HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS Seán Rice and his wife Pauline are pictured at their home in Islandeady. Pic: Michael McLaughlin
Mayo News columnist Seán Rice recently turned 80
THINGS were different back then.
Seán Rice’s first job in journalism was in the Connaught Telegraph. When the editor was on holidays, he did a lot of the work, and was responsible for putting headlines on some stories. But with the number of letters over a certain size limited in number, that was a more complicated process than it is now.
“You’d put a headline on your story, and you’d have to go [Joe] ‘Ecy’ Redmond then,” the current Mayo News columnist reflected during our recent interview. “He was the guy in charge, who’d be setting it up. And if you had three Ls in the headline, [you’d be told] ‘Sorry! We’ve only two Ls!’ Or you might have four Es in it [and you’d be told] ‘Seán, you have to change again! We’ve only three Es!’ That’s the way it was! I remember doing a few of them and I thought to myself ‘That’s a great headline’ … until you’d go down and [he’d] say ‘Oh no, we haven’t all those letters now!’”
Rewriting stories was also more difficult. In the days before computerisation, many pages were balled up and thrown into the bin as things were hammered out on typewriters. More than 50 years after he started full-time with the Connaught Telegraph, Seán Rice has retained a very distinctive style of writing. Like all good writers, he read a lot, and took a particular interest in ‘Mirrorscope’, a four-page supplement that ran in the Daily Mirror twice a week between 1968 and 1974. It covered international affairs, politics, industry, science, the arts and business and was full of quality writing.
“There was one particular guy called John Pilger, and he was terrific,” the 80-year-old Rice recalls. “I used to say to myself: ‘That’s the way I want to write’. I remember one time, he was out in Africa, and the headline was: ‘We all went to the hangings yesterday’. That was the start of it. Something like: ‘We, who are white, drove. They, who are black, walked’. And I used to say: ‘I’d love to be able to write like that’. I used to build a lot of my style around that.”
The Ireland in which he grew up was very different too. There were ten kids in the Rice family in Moneen, Castlebar, eight of whom are still alive, and he was unusual in not having to emigrate. His wife Pauline’s sisters also left the country. “It was very difficult to survive,” he reflects now. “You didn’t save much money, simple as that.”
Elections offered splashes of colour in a grey era. Micheál Ó Móráin, the Fianna Fáil TD who spent two years as Minister for Justice, would go head to head with Clann na Talmhan leader and two-time Minister for Lands Joseph Blowick in Mayo South, and Rice remembers the two of them campaigning simultaneously on different platforms in Castlebar.
“The two of them were going like hell, and people were running from one to the other to see what jokes or cracks were being made … I remember Mick Moran saying ‘Everybody is talking about starvation, but I don’t see any starvation on any face down there, and I certainly don’t see any starvation on that platform up there!’ And Joe Blowick would be above doing the same thing. That’s all changed now.”
The Archbishop, the Pope and the miracle
“THE most vivid impression is perhaps the final one. There he stood in the brisk autumn air, two hours later, outside the Cathedral of the Assumption where seven Archbishops stood before him this century, still accepting the good wishes of his flock, a lonely-looking figure in his green vestments, without his retinue, tired surely.
“A short time earlier he had been the cynosure of the ceremony committing himself in humility and hope to his ministry in the Archdiocese of Tuam. Now his colleagues had departed to sup and chat while Archbishop Joseph Cassidy, out there in that expansive square, waited and waited … his wheel good and broken.”
That’s how Seán Rice opened his front-page coverage of the enthronement, in October 1987, of Charlestown native Joseph Cassidy as the new Catholic Archbishop of Tuam. The broken wheel, mentioned in the final line of the second paragraph, is a reference to St Jarlath, whose chariot wheel is said to have broken in Tuam, inspiring the location for his monastery.
Thirty years on, it’s a memory that has stayed with Seán Rice, who covered the event for the Connacht Tribune.
“Everyone was invited down for tea to a marquee [afterwards],” the Mayo News columnist recalled recently in the office of his house at Greenhills, Islandeady. “The priests were all there, and they were all having a great time, laughing and everything. It must have been two hours later, I was coming back in the car, and I saw himself, the Archbishop, still up outside the cathedral, talking to people, and people coming up and wishing him well. And I just wrote a story in that vein.”
Rice – who recently turned 80 – also covered the visit of Pope John Paul II to Knock in 1979. Seeing footage of the Pope’s trip to Galway – featuring Bishop Eamon Casey and Father Michael Cleary as warm-up acts – on television recently reminded him that the Pope’s late departure from Ballybrit Racecourse and failing light forced the abandonment of plans to drive through the 400,000-strong crowd at Knock. “I thought it was terrible,” Rice says now, and what he put in the Connacht Tribune 38 years ago reflects that annoyance.
“A glimpse of him would have been for many, especially the old, the highlight of their lives,” he’d written at that time. “In the end, most returned home with nothing more than a white speck in their memory … Their stoic endurance – up to 24 hours for some – deserved better. It was the late hour that forced the cancellation of the Pontiff’s customary tour among pilgrims, but a little more thought in places other than Knock might have solved the problem ...
“My heart went out to those old people the thousands of them weighed down with bags and chairs who wound their way painfully through the rain and the darkness and the traffic chaos back to their cars without [having] realised the one desire that brought them to Knock in the first place.”
Rice’s prose has graced many publications – the Connaught Telegraph in the early days, The Mayo News for the last 29 years (not 19, as we erroneously said – twice – when part one of this interview was published!) He also edited a wonderfully readable history of Castlebar Mitchels brought out to mark the club’s centenary in 1985. But much of his working life was spent with the Connacht Tribune, where in December 1991 he spent an evening in Esker Monastery outside Athenry.
He was there to meet Marion Carroll, an Athlone woman whose story of being cured at Knock inspired the crowd in the small church on a foggy night. Crowds milling around her had prevented a pre-Mass interview, so by agreement he sat beside her and recorded what she told the congregation.
Having been confined to a wheelchair, Marion Carroll was at death’s door by September 1989, when she visited Knock … and walked again.
Having laid out the woman’s life story, Seán Rice continues: “She started telling everybody about how good her husband was to her throughout her sickness. Jimmy was her husband’s name, he was in the Army. I was sitting down there. The lights were shining on me. And suddenly I saw all these priests looking over at me … and I thought: ‘They think I’m Jimmy!’”
“I started to slink down in the chair farther and farther, and I went all kinds of all colours and into a sweat. The crowd starting coming after her as soon as the talk was over. The next thing, I saw some of them coming towards me, to shake hands, and some of them with beads in their hands! I thought: ‘Jesus, I’ll have to get out of here!’ So I shouted into her: ‘Marion, thanks for everything … I’ll go, I’ll see you again!’ and that was it. That was it and I went off. But I’ll tell you, it was an experience!”
Seán Rice on …
Bad times in Mayo GAA:
“I KNOW now what was wrong. It was management and lack of discipline. Because Mayo had as good a team as there was in the country. They had fellas like [Ray] Prendergast, [Joe] Corcoran, [John] Morley, [Johnny] Carey, John Gibbons, John Nealon … they were tremendous players. But there was no real discipline, and there was no real tough management. Mayo were strong from the legs down, but from there up, they lacked something – strength – and of course, they lacked the heads too; they hadn’t self-confidence.”
“I WAS secretary of the Breaffy [GAA] club [aged] 16 or 17! A lot of the work was done by Frank Quinn, who was treasurer. But I did help to run a carnival as a fundraiser. They were great, but they were awful hard work. We used to have big singers and top bands. You’d buy the minerals for threepence, and sell them for a shilling. You’d make more money on the minerals and on the ice-cream than you would on the dances themselves!”
“THERE used to be awful fighting between Ballina and Castlebar, games always ended in fisticuffs. Castlebar were champions, and Ballina beat them [in 1947]. Castlebar didn’t bring down the cup and Ballina were looking for it. Eventually, a huge huge parcel arrived [in Ballina]. And inside that was another parcel. And inside that was another parcel. And inside that was another parcel, and inside that was another parcel, until it came to it, all that was in it was an egg-cup!”