Looking back on life in print
By Terry Reilly (c)
IT’S hard to believe that during my working life with the Western People I worked with three men who were on the payroll of the paper when it hit the streets around lunch time every Friday – all going well of course with the temperamental old Foster press in Arran Street in Ballina back in the 1920s!
God be good to them, they were Billy Gallagher, who had joined the paper as a 14 year old in 1926, Tommy Battle, Pat Kneafsey and Michael Conmee who had fought in the Great War. They in turn had worked alongside my great grandfather, Terence Devere, his son, Ernest (my grandfather), and his sons, Vincie and Teddy (my uncles).
The Foster press did not slit the pages, so the paper really came in one big chunk of newsprint containing 8 pages, and was known as ‘the tablecloth’, for it had to be spread on the table to be read or slit.
By the late 1920s the printing works of the Western had moved to Francis Street, across from the courthouse in the town, where a great big rotary press, a giant Goss, had been imported from England and installed in the former Sweeney’s garage premises, resplendent with a high timber roof that is still there today.
It had come in through the Quay in Ballina, and in the best traditions of the printing trade (ie what can go wrongwill go wrong!), the ship struck the Bar between Bartra island and the end of Enniscrone beach. It sprang a leak and took a week to get to the port as the proprietor (my great grandfather) sweated and fretted. Little did he know that the Goss was to cause him and generations of ‘Western’ workers many sleepless nights. And, of course, a living.
Happily, however, the press came with an engineer from Leeds, Bill Naylor, and he and a Dublin printer, John Cassidy, and helper Luke Walsh, unpacked and rebuilt the lego pieces over five hectic months. And so came the big test, the first edition off the first rotary press in the West of Ireland. Trouble was it didn’t come off: the Goss stood up and refused to deliover, so Plan B was reverted to and it was back to the old Foster still enconsed in Arran Street.
By the following week Bill Naylor, son of Ronnie, who was later to nurse the machine along with his father, coaxed it into some kind of order and newspapers sped off the delivery, manually counted ‘Three’, ‘Six’, ‘Nine’, ‘Twelve’ by an apprentice jockey who sat in on a cut-down car seat placed cheek by jowl with the great beast. The noise from the revolving heavy rollers and myriad moving parts was great over the three or four- or ten (depending on dependability issues) hours it took to run off that week’s circulation, but no one ever heard of any of the ‘maternity wives’ going deaf as they delivered issue after issue. Ear muffs were then, like space travel, in the future, but just a few years before me joining the company the Russians had fired a dog and a woman into space, and a few years later John F Kennedy was shooting for the moon. And the old Goss continued on its weekly oddesy, dealing with ever increasing paginations and tricky photographs that never quite captured the images shot by photographers such as Tommy Battle, Sean Corcoran, Eddie Harney, Damien Slater and Henry Wills.
The Connacht Tribune in Galway was the first paper in the region to embrace the new printing technology called web-offset printing, in the early 1970s, and when the Western Journal set up in Ballina and Sligo in 1977 and signed contracts to be printed in Galway, the Western was forced to concede that the days of the great old Goss were over.
By then I had just taken over as Managing Editor and it fell to me to both source a new printing press, and, more importantly, the money to finance its purchase. On top of that key staff were handing in their notices on an almost weekly basis, deciding that the Western Journal was a better bet in the survival stakes about to be run.
The company had a good relationship with the Linotype company who made hot-metal typecasting machines in Altrincham, outside Manchester, and had commenced manufacturing web-offset printing presses. Their sales and engineering representative was a delightful Scot, Cass Cunningham, who arranged a number of site visits in the UK.
But before a decision to purchase was made one of our big printing rivals based outside Mayo told the joint proprietors, Rita Devere and my uncle, Vincie, and myself on one gloomy Saturday morning in Ballina that we’d be more of less commiting economic suicide buying our own press. Big savings were promised, even if that meant letting printing and associated jobs go in Ballina. It was very much a big stick ‘take- it-or -leave it’ session but within an hour our would-be-suitors were sent packing.
The determined bid for the printing business did not end there, however. Having secured a loan from ICC to buy the Linotype Pacer press, the proprietors were hit with the chilling question: do you know that that printing press you are buying does not do colour? Silly you!
Our new press did of course do colour, and within a year was doing the best colour this side of the Shannon, thanks to the skills of our printers, Padraig Doyle, Kevin Boylan (RIP) and a young Eugene Flannery (who were following in a great Mayo printing tradition). By now the process was allied to modern typesetting techniques and a transformation of the whole pre-press and photographic departments. Readers and advertisers stuck with the Western – they were our inspiration, and the loyalty of many of them throughout the region was something to behold, indeed something that will never be forgotten.
Which brought us rapidly to 1979, and the news that Pope John Paul 11 was coming to Ireland, on the invitation essentially of Monsignor James Horan and Archbishop Joseph Cunnane, spurred on with the greatest persistence and faith by Judy Coyne, later to become Dame Judy Coyne
All sections of the media were now really presented with an opportunity to rise to the occasion, and that they did. For newspapers colour was the big thing, and the Western People was well placed. Our photographer Henry Wills was lining up in advance pictures from the Vatican to fill special supplements and prime front page positions. We even got a translator to turn a few words of greeting into Polish for the Pontiff, little realising that some twenty years or so later Polish workers would be all about us in Mayo and the West of Ireland.
By then, after all the set-backs and all the challenges, we were up for something more daring than that in the Western though, and when I announced we would be bringing forward publication by a full day to Tuesday morning to mark the Pope’s visit there was hardly a dissenting voice within the company. Works Manager Foncie Culkin was, I recall, a great supporter as he always was from our days in the early 70s when we together established the Mayo Sports Stars awards. But that’s another story!
In making the ‘Tuesday’ announcement, what I did not say then was that there would be no going back to Wednesday! It was not that I wanted to come out earlier per se, it was that I had analysed the local market in some detail and had also taken independent soundings that showed that lots of people from our rural areas came into towns on Tuesday to draw their dole and do their bit of shopping. It was a no brainer, really, and sales increases rapidly confirmed the analysis, and delighted our representative Eamonn Flynn who was a strong advocate of the earlier schedule.
There would be no gain without pain, of course. I knew that I as Editor and Ivan Neill as Sports Editor, our sports reporters and photographers, Deputy Editor Denis Daly and some others in various departments, who, to varying degrees, would have to say goodbye to having Sunday nights and Bank Holiday Mondays off for the rest of our working lives (except when we were on holidays, of course). The newly constituted Advertising Department under John Reilly (RIP) and David Dwane initially was one of those hardest pressed by the stricter time constraints, for national advertising then came by train or post and not promptly down the ISDN lines which later became part and parcel of the business. Advertising agencies in the capital, who saw the regional (‘provincial’ press was their preferred description) as not being sexy enough, took time to catch up with a medium that was setting the pace – but catch up they did.
Over time there were, of course, those who thought the move to Tuesdays was ill-advised and sought a reversal, but the readers were voting with their money …. and if you don’t listen to your market you pay the price. There could be no going back, but there was always a covering position, about which my lips remained sealed.
When our faithful and trusty little Pacer printing press, extended over the years, could no longer meet needs, we had to upgrade. We looked at several options before – on CEO Anthony Dinan’s instructions – landing one night in Helsinki in the middle of winter in the late 1990s, Tom Murphy of the TCH/Irish Examiner group, printer Eugene Flannery, two engineers and myself. The roads were iced, and emerging from the shelter of the airport the first impression was that one’s trouser legs were freezing in the minus 40 degree temperature.
A taxi ride to our hotel on glistening tarmac was one of life’s great experiences I don’t think. When I chided the driver from the vulnerability of the front seat with the words ‘Mikka Hakkinen’, comparing him to the Finnish Formula I ace of the time; a broad beam embellished his face, threw up his arms in acknowledgement and rammed the foot to the floor. Ice floes bigger than those that sank the Titanic sped by in a spin of wheels, overhead street lighting blurred into the ether, and while no one shouted ‘I want my mammy’ some prayed, and some cursed! At the hotel we fell out of the car, a heaving, sweating, laughing but above all relieved bunch. Welcome to Finland!
Onwards by train into the snowfields of Siberian-like Vassa and a printing press was finally bought and transported to Ballina where it too fully lived up to the temperamentality of its genre. Let’s just say more than a few of us lost sleep before Finnish steel mellowed in the Mayo air. Again, another story!
Funny the things you remember, I could go on and on: friendships formed, mention of some of the greats who contributed enormously to the successs of the paper, including Fred Devere, JF Quinn, Jim McGuire, John Healy, Mick Finlan, teams of correspondents led by the amazing Eamon Shevlin (Erris) and the equally amazing Martin Nyland (Swinford), and many great contributors and colleagues; or indeed tell the inside story of the setting up of Mid West and North West Radio, etc., etc., but in this instance I can always plead I am following the guidelines of Editor James Laffey who – and don’t I know only too well – has to try to balance the spread and content of all contributors to this 125th anniversary issue.
Sail on and fair winds!
*Article first published 125th anniversary edition of The Western People