From hot metal to the hot seat

Anthony Hickey recalls memorable days working in the Leitrim Observer newspaper in Carrick-on-Shannon which celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2014.

To say it all happened in another century sums it up nicely!

It’s 30 years since I first set foot in Carrick-on-Shannon to take up a job as a reporter with the Leitrim Observer. In the succeeding quarter of a century plus, Carrick, and the newspaper business have both changed almost beyond recognition.

Anthony Hickey looks back on his days in the Leitrim Observer in Carrick-on-Shannon.
Anthony Hickey looks back on his days in the Leitrim Observer in Carrick-on-Shannon.

In the autumn of 1983, the Leitrim Observer was owned by a second generation of the Dunne family, and the offices and printing works were located in three buildings at the rear of Greg and Margaret Dunne’s family home on St. George’s Terrace.

Greg Dunne RIP was the editor and proprietor and Carrick native, Michael Oates, and I manned the newsroom. Willie Donnellan was the photographer, who also doubled in those days as advertising manager.

Newspaper production in Ireland in the 1980s still used 19th-century technology, referred to as the hot metal process, with linotype operators setting reporters’ copy in lines of reverse lead type.

For reporters, the typewriter was the closest machine we had to the technology of today, at a time when local correspondents’ handwritten copy still arrived by post – far removed from today’s digital world of universal computing and instant communications where news updates can be accessed from anywhere on a mobile phone browser.

The compositors and linotype operators at that time were Eugene Phelan, Mickie Kelly, Brendan Leyden, Leo Stanford, Frankie Smith, John Healy and John Bredin. The printing press was manned by the production manager, Butch Doyle, and printer, Dominic Duignan.

Later, when we moved to digital, the production team was joined by Albertine Lowe (nee Dunne) RIP who was an outstanding typesetter. The late Eugene Phelan took over proof-reading duties with such diligence that he spared newsroom blushes on more than one occasion.

Gregory Dunne RIP, former proprietor and editor of the Leitrim Observer in Carrick-on-Shannon.
Gregory Dunne RIP, former proprietor, and editor of the Leitrim Observer in Carrick-on-Shannon.

Investing in the future
Pat Dunne, who took over the family newspaper shortly after my arrival, set about investing in the future by installing computer type-setting that allowed for the use of colour and more pages for an expanded news, sports, and photographic coverage.

Having moved into the editor’s hot seat, I began to work more closely with the management team of Butch Doyle, Willie Donnellan and Accounts Manager, Mary Glancy, as Pat Dunne led the Observer through the difficult and costly change from traditional to digital newspaper production that allowed the paper to compete successfully with its rivals in the ever competitive world of newspaper circulation.

The old printing press was removed and the Observer was printed in the Western People in Ballina every Tuesday night for distribution across the county early on Wednesday morning.

I can recall many a late and dark frosty night, driving across the Windy Gap on my way to the printers – entrusted with the wooden briefcase containing that week’s master pages – and fearing a mishap that could have resulted in that week’s edition being scattered all over the Ox Mountains!

In the early 1990s, we moved from paste-up page creation to computerised page design and we got our first Apple Macs with which reporters were able to typeset their own copy before the former compositors and linotype operators, now re-trained as page designers, formatted the pages before transmission by ISDN line to the printers.

From our local correspondent
The district notes were submitted by local correspondents whose weekly accounts of births, deaths, and marriages made each Wednesday’s publication personal to the lives of our readers.

Claire McGovern, Editor of the Leitrim Observer, Carrick-on-Shannon.
Claire McGovern, Editor of the Leitrim Observer, Carrick-on-Shannon.

Among the best-known local correspondents were Cormac McGill (RIP) in Dromod; Joe Mooney (RIP) in Drumshanbo, an independent member of Leitrim County Council who was a lovely man. His strongly held personal views on the changing Ireland often provided us with some wonderful headlines.

Another talented local reporter from those days was Sean Callaghan whose witty weekly jottings from Aughawillian continue to prove hugely popular with readers far beyond the boundaries of his Leitrim parish.

One of the most popular columns was a social roundup by post office official, Bill Gilligan, a native of Mullingar, whose talent for writing helped the Observer put a spotlight on the world of amateur dramatics, the arts, and the many successes enjoyed by Leitrim competitors in the annual Scór cultural events.

One of my most enjoyable tasks as editor was to afford young writers the opportunity to be published and one of those was Brian Leyden from Arigna who has gone on to enjoy national success as a writer and radio broadcaster on RTE.

His words were complemented with beautiful and evocative photos by Cootehall photographer, David Knight. One outstanding article by Brian Leyden was a wonderful eulogy to the end of mining in Arigna that struck a chord with readers.

In contrast, having to refuse someone pleading to have their court case kept out of the paper was one of the more difficult tasks.

Lawyers, Court Clerks, and the Crack

The dullness of court reporting was sometimes made more bearable by the occasional humorous case.

One such case in Dowra District Court saw a father and son charged with assaulting a neighbour who apparently had inherited a farm the defendants had expected to be willed.

In their defence, the court heard how the pair had cared for an elderly, bachelor farmer, and helped him with his farm work over a number of years for no apparent reward and that their motivation was purely altruistic.

However, as matters transpired, the pensioner left his smallholding to a relative after his death whom the father and son were charged with assaulting in what seemed to be a severe case of sour grapes.

Pleading his clients’ case, the defending solicitor impressed upon Judge James Gilvarry that the father and son’s kindness towards the deceased over so many years was motivated purely out of concern for the elderly man’s well-being.

To which Judge Gilvarry quipped: “It was more a case of great expectations!”, bringing belly laughs from the packed courtroom.

Leitrim Observer staff pictured at Christmas 1986. Front (l-r): Fergus Shiel, Donal Fox, Butch Doyle, Anthony Hickey, Eugene Phelan RIP, Mickey Kelly, Frankie Smith, Mary Daly, John Healy, Mary Glancy, Dominic Duignan, Pat Dunne, Brendan Leyden, Leo Standford and Peter Tully. Photo: Willie Donnellan
Leitrim Observer staff pictured at Christmas 1986. Front (l-r): Fergus Shiel, Donal Fox, Butch Doyle, Anthony Hickey, Eugene Phelan RIP, Mickey Kelly, Frankie Smith, Mary Daly, John Healy, Mary Glancy, Dominic Duignan, Pat Dunne, Brendan Leyden, Leo Standford and Peter Tully. Photo: Willie Donnellan

I always enjoyed attending the courts at which the late Judge Gilvarry presided. A fellow Mayo man from Killala, Judge Gilvarry was always fair and dispensed justice with compassion when it was deserved.

He was also a man of the world who did not suffer fools gladly or entertain anyone attempting to pull the wool over his eyes – be it those appearing before him  – or members of the legal profession.

He had a great knack for knocking such nonsense on the head with the kind of wit and humour recalled in the Dowra case mentioned earlier.

The local solicitors who impressed me most in the 1980s and 1990s are both judges now.

Judge Kevin Kilrane, a native of Co Leitrim.
Judge Kevin Kilrane, a native of Co Leitrim.

Kevin Kilrane, whose law firm was based in Mohill, was, in my opinion, one of the ablest legal brains ever to grace an Irish courtroom whose command of his brief ensured that he won more than his fair share of courtroom duels for his clients whose plight would have looked hopeless to many of his contemporaries.

Conal Gibbons ran a law practice a few doors from the Observer offices on George’s Terrace in Carrick-on-Shannon

His successful defence of his clients was all the more impressive by the force of his friendly, outgoing, and genial personality, which so often brought a sense of humanity and humour to an otherwise foreboding courtroom.

And who could forget Court Clerk, Mickey Doorigan, who often regaled us with his hurling exploits from Gortletteragh to Limerick, and could always be relied upon for his help in deciphering some of the more arcane court documents.

The wrong kind of headlines

As a border county, Leitrim, not surprisingly, had its fair share of brushes with The Northern Ireland Troubles.

One of the biggest news stories ever covered by the Leitrim Observer made world headlines when kidnapped supermarket executive, Don Tidey, was rescued from his IRA captors in a bloody shootout at Derrada near Ballinamore in December 1983 that resulted in the deaths of a young Garda recruit and an Irish army soldier.

It was the kind of publicity that no county needed, especially Leitrim, which had put so much energy into building up a very successful river cruising and coarse angling tourism business that depended greatly on overseas visitors from the UK, and Europe.

The Observer received many plaudits for its accurate, and even-handed coverage of the Don Tidey kidnapping gave prominence to a front-page editorial which put the record straight and let the world know that the vast majority of the people of the county were outraged by the kidnapping and subsequent events.

A wave of economic change
Reports of meetings of Leitrim County Council in the 1980s regularly made front-page headlines.

The county’s skewed demographics were an underlying cause of many problems such as demands for more rural houses for the elderly, particularly in North Leitrim where many pensioners lived in barely habitable prefabricated houses, known as demountable dwellings that were gradually replaced with proper and safe accommodation for the county’s senior citizens.

Government funding cutbacks in the 1980s meant that balancing the Council’s annual budget was a nightmare that led to near all-night annual estimates meetings as political divisions often brought matters to the brink.

It usually took dire warnings about job losses and cuts to services from County Manager, Paddy Doyle, to focus members’ minds on the alternative to failing to approve the estimates.

Thankfully, in a few short years, Leitrim was able to ride the wave of economic expansion, set off by EU Structural Funds in the 1990s, that provided funding for such signature projects as the restoration of the Ballinamore-Ballyconnell Canal and the expansion of river cruising tourism, long the backbone of much of the economic activity in Carrick-on-Shannon.

Recalling friends and colleagues
Over the years, I had the pleasure as editor of working with some great colleagues in the Leitrim Observer. Along with those already mentioned, I was lucky to work at various times with wonderful workmates including Kathryn Crowe (nee Dockery), Gerry Taylor Mary Daly, John Dunne Jacqui Phillips (nee Dunne), and Olive Roe.

Not many months after my arrival in Carrick, a young journalist from Tuam, Declan Tierney, joined the newsroom and in a short few years, he helped to transform sports coverage in the paper, particularly the GAA scene.

Paul Williams, journalist and author, who began his career in the Leitrim Observer in the 1980s.
Ballinamore native, Paul Williams, journalist, and author began his career in the Leitrim Observer in the 1980s.

Later, Dublin-man, John Connolly, brought a new and exciting dimension to the Observer’s sports reporting with his first-hand knowledge of athletics; a sport for so long championed in Leitrim by Ballinamore’s Padraig Griffin, a native of Charlestown, Co Mayo.

Annaduff-man, Donal Fox helped invigorate the paper’s political coverage, particularly in the 1985 local elections, and the general election of 1987. Our insightful analysis and publication of the all-revealing tally figures from electoral areas around the county set a template for political reporting that was later copied by many other local papers.

Over the years some well-known journalists cut their teeth in the Leitrim Observer newsroom, including top-selling crime writer, Paul Williams, from Ballinamore whose early contacts with the Gardai centred around his excellent reporting of the brutal and shocking attacks on elderly people in North Leitrim in the mid-1980s.

Eoin Quinn from Gurteen in Co Sligo came to the Observer straight from journalism school and helped improve the paper’s coverage in North Leitrim before moving on to the Irish Independent where he continues to enjoy a successful career.

As the 1990s dawned the Observer’s male-dominated newsroom saw the arrival of three outstanding female reporters.

Mary Frances Fahy from Galway now runs her own successful legal practice, Fahy Neilan and Co, in Ballaghaderreen, and Siobhan Cronin who is news editor at the Southern Star in Cork.

Following my departure to take up a post with the Western People in Ballina, Claire McGovern (nee Casserly) was appointed the editor and has done an outstanding job in steering the paper through the choppy digital waters of today while still keeping its content relevant, local, and personal to the lives of Leitrim people at home and abroad.

Overall the years, there has been one constant in the Observer – Willie Donnellan from Leitrim Village, whose photography has chronicled Leitrim social, political, and sporting life in all its varied hues since the early 1970s. In 2004, Leitrim honoured Willie with the Leitrim Guardian Person of the Year Award.

Willie Donnellan, Leitrim Village, receiving the Leitrim Guardian Person of the Year Award in 2004 with his wife, Marion, and daughters, Sarah and Rachel.
Willie Donnellan, Leitrim Village, received the Leitrim Guardian Person of the Year Award in 2004 with his wife, Marion, and daughters, Sarah and Rachel.

His photography continues to animate the pages with memorable photos that tell the stories of Leitrim people and events, and, in his travels to the UK and US, he has kept the county in touch with the Leitrim Diaspora.

Willie’s photographic record of Leitrim life over many decades is an invaluable resource that will be of immense interest and importance to future generations of Leitrim people.

As the Leitrim Observer celebrates its 125 anniversary, I have no doubt that in the uncertain years ahead it will continue to be at the heart of Leitrim life; telling Leitrim’s story to the world; and giving community and sporting organisations the local platform that has served them so well for generations.

  • The above article was published in the Leitrim Observer 125th anniversary supplement in December 2014.

By Anthony Hickey

Follow writer and photographer, Anthony Hickey, as he travels around his native Co. Mayo, Ireland.

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