Editor of the Irish Press for over 20 years, and author of 12 bestselling books on Irish history and culture, Tim Pat Coogan, 73, is a living authority on Ireland and its troubled history.
But his own story, it turns out, is every bit as interesting. As editor of the Irish Press, Coogan was very publically at the paper's helm during some of the most tumultuous years of the nation's history, and on more than one occasion he the made news as well as reported it.In his new memoir titled A Memoir, Coogan puts it all out there, his professional and personal triumphs and failures, and even the eventual collapse of his marriage. He spares nothing in the telling, including himself, in a book that is nothing less than a brilliant reflection of the challenging times he's lived through, seen by a man who often found himself near the center of the storm. What's perhaps most remarkable about Coogan's career is how quickly it commenced. As a teenager his history teacher at the upscale Blackrock College in Dublin called Vivion de Valera (the son of the famous Irish president Eamon de Valera) and told him that he had a boy in his class who would "either break his heart or turn out a genius." De Valera was impressed enough to hire Coogan as an editorial assistant on the Evening Press, and the young Coogan never looked back. But Coogan soon discovered the misleadingly glamorous title "editorial assistant" actually meant he who makes the tea each day. "I made a very decent cup as a matter of fact, and over the years I've often thought I really should have stuck to that," Coogan told the Irish Voice during a recent interview. But his work ethic and his natural flair saw to it that by 1968, at age of 33, he became editor of the Irish Press, the flagship newspaper established by Eamon de Valera in 1931 as the mouthpiece of his political party Fianna Fail. From the beginning there were some very interesting paradoxes about Coogan's unstoppable journalistic rise. For a start he was the son of a Fine Gael member of Parliament suddenly at the helm of Fianna Fail's main newspaper. He was also a Blackrock old boy at the center of Ireland's most populist and popular newspaper. In addition, he was what many would now call a social liberal steering the course for one of Ireland's most culturally conservative editorial boards. He embodied the sweeping change of the sixties in a nation that had until recently permitted the clergy to decide what books, films and plays they could and could not see. Said Coogan, "By the late sixties sales of the Irish Press were going south and Vivion de Valera came to me to revive them. When I came to be editor in 1968 the civil rights movement in the North had just started and was beginning to get violent reactions on the streets. So it was a critical time when I came to be editor, but my career in journalism has also spanned the fifties, the worst economic decade too." Coogan lived through and reported on the darkest days of the northern Troubles, all the while editing the paper and writing some of the most admired and widely read studies of Irish history in recent decades. He has remained fascinated by northerners, who he praises for their directness, and their plainspoken lack of guile, but he kept his critical distance too. He writes with facility about some of the most consequential developments in the decades long war, many of which he witnessed first hand. Throughout his new memoir Coogan is most often an observer - that old writer's reflex - but in the mid-eighties, now middle aged and long established, something happened to upset and then restore his equilibrium. At a literary event in Dublin to celebrate the publication of his friend Benedict Kiely's book Nothing Happens in Carmincross, Coogan met Barbara Hayley, an English professor seven years his junior, and they began a six year long affair. Coogan was startled to discover how much he had longed for such a connection - marriage with a wife and kids, he had discovered, could be a lonely place too. So he responded to the September affair with all the passion and incredulity of a man who finds a raft in the middle of his life. "Emotionally, personally, all the way in which you need support, there she was," says Coogan. "The Irish Press era was coming to an end because Vivion de Valera's son had taken it over and he wanted to turn the paper into a tabloid. He just didn't have it, I thought, so I resigned. "And my work, my coverage of the North over the years, and all the long hours, had created enduring tensions in my marriage. And just at this juncture I bumped into Barbara Haley and we began a relationship." Hayley was an unusual figure in the Ireland of the eighties. A Protestant, she taught at Maynooth College, the seat of the Irish Catholic seminary, where she held the chair in English, a relative first for a woman at the time. The affair lasted for six years. Coogan felt like a man who had been granted a stay of execution, and the sudden sweetness of the unexpected love affair changed his life. In the sixth year of the relationship Hayley drove him to Dublin Airport where he flew to California for a conference. Said Coogan, "I woke up the following morning when my son Tom rang me to say that she'd just been killed in a car crash." Hearing the news, Coogan seriously contemplated jumping out the window of his hotel room. He spent the night in the farthest corner of the room, as far from the window as he could get, waiting for the dawn to come up in what he calls a dark night of the soul. Inevitably this tragedy had a knock on effect. His wife Cherry learned of the affair and got a separation. In the end his job was gone, Barbara was gone, the marriage was gone. To complicate the picture even further, Coogan had developed a dangerous eye condition that his Irish doctor had misdiagnosed. "It was potentially fatal. I was being treated by someone who had given me no indication that there was any danger," he recalls. "One of the last things Barbara did was arrange for me to see a specialist, and it saved my sight and probably my life. I would not have been able to see to finish my manuscripts without her." Nowadays Coogan maintains a close relationship with his former wife, and neither has remarried. "The children thought that the best thing to do would be to tell their mother of my affair - and to tell me they were going to, too - so we could both start new lives. But neither of us have ever remarried and the family are united so it's a chapter in my life rather than an ongoing narrative, you know?" At 73, Coogan's new work is as sharp and evocative as ever, and his own story turns out to be as rich and rewarding as the books that made his name. A Memoir by Tim Pat Coogan is available from Abebooks.com.