Said roar, roar, the thunder and the roar
Son of a bitch is never coming back here no more
(Tom Waits, Clap Hands)
On this day 25 years ago, the thunder and the roar of the Irish Press newspaper group’s printing press — the ink-clotted heart that pumped the blood and oxygen of headline and hearsay through a nation’s arteries for 64 years — was silenced. Forever.
Taking with it into that final silence my job as a sports desk sub-editor, and the livelihoods of nearly 600 journalists, printers and office staff.
Thousands of readers, loyal, true or transient, were abandoned too, of course. Left to choose alternatives that weren’t alternatives at all — it was like asking a Liverpool fan to walk alone or join the throng on Manchester United’s Stretford End.
The sprawling ancillary army feeding off the group’s three titles was wounded grievously too.
But, really, the company had been spluttering along for years, and this was the perfect excuse for management to shut the doors
Like those daredevil lads who screeched around town on their filthy Irish Press, Evening Press and Sunday Press delivery scooters.
Or the street sellers hoarsely calling out “Herald or Press?” What would it be now, “Herald or … nothin’!”
The small ad hustlers … the stringers harrying busy newsdesks or accounts for the pittance due for their small town ‘scoops’, tip-offs and match reports.
The drinking dens too that would lose a fortune.
The massive yet homely Press building was right in Dublin city centre, fronting on to the whiffy Liffey quays, and backing on to poky Poolbeg Street, and down those narrow backdoor steps workers would go on their breaks, or after their shift, to nearby Mulligans pub (journalists) or the White Horse (printers and compositors), down an adjoining laneway.
There’s nothing more silent than a dusty, wheezing, ink-exhaling, yet strangely beguiling monstrosity of a printing press without its deafening shudder and clang, and that son of a bitch in the basement that shook the old Press building into life every morning, and belched out those thousands of newspaper bundles every day, was never coming back there no more.
We, the shutter-clicking snappers and typewriter-clattering hacks, the cranks, rascals, wordsmith geniuses, like the great Con Houlihan, skiving bluffers and everybody nobodies like myself, had thought the Irish Press newspaper group would shudder and clang on forever, but we were wrong.
As I only found out that Thursday afternoon, May 25 in 1995, when I stopped into the little cafe on the corner of Burgh Quay for my coffee take-out before my afternoon shift on the Irish Press sports desk.
“Haven’t you heard about the strike?” the talkative country woman with the slightly bucked teeth who owned the cafe said to my befuddled self.
Not long out of bed after a roisterous enough night out, I hadn’t seen or heard anything resembling news.
Sure enough, there was gangs of my friends and colleagues on the narrow street outside the newspaper building, more informed but just as bemused as I was.
The main newsroom in the Press was open plan, and one of the funniest experiences of my life was when a gaggle of us took turns to wheel each other on office chairs at break-neck speed around the vast perimeter
The paper wasn’t going to press because an industrial dispute over the sacking of the group business editor, the late Colm Rapple, that morning, over an article he had written criticising the chain’s hapless chief management duo, the bespectacled and permanently startled-looking Eamon De Valera — grandson of the former Irish president of the same name who had started the newspaper as a mouthpiece for the political party he co-founded, Fianna Fail — and bluff silver-haired chairman Vincent Jennings.
But, really, the company had been spluttering along for years, and this was the perfect excuse for management to shut the doors.
There were accumulated losses of €19m and the company applied to liquidate with a few days of the dispute that followed Rapple’s sacking.
All these years later, my memories of the Irish Press, where I spent nearly seven years, are a splurge of colour, tedium, effusive alcohol consumption and days aimlessly happy enough.
Walking Lily and Bella out this morning, a quarter-century later, the warmth and the clear blue sky reminded me of that scorching summer of 95, when we fundraised on the city streets and harried in vain to get our newspaper clanging and belching again.
In between, there were swims in shockingly icy Killiney waters, queueing visits to Werburgh Street dole office, and conferring pints aplenty.
In the immediate aftermath of the closure we didn’t know what to do with ourselves, and on the actual day, I joined in with what became a four-day occupation of the Irish Press building, living on a plentiful supply of beer, cigarettes, food, duvets, clean underwear and the rest from the many people eager to support our efforts early on.
There was footage on the daily TV news bulletins of us all up on top of a flat roof in a corner of the massive complex, and me there with my long hair and the black beret I wore at the time. A regular Che Guevara was I.
Nightly we watched and listened on the radio as our adventures slipped down the bulletin charts, from first day top billing, as Ireland got ready for a visit from a certain minuscule musical marvel, Prince.
There was the time Jack Charlton arrived up to the window hatch, while the bus loaded with Irish soccer internationals of the day inched up hard-pressed Poolbeg Street behind him, and boxer Steve Collins, and Mrs Brown himself, Brendan O’Carroll, also came up to confer with our revolutionary leaders.
The main newsroom in the Press was open plan, and one of the funniest experiences of my life was when a gaggle of us took turns to wheel each other on office chairs at break-neck speed around the vast perimeter.
It was Office Chariots Of Fire, with only the famous music and slow-motion footage lacking.
Then there was the X-Press free sheet we wrote, assembled and ‘sold’ at pitches at various landmarks in the city, and on ventures to GAA matches down the country.
It all fizzled out soon enough, as these things do, and by the end of summer, we were scattered to the newspaper winds, employed in other papers or embarked on different careers. Some never worked again.
The character-full Irish Press building is long sold out and gone, replaced by another characterless apartment block. The shops of those days are gone too, with only Mulligans holding back the years.
Wouldn’t you know the brutally ugly vastness of the Hawkins House civil service building is still looming over this little side street, across from the ghost of newspapers passed?
There is still the Press ex-employees Facebook page, but unfortunately, the big reunion planned for this year had to be cancelled because of Covid-19.
But in truth, I merely recall those Irish Press day from time to time, and so much has happened since, they do not define my career, or me.
To paraphrase the last lines of Leonard Cohen’s Chelsea Hotel No 2, I don’t mean to suggest I loved those years the best.
I remember them well, but I don’t even think of them that often.
But today, I do. I surely do.
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