Douglas Gageby, 1918–2004

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 3 (Autumn 2004), News, Volume 12

36_small_1245949951A man who worked alongside me under Douglas Gageby at the Evening Press subsequently wrote of him as being ‘caustic, cynical’ and ‘near scepticism’. Douglas was certainly all of the above. But as I have often observed in nature, the most succulent shellfish generally have the hardest carapaces. Underneath his outer shell he was a man of enthusiasms, deeply held family affections, patriotism and integrity. To say that he did not suffer fools gladly was to wildly under-estimate his attitude towards the dunderhead, the boor, the poseur, or the subordinate who acted without thought.

Politically, he would have been part of that radical, reforming strain of Irish Protestantism whom Yeats angrily pointed out in the Senate (when the government of the day, under the shadow of the crozier, was moving to outlaw divorce) as being ‘no petty people’. Journalistically, he was a landmark figure in twentieth-century Ireland. In a nutshell his achievement was to contribute substantially to the success of two major popular newspapers, the Sunday Press and the Evening Press, and to make of the Irish Times the sounding board of Irish society, the setter of its cultural, social and political agenda and, under him, its paper of record.

Various elements in his background came together to hone his journalistic edge. A childhood in Belfast, playing about MacArt’s Fort, the only surviving child of Ethel Smith, a national school teacherfrom Westmeath, and of Thomas Gageby, a civil servant who had lived for a time in the South, gave him a sure grasp of northern realities. An education at Belfast Royal Academy, and later Trinity College, Dublin, enabled him to observe other, even grimmer, realities in some depth. His study of the German language and literature enabled him to evaluate the rise of Nazism with particular clarity during a number of visits to pre-war Germany.


His spell in Trinity brought him a number of prizes, a grasp of languages, an LLB and (in 1944) the stabilising force of his career, a happy marriage to Dorothy Lester, daughter of a man whom Douglas Gageby would later write a book about—Seán Lester, one of the infant Free State’s cadre of brilliant civil servants, who during his international career became high commissioner of the free city of Danzig and was the last secretary-general of the League of Nations.

The family that Douglas and Dorothy founded comprises four children, twelve grandchildren and (at the time of writing) one great-grandchild. Two of the children became lawyers, Susan becoming a judge of the supreme court, and Patrick, a senior council, showing himself to be a true son of the man who walked in one of the earliest civil rights marches in Derry by signing the recent lawyers’ protest against the visit here of President Bush.
Gageby served in the Irish army in intelligence during World War II under the great spy-catcher Colonel Dan Bryan. The experience heightened his natural tendency towards keeping out of the limelight to such an extent that after my book on the IRA came out in 1970 he rang me up at the Irish Press to deny that he had ever been in intelligence! His elusiveness was a quality that stood him in good stead in tricky situations.

Sometimes, in his Evening Press days, when decisions were to be taken about whether or not to publish a touchy story, he would use his best gruff army officer persona to barkingly keep a harassed stone sub-editor (myself) in a limbo of uncertainty without a yes or a no as edition time approached. After edition time passed, the offending item would often be found buried under a pile of proofs on Douglas’s desk, but tomorrow was another day . . .
A fly fisherman, Douglas knew when to strike and when to change to more favourable ground. His sureness of touch developed as he quickly moved up the journalistic ladder. He had joined the Irish Press after the war as a humble sub-editor, but his knowledge of German, coupled with his army reputation (Vivion de Valera, the Irish Press Group’s managing director, had been a major), led to his being sent to report on conditions in shattered post-war Germany, from where he contributed a memorable series of articles.

By 1949 his reputation was such that he was appointed assistant editor of the then enormously successful Sunday Press, and two years later he was appointed editor-in-chief of the Irish News Agency (INA), which had been set up a little earlier by the inter-party government of 1948–51. Vivion de Valera brought him back to Burgh Quay in 1954 to found and edit the Evening Press, which, after a few years, became the largest, and most lucrative, evening paper in Dublin. But the paper wobbled initially, only gaining a sound footing after Gageby saw the potential for circulation in an extraordinary series of developments which led to the restoration of not one but three either kidnapped or in some way misappropriated babies to their rightful parents.

The babies saga was an excellent example of Gageby’s deftness in giving the public what it wanted before they were generally aware of it. He also gave John Healy, whom he’d encountered in his INA days, his head, building up a huge following for Healy’s coverage of the newly emerging crazes for (in pre-television Ireland) the amateur drama movement and both inland and sea fishing. His love of nature found early expression in giving J. Ashton Freeman a nature column that became a cult item amongst children and unacknowledged must reading for many adults. In addition to these attractions, he gave the paper an upmarket patina by hiring Terry O’Sullivan, father of Nuala Ó Faoláin, to write a social diary column that has not been equalled since.

Having been appointed managing director of the Irish Times in 1959, Douglas suffered the mortification of seeing the group’s evening and Sunday papers, the Evening Mail and the Sunday Review, killed off by competition from the two papers he had helped to father, the Evening Press and Sunday Press. It was a bleak time for him, but, supported by Dorothy and having moved in 1963 from the managerial to the editorial chair of the only paper left standing, the Irish Times, he made a spectacular success of the former organ of the unionist community of Ireland.

As the Irish Independent modernised slowly, the Irish Press not at all, and television and greatly increased educational facilities came to Ireland, Gageby realised that the times they were a-changing and, being part of management himself, was able to fight successfully for the resources to see to it that the changes were covered. It was the era of the ‘new men’ in Irish politics, Charles Haughey, Donogh O’Malley, Brian Lenihan. New ideas, new faces dominated the international scene—Kennedy (albeit sadly briefly), Khruschev, and, most importantly in the Ireland of the time, Pope John XXIII.

John Healy diverted from fishing to politics and built up the Backbencher column into essential reading for anyone concerned with Irish politics. With Caesar thus tributed, Gageby also rendered generously to Christ. John Horgan was sent to the Vatican to report on the proceedings of the second Vatican Council, as though it were the Dáil. The results, in the Ireland of the authoritarian church of the day, provided compulsive, groundbreaking reading. As the Irish Times began making its way from the vicarage to the presbytery, Mary Maher and a team of talented women writers, including Maeve Binchy and Mary Holland, reached out to that then-emerging, large and respectable class, the women of some property.

It was Douglas’s strength that he managed to hold the vicars while gaining the parish priests. The news editor, Donal Foley, himself a gaelgoir, expanded coverage to attract both Irish language enthusiasts and the students who, for the first time, read with fascination about their own activities in what was known at the time as the ‘gentle revolution’, as faint echoes of what happened on campuses in Berkley, California, began percolating to Belfield, Trinity, UCC and UCG.

The support and insights that Dorothy provided throughout all this may be gauged from the fact that she once accompanied Douglas to Cork to find out at first hand the calibre and significance of the emerging student movement by attending an unprecedented ‘talkathon’ in UCC. Family support also ensured that Douglas’s fondness for a drink and collegiate camaraderie did not damage his career. He either brought Dorothy with him and left early or eschewed much of the press conference, cocktail party circuit, thereby not merely protecting his liver but adding to the Gageby mystique of the aloof being, above the temptations of ordinary men. The hardest carapaces . . .

His northern coverage guaranteed that Unionists as well as Nationalists had to read the Irish Times, which steadily became a 32-county paper, but Gageby came under severe pressure over the North. His chairman, Major Tom McDowell, a former British intelligence officer, as we know now from correspondence released under the 30-year rule, consulted with the British ambassador and even No. 10 Downing Street as to how best to combat Gageby’s influence on the paper.

McDowell respected Gageby, both professionally and as a man. He had to. After his experiences under Vivion de Valera Douglas had taken care to secure for himself an iron-clad contract. But McDowell felt that on the North he had become a ‘white nigger’, as he described him to the then British ambassador to Ireland, Sir Andrew Gilchrist. Along with contending with these pressures from the right, Gageby also had to control a very varied staff whose politics and ideas often differed markedly both from his own and McDowell’s.

On the left, for example, Dick Walsh, a prominent political reporter, was so well thought of by the leadership of the Official IRA that, when a bloody feud broke out between the Provos and the Officials, Walsh accompanied the Officials’ team that negotiated a settlement with the Daithi O’Connell, or Provo, wing of the IRA in a series of meetings—one of which, appropriately enough, was held in an undertaker’s.
But Gageby used his officer techniques to such good effect that the different tendencies within the paper were contained and moulded to produce a newspaper that literally contained something for everybody. The influence of the Irish Times on Irish society under Gageby would be hard to over-estimate.

He discussed the unsayable, and covered the hitherto unreportable. In his editorials, he laid down standards of integrity and common sense that at the least gave a measure by which to judge the extent to which decision-takers fell short of the ideal, and at best heightened the calibre and range of national debate. Perhaps the greatest tribute paid to Gageby was that of Major McDowell, who, after Douglas retired in 1974, had to beat a path to his door in 1977 to ask him to take over as editor once more. His return added fresh lustre to his laurels and new circulation to the paper, which had crossed the 100,000 threshold by the time he retired again in 1987. Rarely has any trade or profession benefited more from the life and work of one of its practitioners than did Irish journalism from the efforts of Douglas Gageby.


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