Saturday, 5 May 2018

Fond memories of family,
‘The Irish Times’ and
Douglas Gageby on
a sunny day in Ranelagh

No 54 Upper Beechwood Avenue … once the home of the Gageby family and later of Jim Larkin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Before yesterday’s lecture at the Royal Irish Academy on using church records as sources for genealogy, I decided to revisit the Church of the Holy Name on Beechwood Avenue in Ranelagh to photograph the memorial plaque to John French and his family in the south porch.

The photograph of the memorial helped to illustrate how church records as genealogical resources are much more than merely the registers of baptisms, marriages and funerals – the records of what clergy sometimes refer to as ‘Hatch, Match and Despatch.’ But it also provides an introduction to the story of how John French’s parents had to marry each other twice – once in a Roman Catholic Church and then again in a Church of Ireland parish church – because of the sectarian provisions of Irish marriage laws before the Disestablishment of the Church of Ireland.

Those laws were so discriminatory that John French never inherited his father’s peerage, which descended instead through the children born after his second marriage in All Saints’ Church, Grangegorman.

No 3 Belgrave Road, formerly Overseas House … I worked here in 2002-2006 after leaving the staff of ‘The Irish Times’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Walking in the warm sunshine from Rathmines to Ranelagh on a bright May morning was a pleasant experience, and brought me by No 3 Belgrave Road, formerly Overseas House, where I worked for four years after leaving the staff of The Irish Times, from 2002 to 2006, when I joined the full-time staff of the then Church of Ireland Theological College.

Then, as I walked along Upper Beechwood Avenue, I passed No 11 Upper Beechwood Avenue, where my great-grandfather, James Comerford, and my grandfather, Stephen Edward Comerford, had lived at the beginning of the 20th century.

No 11 Upper Beechwood Avenue … where my great-grandfather and grandfather lived in the early 20th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

As I continued on, I noticed for the first time a commemorative plaque that was unveiled last year [14 January 2017] at No 54 Upper Beechwood Avenue, where the former editor of The Irish Times, Douglas Gageby, was born in 1918, and the trade union leader Jim Larkin, founder of the ITGWU, now Siptu, had lived there briefly in 1924.

Douglas Gageby was, perhaps, the most influential Irish newspaper editor of the past century. John Hume once described him as ‘one of the greatest and most positive and influential Irishmen in this century we have just left.’ He said at the time that ‘undoubtedly Douglas helped prepare the intellectual ground that eventually led to the ceasefires, the talks and the Good Friday agreement.’

(Robert John) Douglas Gageby was born at 54 Upper Beechwood Avenue, Ranelagh, on 29 September 1918. His parents were Thomas Gageby, a Belfast-born civil servant, and Ethel Elizabeth (née Smith), a schoolteacher from Co Cavan. His paternal grandfather Robert Gageby had stood as a Labour parliamentary candidate in Belfast North in 1910, and was a Belfast City Councillor for 20 years, first elected in 1898 as a trade union candidate supported by the Independent Labour Party.

The Gageby family moved to Belfast when Douglas Gageby was about three when his father went to work for the Northern Ireland Civil Service after partition.

He was educated at Belfast Royal Academy and Trinity College Dublin, where he was elected a scholar in 1940 and studied Modern Languages (French and German).

At the outbreak of World War II, he enlisted in the army as a private, was later commissioned, and served as an intelligence officer.

He reported from post-war Germany for the Irish Press and went on to work with Conor Cruise O’Brien at the Irish News Agency. In 1954, he became the first editor of the Evening Press.

He became editor of The Irish Times in 1963, and remained there until 1986, having been brought back from a short retirement in 1974, the year I joined the staff of The Irish Times from the Wexford People.

He is credited with moving The Irish Times from a Unionist organ to the Irish newspaper of record.

Douglas Gageby’s wife Dorothy was a daughter of Seán Lester, last Secretary General of the League of Nations. He died on 24 June 2004.

The plaque at No 54 Upper Beechwood Avenue commemorating Douglas Gageby and Jim Larkin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The plaque at No 54 was funded by former Irish participants in the Journalistes en Europe fellowship programme in Paris. For many years, Douglas Gageby was a member of the Council of Journalistes en Europe.

The Journalistes en Europe programme was based at Rue Montmartre in Paris. It was founded in 1974 by the French journalist and Resistance fighter Philippe Viannay; the former managing director of Reuters Gerald Long; and the founder of Le Monde, Hubert Beuve-Méry. Douglas Gageby was the Irish representative on the board. Funding came from the European Commission, governments, and private benefactors, including the late Tony Ryan.

Douglas Gageby was instrumental in my being offered a fellowship programme funded by Journalistes en Europe and the Nihon Shimbun Kyokai, the Japanese Newspaper Publishers’ Association, that allowed me to study and live in Japan for a full term in 1979. Two of us travelled out in May 1979, through London, Damascus (Syria), Dhahran (Saudi Arabia), Karachi (Pakistan) and Beijing (China). I stayed at Asia Bunka Kaikan, a student hostel in Tokyo, with another young journalist from Barcelona I travelled the length an breadth of Japan, from Hiroshima in the south-east to Hokkaido in the far north, and reported for The Irish Times from the G7 summit, where I met Jimmy Carter and Maggie Thatcher. We returned to Ireland in August 1979, this time through Beijing, Islamabad, Ankara and London.

Later that year, he also sent me to Paris, and I returned to Japan in 1981, as well as visiting Hong Kong, in 1981. These were life-shaping and life-changing experiences for a young journalist still in his mid-20s. Other Irish journalists who benefitted from the Journalistes en Europe programmes include Helen Shaw, Chris Dooley, Doireann Ní Bhriain, Elgy Gillespie, Walt Kilroy, Katie Hannon, Lorna Siggins and Gerry Flynn.

Sadly, following a decision by the European Commission to withdraw its funding, which was a significant proportion of the budget, the programme was forced to take the decision to close down in 2003.

The plaque on the house in Ranelagh where Douglas Gageby was born reads:

Journalistes en Europe / Newspaper Editor / Douglas Gageby / 1918 – 2004 / was born here / Trade Union Leader / Jim Larkin / 1876-1947 / lived here in 1924.

A few months after the plaque was unveiled last year, the house was on the market through Young’s, with an asking price of €840,000. The estate agents said then that the house still has decorative features from the days the Gageby and Larkin families lived there.

The French family memorial in the south porch of the Church of the Holy Name, Beechwood Avenue, Ranelagh (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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