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The Times Great Irish Lives

Charles Lysaght
The Times



From the Introduction by Charles Lysaght

When Dr Johnson proclaimed the Irish an honest race because they seldom spoke well of one another, he should have made it clear that it was the reputations of the living that he had in mind. In Ireland, speaking of the dead in the aftermath of their demise, the adage nihil nisi bonum applies not only among friends and acquaintances but in the media. Readers of Irish newspapers, national and especially local, are treated to accounts of the unprecedented gloom that settled over the district where the deceased lived, the largest and most representative gathering at a funeral within living memory, accompanied by eulogies reciting how the dear departed thought only of others and never of themselves, were never known to say an unkind word about anybody, were devoted to their family, were exemplary in their piety and charity and were universally loved and respected. Such undiscriminating eulogies lack credibility and do their subjects no favours.

It has been a signal service rendered by The Times to provide accounts of deceased Irish persons that aspire to more realism and more balance in their assessments while bringing out the exceptional achievements and positive qualities that make the deceased worthy of notice in a news­paper outside their own country. In the absence of a comprehensive dictionary of Irish biography they have sometimes been the best accounts of a person's life, at least for a period, and, as such, a valuable reference for historians.

It has been helpful to this process that many of these obituaries are prepared in advance and so allow for checking facts and for reflection unaffected by the immediate surge of sympathy surrounding a death.

It is conducive to frankness that obituaries are published anonym­ously and that the identity of the authors will not be disclosed by the paper in their lifetime, so keeping faith with the nineteenth century description of The Times as 'the most obstinately anonymous newspaper in the World'. It may add to the authority of a piece that it seems to represent the views of a great newspaper rather than an individual author. It probably puts some pressure on the individual authors to reflect a general view of a person rather than to indulge a personal experience or assessment.

Obituaries (especially major ones) may first be prepared when their subjects are relatively young and so need revision many times before publication. Apart from new facts, what is interesting about a person's life can change quite rapidly. In the nature of things, the subject some­times outlives the original author and what emerges on the final day is a composite work.

Historically, Irish obituaries in The Times reflected somewhat the troubled relationship that the paper had with Ireland from the days of Daniel O'Connell up to the creation of the independent Irish state. The difficulties in the relationship might even be traced back further to the incident when Irishman Barry O'Meara, who had been removed by the British Government from his role as physician to the captive Napoleon on St Helena, horse-whipped William Walter, mistaking him for his brother John who was one of the proprietors and the responsible editor of the paper. O'Meara had been affronted because The Times had dismissed as a lie a statement in his memoirs that he had been told by the deposed Emperor that The Times was in the pay of the exiled Bourbons. It ended up in court with O'Meara getting away with a fulsome apology.

The Times, under the editorship of Thomas Barnes (1817-41) supported O'Connell's campaign for Catholic Emancipation. But their relationship with O'Connell went sour not long after he entered parliament in 1830 when he accused the paper of misreporting him. As he espoused the repeal of the Union and brought the 'Romish clergy' into politics, they denounced him as an unredeemed and unredeem­able scoundrel and declared 'war to the political extinction of one of us.' One of the first assignments of the celebrated Irish-born reporter William Howard Russell was to report on O'Connell's monster meetings.