By: Mark Fitzgerald
On vacation for the last two and a half weeks in Ireland, I never once checked voice mail or e-mail, not even Romenesko. But while you can take this E&P’er out of the country, you can’t take the newspaper lover out of him. So my wife and kids looked on in bemusement when every walk through a town or stop for lunch or gas became another excuse for dad to pick up a paper.
I read the Irish Independent every day and the Irish Times nearly every day. When we were in the north, I waited impatiently for noon and the arrival of the Belfast Telegraph. I also dipped into the Daily Mirror or Daily Express to keep up on the fast-breaking events in the life of David Beckham, the soccer star villainized for his wayward penalty kicks that ousted England from the Euro 2004 tournament.
And as we moved from county to county, I scooped up the regional dailies and weeklies: the Sligo Champion, the Galway Advertiser, the Connaught Tribune. Somewhere outside Kilkenny, we passed the regional sales office for the Irish Farmers Journal with a sign that said, “Fighting for Irish Farmers.” I imagined a paper still plotting the overthrow of the Plantation system, its writers grumbling over poteen and Underwoods. The weekly is in fact lively for an agricultural trade paper, and in the Galway County town of Portumna where I spent a week, it seemed to have a surprisingly young adult readership. Yet, I was disappointed to discover its actual nameplate slogan is the far duller “The Voice of Ireland’s Farming Industry.”
On the Falls Road I bolted from a group touring Belfast to buy a copy of the Andersontown News, surely the only community paper where a full-page spread showing a kindergarten graduation includes Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein leader and reputed former IRA military chief, holding little Tiernan MacSiacais in his lap while the tyke in cap and gown shows off his diploma. Another photo shows a grinning Adams posing with a little girl’s cap perched precariously on his head.
This was no busman’s holiday. I didn’t visit a single newsroom or backshop, nor talk to any journalist or analyst — although I couldn’t resist striking up apparently casual conversations about relative sales with store cashiers, or “news agents,” as they are raffishly styled if their sweets shops happen to include newspapers.
What follows, then, are the only semi-informed observations of an American reading his way through Ireland.
First, Irish papers are expensive. The Independent put me back a Euro-and-a-half every day. Given the tourist exchange rate with our now anemic greenback — thanks a heap for talking down the dollar, Treasury Secretary John Snow! — that works out to about $1.90. The regional weeklies are often priced at an even two Euros or more.
Also, the tab’s time appears to be coming to Ireland a little later than the rest of the Europe of which it is so proudly part. So far, the Irish Independent is the only “quality” broadsheet moving in that direction, and while its counterpart in Britain has moved completely to the “compact” format, the Irish Independent still offers a broadsheet as well as tabloid version. They sit side-by-side in the shops. In towns of any size, it seemed to me, the compacts were moving far faster than the broadsheet. In our sleepier village of Portumna, though, I was assured that the broadsheet was the better seller. “Old habits die hard here,” one newsagent told me.
As in Britain, the compact has been a boon for the Irish Independent. Anthony O’Reilly’s Independent News & Media held its annual meeting during my stay, and press accounts quoted him as saying the Irish paper — which had lost circulation for seven straight reporting periods — was up 10,000 copies on an annualized basis since the tabloid option was introduced.
We arrived in Ireland the day after the 100th anniversary of the Bloomsday chronicled in James Joyce’s once-banned and now embraced “Ulysses,” so perhaps timing explains this next observation: Irish journalists love the plain Anglo-Saxon word. Back in the United States, newspapers wrestled with how to quote what Vice President Dick Cheney said to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). That was not a dilemma for Irish papers. In fact, four letter words crept into the reporting and commentary quite regularly during my stay — and not just because somebody was being quoted. It’s hard, for instance, to imagine George Will or David Broder using the word “shit” in their columns. Yet, a political columnist for The Irish Times managed to work it into two columns of the four I read.
Irish journalism in general was refreshingly bare-knuckled, but never more so on Sundays when the quality papers seem to compete with the tabloid Ireland on Sunday to give unbiased coverage a day of rest. A good example was the dust-up over the interview of President George W. Bush by RTE television’s Washington reporter Carole Coleman. E&P Editor Greg Mitchell gives a comprehensive account of the interview and its aftermath elsewhere on this site. In Ireland, the Sunday papers divided over Coleman, with some finding her arrogant and inordinately anti-American and others — chiefly Ireland on Sunday, which described her as a “plucky Leitrim lass” — delighting in her performance.
Ireland is proud to have the youngest population in the Eurozone, but its papers don’t offer much for kids. Apart from “Dilbert,” comics are nearly non-existent, and I never ran across anything like “KidScoop” or “Kid’s Corner.” My son Kieran clamored for the Independent every day because of its one offering for children, “Count Curly Wee.” The extraordinary lameness of this combination of two-frame cartoon and poetry appealed to his 13-year-old sense of irony. Here’s a sample of the caption’s rhyme: “How Gillian Jane detests her school. She thinks it’s simply VILE!/And when the others cry ‘Buck up!’ or ‘Don’t you ever smile?’/She answers back ‘Let me alone!’ in accents sharp and shrill/To which they squeak, ‘Let you alone? Oh, righty-ho, we will!'”
Oh, righty-ho, indeed. It doesn’t help that the pace of the story makes the progress of “Mary Worth” look like a tale told by a methamphetamine addict. The Curly Wee rabbits took a week to arrive at a hotel by train, and one day’s entire episode concerned not eating lunch, but the cute critters simply looking at the picnic basket packed for them.
I’m probably being too harsh. After all, just by themselves, the hooting laughs of my two sons coming from the back seat were easily worth $1.90.