bizarre ending to a proud, sixty year history of newspaper publishing. The Press Group of newspapers had scaled the heights, enjoyed massive circulation success, and was rightly admired for the quality of its writing. But in the end, changing social and economic times were key to its downfall.
Set up in 1931 by de Valera as an avowedly nationalist publication, primarily to counter balance the perceived establishment bias of the existing national dailies, it was an early success. Funded by bond sales on a fundraising drive in America by its founder, it left no room for doubt as to where its identity lay. On its opening day, Margaret Pearse - venerable mother of Padraic and Willie Pearse - pressed the lever to set the printing presses rolling. From the start, its coverage of GAA events, which had received only scant coverage from its rivals, was extensive. Daily circulation of the Irish Press grew to 200,000, and equally successful results greeted the launch of its two subsidiary titles, the Sunday Press and the Evening Press. Throughout the forties and fifties, there was no surer indication of a household’s political leanings than its choice of newspaper. If you were Fianna Fáil, you bought nothing but the Irish Press (and woe betide the newsagent who might inadvertently deliver the other title to the doorstep); the Irish Independent was the paper of the Fine Gael supporter; and The Irish Times, on the rare occasion that it featured at all, might be bought by the odd surviving unionist or West Brit or member of the landed gentry.
The quality of its writing gave the lie to the oft portrayed image of the Irish Press as a partisan, blinkered, dull publication. Writers like its editor Tim Pat Coogan, Benedict Kiely, Brendan Behan and Patrick Kavanagh graced its pages. Vincent Browne, Mary Kenny and the novelist John Banville were among its contributors. Well-known household names like Con Houlihan and Geraldine Kennedy were Irish Press staffers.
But by the 1980s, the golden age was coming to an end. The old Ireland, idealised by its founder, was changing. Old loyalties were crumbling, media competition was ruthless, the paper’s staff felt alienated from its old fashioned ownership, new investment in technology was needed but was not forthcoming. Circulation was in free fall, debt was piling up.
There were desperate attempts made to shore up the finances. An American publisher and investor, Ralph Ingersoll, invested €10m in a 50 percent share of the company, but the relationship soon soured leading to costly litigation between the partners. The arch rival, the Irish Independent, was approached for help and bought a quarter share for €1m and lent a further two million.
The end came when the paper’s business editor, Colm Rapple, was dismissed for disloyalty following an article he wrote as part of an Irish Times series, in which he advocated that the Irish Press shareholding be restructured. His colleagues demanded his reinstatement, the management refused to budge, the journalists called a work stoppage, and the papers never appeared again.
The final nail in the coffin came on the following day when the Supreme Court overturned a decision of the High Court which had earlier ruled that Ingersoll should pay €6m in damages to the Irish Press. Not so, said the superior court, reversing the judgement, and instead ordering the Irish Press to pay €4m back to Ingersoll.