Irish Voice columnist JOHN SPAIN has caused his fair share of controversy for the past 25 years, and he’s enjoyed every minute of it.Nothing stays the same.
Except byline pictures on weekly columns, of course.
The byline picture you see on my usual page is not the original one from 25 years ago, by the way. That one disintegrated into dust years ago.
But the picture which adorns the top of my weekly column in the Irish Voice has been there for more years than I care to remember.
I'm not going to tell you exactly how many years. But I will tell you that the headshot was taken from a family picture in which my kids are toddlers. They're now in college, or heading there.
The real me looks as old as the more honest Cormac MacConnell, my fellow Irish Voice 25-years-to-life inmate, and he's no spring chicken. In fact the real me looks almost as old as Niall O'Dowd on a good day.
It's not vanity. There's method in my shyness. That byline picture means I can go into any bar in New York today and have a beer without being recognized and challenged over something I wrote last week, tens of years ago, or even 25 years ago.
And in my case, with my negative popularity record on the Voice over the years and the long memories of the readers, that's something to be valued. So the picture, which even migrated to Irish Central a few years back, stays.
They keep asking me for an up to date one and I keep saying I'll send one next week. But of course I never do. I'm not that stupid. What's it like to write a weekly column for 25 years? Don't they ever give you parole and hand you back your mugshot?
No, is the answer. I've applied to His Honor O'Dowd for compassionate release several times but (so far) it's always been turned down. So it's 25 years and counting. Talk about a life sentence!
I'm kidding, of course. The truth is I'm quietly proud of my column in the Irish Voice and the fact that it's been there for two and a half decades. It's been a privilege to have had a platform like that for so long.
And, like many of the good things in life, it happened sort of by accident, as I explained here a few years ago.
Back in the mid-1980s I was features editor of the Irish Press and needed someone to do a weekly column from New York, partly to cover the wave of emigration at the time. The editor of the paper, the famous Tim Pat Coogan, suggested a young journalist he knew called Niall O'Dowd who had moved to the U.S. I'd never heard of him, but the copy turned out to be good and Niall O'Dowd's “Letter From America” became part of the Irish Press every week.
A couple of years later in 1987 O'Dowd rang me up one day and turned the tables, asking me if I would do a weekly column for a new paper he was starting in New York called the Irish Voice. He suggested naming the column “Ireland Calling.” It would be a sort of weekly letter from Dublin.
Maybe he was repaying me for a favor he thought I had done him. Or maybe he was just desperate!
That was 25 years ago and I'm still writing the Irish Voice column today. Some people find that amazing.
At 1,500 words a week, 50 weeks a year, it adds up to 18 average size books. Which seems like a lot when you put it that way, except that after the first few years it became such a normal, built-in part of my working week that it never felt like a chore. My kids do blogs and Facebook. I do the column. What's the big deal?
Over the years I've done most jobs in newspapers here. On the sadly missed Irish Press I was assistant editor to Coogan, working in news, features and production.
Subsequently on the Irish Independent I was supplements editor, features editor and now books editor. (Hint to all you budding journalists out there: when they make you books editor you know you're on the way out!)
One of the good things about looking after the books pages is that it's not so pressured. A body can only take so many decades on the news or features treadmills and eventually it's time to let someone younger and hungrier take the stress.
Moving out of the hot seat even has its compensations. You get time to read books. And time for a more measured perspective and reflection on what's happening in general in the country.
All of which has made it easy to keep doing the weekly Irish Voice column long after I had planned to stop. That's my excuse anyway.
While I was doing all this over the years, O'Dowd went on to much greater things than mere journalism. He became a player rather than an observer, a player on a much bigger stage. Not many of us can say that we helped to change the history of our country, but O'Dowd can and he did.
And the Irish Voice was part of the process. From the beginning, the paper was like a breath of fresh air in Irish America.
It was challenging, modern but still intensely proud of its heritage.
It bridged the gap between the Irish America that was there from the 1950s and the new Irish Americans who had arrived during the depressed 1980s at home.
In the column I wrote every week, I set out to reflect the zeitgeist of the Irish nation based on what I heard people talking about at work, in the bar, in the supermarket. It might be emigration, or religion, or the price of a pint or the Late Late Show. I was trying
to inform and entertain the people of my generation who had gone to America, and to update the people of earlier generations who had little idea what the new Ireland was like.
Too often in the early days, the column was consumed by the latest atrocity in the North. I had started in the Irish Press in 1971 just after the Troubles began and 10 years later I was assistant editor of the paper in 1981 when the hunger strikes happened. I remember many late nights in the office wondering if the next hunger striker would die in time for the city edition.
In 1987, when the Irish Voice started, it was still going on (that was the year of the Enniskillen bomb). By then I was sick of it.
It just seemed to be going on forever, night after night, month after month, year after year. It was not just the brutality that got to me; it was the stupidity and pointlessness of it all, the idea that you could bomb the Brits out and that a million Unionists would then agree to a united Ireland.
So when I started writing for the Irish Voice I had been watching the mayhem in the North for a decade and a half and, like most people at home, I had run out of patience.
A lot of that frustration came out in the columns I wrote for the Irish Voice in the early years and the direct language I used was a shock to many Irish Americans, especially the ones who were still putting dollars into Republican collection buckets.
The result was a flood of letters to the Irish Voice calling me a West Brit and cancelling subscriptions. Some of my critics even managed to get my home address in Dublin, and I used to get the page with my column posted back to me, smeared in you know what.
But there were also some readers of the column in America who wrote to the Irish Voice letters page to agree with me and were brave enough to put their names and addresses at the end of their letters. It was easy for me in Dublin to be brave. What they did over there took real courage.
After a few years of this, my column had achieved a kind of notoriety in some sections of Irish America and I had become a kind of hate figure. But O'Dowd never censored anything I wrote and never asked
me to tone down what I was saying.
By then he was probably sorry he had ever heard of me, but he stuck with it and I salute him for that. A lesser publisher would have quietly dumped the column.
The irony of the situation was that the views I was putting forward at the time were commonplace in papers and on TV in Ireland because they were what the vast majority of people believed. Even the language was the same. Only in parts of Irish America did it seem outrageous.
O'Dowd must have known that, but it was probably small comfort as his letters page filled up with demands that I be fired.
Eventually he found the answer. He invited Gerry Adams to do a weekly column as well!
That all seems like a long time ago now. Peace in the North changed everything.
Over the past decade I have been able to write about ordinary things, which is what most people want to read about anyway.
Ireland has changed ... and so has Irish America. We're all a lot older and maybe a bit wiser.
These days, after several years of writing about the excesses of the boom, I'm writing endlessly about the aftermath of the bust and the loss of our economic sovereignty. It's far from entertaining but it's unavoidable, dominating everything here now and for the foreseeable future.
Through everything, the Irish Voice has appeared for what is now 25 years. It's an extraordinary achievement by Niall O'Dowd.
It's a very tough business, on either side of the Atlantic, and believe me I know what I'm talking about. The Irish Press where I used to work collapsed and the paper I'm on now, the Irish Independent, is struggling for survival against a mountain of debt.
Yet the much smaller Irish Voice has carried on, although it can't always have been easy. A mark of O'Dowd's foresight and energy was the creation of the Irish Central website three years ago, stealing a march on bigger operations like The Irish Times and the Irish Independent with an Irish news and entertainment site that made their sites look old fashioned.
Like an Irish version of the Huffington Post, Irish Central offers comprehensive news, sport, comment, entertainment, business, culture, video, blogs, lifestyle features and on-line forums for the global Irish community. Constantly updated, it is now established as the go-to site for the extended Irish family around the world and particularly in the U.S. where so many claim Irish roots.
If newspapers are to survive, the future lies in a dual existence with an online presence alongside the print version. Some papers have found it difficult to cope with this new media world, but O'Dowd is ahead of the posse.
For my own part, I am delighted to see my Irish Voice column appearing every week as a blog on Irish Central. The feedback is always interesting and I keep an eye on it.
Over the last 25 years, I have stuck to my self-imposed rule never to respond to letters or on-line comments. I get to say my piece in the column.
The letters and on-line comments are space for the readers to have their say. I don't believe the columnist should get a second bite at the cherry, even if some comments are inaccurate or unfair.
In a curious way, my column has come full circle, a sure sign I've been around forever. The Irish Voice editor Debbie McGoldrick last week dug out my very first column from 25 years ago.
It was commenting on the controversy over a Brian Lenihan (Senior) Newsweek interview in which the then minister for foreign affairs said that there was nothing wrong with Irish people emigrating in large numbers, as they were back in the mid-1980s. "We can't all live on a small island,” Lenihan said at the time.
Lenihan is long gone, of course, and his son Brian Junior, the unluckiest minister for finance we ever had, is also dead at a tragically young age. But the cycles of emigration go on and we're in the middle of a new one now.
As Debbie said last week, some things, it seems, will never change.
Like my byline picture.
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