John Garvey was not a household name in Irish journalism. He wasn’t a Vincent Browne, Nell McCafferty or a Conor O’Clery. He was more of a back room man, the kind of journalist who made sure that a paper and its better-known writers actually made it to the newsstands each and every morning.
Garvey, like so many at the Irish Press offices on Burgh Quay in central Dublin, was an Ulsterman. He was deputy editor of the group’s morning flagship, The Irish Press.
He was also the paper’s chief editorial writer so posing questions and predicting consequences were a central part of his daily, or perhaps more accurately, his nightly labors.
When the Press plunged into an industrial nightmare at the end of May that year — one that grew steadily worse as June marched towards July — journalists at the paper published a barricades edition of the paper called the “Xpress.”
It was a heroic but ultimately doomed attempt to keep afloat the paper founded in 1931 by Eamon de Valera with Irish American dollars.
Garvey wrote in one of the last issues of the Xpress: “Over the decades the Irish Press papers have shared in many Fianna F_il triumphs. We have also had our differences, as family friends invariably do. But our relationship remains special, bound by our history and common ideals.
“If, through a lack of courage or a misguided attempt to gain short-term political advantage, the party refuses to take the action necessary to prevent the present crisis becoming terminal, it will be Fianna F_il, and Irish nationalism, that will be the ultimate losers. That cannot — and must not — be allowed to happen.”
Well, what Garvey termed the “present crisis” did become terminal, and rather quickly.
He clearly had an inkling but it was by then a fact of history that the last edition of the Irish press had already hit the streets. It was published the day before one of the more significant and symbolic moments in Irish America’s centuries-old struggle to change the course of history on the island that gave it birth.
The Clinton administration had brokered a three-day trade conference in Washington that was to culminate with a lavish reception on the White House South Lawn.
The reasons why the Press did not appear the following morning with what would certainly have been a front page lead story on the White House event is explained in intriguing detail in a new book by former Irish Press news editor, Ray Burke.
“Press Delete, The Decline and Fall of the Irish Press,” is published by Dublin-based Currach Press. It is certain to be well placed in Irish bookstores over the coming months and Amazon.com is now taking advance orders.
Garvey’s fateful warning is to be found deep into a book that is the work of a journalist with both inside knowledge and sufficient objectivity to ensure that “Press Delete” is worthy of a place in the historical record.
Burke, a Galway native, is now a senior news editor with RTE, the Irish National Television Network. As such, he is luckier than some of the 600 people who lost jobs when the Press group folded. Some of them never managed to secure full time employment again.
Garvey’s reference to Fianna F_il and the Press as being “family friends” spoke to the long intertwining of Ireland’s largest political party and what was once its most important daily newspaper.
As with a family, there was little room for one to escape sight of the other. An there were tensions and rows, none more heated than an eruption in 1983 when the Press, at the time edited by Tim Pat Coogan, published a political obituary of Charles Haughey on a night that the Fianna F_il leader was supposed to meet the political version of Caesar’s fate but did not.
The Press, though is did devote a lot of ink to the party which, like itself, was de Valera’s creation, was widely recognized for fair and balanced political coverage, even in the highly charged atmosphere during the years that Haughey dueled with enemies in his own ranks, not to mention opposing political figures such as Fine Gael’s Garret FitzGerald.
Garvey’s epitaph, for that is what it ultimately turned out to be, pointed to declining fortunes for Fianna F_il and the cause of Irish nationalism is the Press absence was allowed become permanent.
So, has this been the case? Even if it has, some things seem to stay the same. Irish nationalism had to adjust its very terms of reference with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, still almost three years in the future when the Press imploded.
Last week in London, Bertie Ahern, taoiseach and leader of Fianna F_il, spoke for the present day version of Irish nationalism when he met with Ian Paisley, chief spokesman for its polar opposite.
Ahern, though he has been criticized of late for parrying serious issues and turning up for too many powder puff photo-ops, is well able to handle the Ballymena blusterer.
But while Paisley’s party would appear to be approaching a zenith, Ahern’s is languishing in the late stages of a coalition governmental term that has been turning increasingly fractious.
Ahern is also leader of a party that has recently awakened to the reality of declining grassroots membership and the arrival in the political marketplace of a hot new rival, namely Sinn F