John Horgan has been a working journalist, senator, TD, MEP, university professor and author. In 2007, he was appointed Ireland’s first press ombudsman, a position he held through 2014. PHOTO BY PETER MCDERMOTT
By Peter McDermott
Dr. John Charles McQuaid spotted an offending item in a Catholic bookstore and pointed to the name of one of its co-authors, John Horgan, on the cover and said: “Knows nothing. Remove it!”
It was the end of the 1960s and Horgan was a young journalist, part of a new wave that had been given freedom to write about issues such as the subject of that book, contraception, or family planning as it was more often referred to at the time.
Archbishop McQuaid’s reign is famous for its longevity, longer for example than anyone who occupied the equivalent position in New York. Horgan, born weeks after the churchman was elevated to the top Catholic job in Dublin, has had in contrast a remarkably varied career.
At the outset, he was only interested in journalism. “So I fell into that,” he recalled. “I just loved it so much.”
But it would lead to a career in national politics that comprised two four-year terms in the Seanad, another in the Dáil and a stint as a member of the European Parliament.
Horgan then became a pioneering academic as founder of Ireland’s first master’s degree in journalism at Dublin City University, which later offered the first four-year undergraduate degree in the subject.
In 2007, Horgan was appointed Ireland’s first press ombudsman, a position he held through 2014. And his 50-year career as an author includes books about a taoiseach, a president and a health minister, all of them groundbreaking and iconic figures in Irish life.
The story begins with a family line that had a tradition of taking on the authorities, both state and ecclesial. In an era before the advent of professional policing, an officer of the yeomanry hit Daniel Horgan (1750-1847) on the head with the flat side of his sword, calling him “a Papist dog.” Horgan responded by wrenching the sword from the officer’s grasp and cutting his clothes to ribbons. Acknowledging his bravery, the magistrate refused to convict him. Daniel’s family was thereafter known as the “Slasher” Horgans.
His grandson, Michael Horgan, was election agent and a close aide to Charles Stewart Parnell. He stayed loyal in 1890 when the majority of Parnell’s party and its electorate, together with the Catholic Church and Gladstone’s Liberals, abandoned him over his relationship with Katharine O’Shea.
The Horgans of Cork City were closely linked to Charles Stewart Parnell and would remain loyal after the political split of 1890 and his death in 1891. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
Michael’s son John J. Horgan was born in 1881 and became a notable public figure in his own right as a journalist and nationalist activist. Though an early member of the Irish Volunteers in Cork, and a defense lawyer for extreme nationalists and a friend to others, he became ever more committed to the constitutionalist path after 1916, a position made clear in a remarkable memoir (which also contained in some detail the above family history), “Parnell to Pearse,” published first in 1949 and reissued in 2009 by UCD Press.
John Horgan believes that his author grandfather, who lived until 1967, approved of his decision to become a journalist. His parents did not. They were doctors together in a practice in Tralee, Co. Kerry, but the cherished hope was that, as the next male in line with the Horgan name, their son would become a lawyer in the family business in Cork City. “I could have warmed a nice leather chair for 40 or 50 years,” he said.
Dutifully, he did an apprenticeship in the old firm. “It was beyond boring,” he recalled.
After graduating from University College Dublin in 1962, Horgan applied to the Evening Press without telling his parents and got a job. “I must have broken their hearts,” he said.
He then took a reporting job with the Catholic Herald in London. There, the Irish Times recruited him and in 1964 he returned to Dublin.
“It was a great time to come back to Ireland. There was a lot of excitement. A lot of university people were going into journalism, especially in RTE. New thinking was slower to break into the newspapers,” he said.
“But Douglas Gageby, the new Irish Times editor, was the first to employ enterprising young graduates who couldn’t type and didn’t know shorthand,” he added with a laugh. “He understood that with television you needed more in-depth coverage and more opinion.”
Gageby, an Irish army intelligence officer during World War II, broadened the Times’ identity from that of the morning daily preferred by Protestants to being the national paper of record. Under an illustrious predecessor, R.M. Smyllie, it had staked out a moderate to liberal position, notably with its opposition to General Franco during the Spanish Civil War.
As the 1960s progressed, the Times became more liberal on social issues and, from the foundation of the SDLP in 1970, it was supportive of constitutional nationalism in Northern Ireland.
Back in 1940, Smyllie invited civil servant and writer Brian O’Nolan (better known by his penname Flann O’Brien) to write satire for the paper. The 26-year career of Myles na gCopaleen was born. But the full-time journalists had no public identity of any type other than having a report prefaced with “By Our Industrial Correspondent,” or its politics equivalent. There were no others. That was changing by the 1960s and the special areas of responsibility increased dramatically. Horgan became prominent first as education correspondent and then took on the religious affairs portfolio.
He was living a charmed life in some ways, which he came to understand later when he went into Aer Lingus’ O’Connell Street office to book a ticket and was astonished at how expensive it was.
‘The other place’
The next chapter began when some friends, mostly liberals and left-leaning Catholics, argued that a progressive candidate could win one of the three Seanad seats in the panel for the National University of Ireland (of which UCD was a constituent part). The group included the broadcaster Seán Mac Reamonn, the archeologist Máire de Paor, who’d made a run in 1965, and her husband the historian Liam de Paor.
“They cast around for someone and they landed on me,” Horgan remembered. “The thought had not crossed my mind.”
He won, while future close collaborator and friend Mary Robinson took a seat on the Trinity College panel. He was allowed to keep his Irish Times job as long he stayed an independent. He was reelected in 1973.
Horgan and Robinson, who were together stirring things up in the upper house (Michael D. Higgins was also a member), began to see the real power was in the “other place,” as they referred to the Dáil. They were both interested in the range of social and economic issues and sought Labour Party nominations.
“I lost my job as a result,” he said. It was against the rules even to run as a party candidate.
The Labour voting and supporting came courtesy of his mother, an English Methodist who was a strong backer of Kerry politician Dan Spring, the father of future party leader Dick Spring. She was born Gwen Richards, though was always known as Jane. The family was Welsh, her father a doctor before her.
She had, of course, married into an intensely political family. Her husband’s father had written in his memoir about a lull in the scene in 1885 when he was a child: “For two years Parnell had been virtually silent, flashing only occasionally like a searchlight across the political sky. Now both British parties hung on his words and he sounded the tocsin of war in a speech which made history.”
More than a half-century later, Jane Horgan would overhear her father-in-law and his friends denounce in high spirits various people from the past. “Ruffian!” “Scoundrel!” “Blackguard!” These typically were the epithets used at the dinner table. Prominent anti-Parnellites were likely among their targets, the grandson allowed.
Horgan’s gamble paid off – he was elected to the Dáil in the 1977 General Election. Two factors contributed to his serving only one term. First, his multi-seat constituency represented neighborhoods on the south side of Dublin that were disproportionately middle-class even before a redrawing of the boundaries took away some of Labour’s working-class base.
Second, and more importantly, the party could appeal to middle-class liberals while Liam Cosgrave was leader of Fine Gael (as Taoiseach, he’d help defeat his own government’s Family Planning Bill in 1974). With Garrett FitzGerald in place as leader from 1977, they happily flocked back to Fine Gael. (The biggest party was not an option. “They’d rather have died with their legs in the air than have voted for Fianna Fáil,” Horgan said.)
He failed again in the snap election in February 1982, by which time he’d been appointed a member of the European Parliament in place of a Labour politician who had resigned. “I didn’t like it. It was too removed from Irish politics,” Horgan recalled.
Former President Mary Robinson pictured in 2018. ROLLING NEWS.IE
There would be no way back to the Dáil and he, too, resigned the European seat to take up his new academic post in 1983.
“Twenty four years in DCU – that was a wonderful career,” Horgan said. “I really loved it.”
Political life could be drudgery-filled at times and he didn’t miss that part of it. But he most certainly missed being at the center of the action and also the social aspects of the job. “It was very collegial,” he said. “The gossip was great. The craic was great.”
There was another downside, however. If in 1964 it seemed that Ireland was “beginning to hum and the old system was beginning to break down,” real change at a parliamentary level proved difficult. Horgan and Robinson couldn’t even get the text of their Family Planning Bill in the Seanad published in the early 1970s. And so, the secularization of recent times in which church power “vanished like snow off a ditch” is all the more remarkable to him.
“It’s been quite extraordinary,” Horgan said.
“The Catholic Church overplayed its hand. It misjudged things. The better parts of the church in Ireland have had a serious look [asking] ‘where did we go wrong?’
“It’s in a process of reinvention of itself, which I absolutely welcome,” he said. “The present pope has made a few mistakes here and there, but unlike many popes, he’s admitted he’s made them. That kind of authenticity – that way of operating where people really are – will improve things. It will take a while. It may even be able to change more quickly that some political establishments.”
When Horgan did the Irish Echo’s author questionnaire earlier this year, he cited the Beatitudes as an influence in his life. For this interview, he described himself in Brendan Behan’s phrase as a “daylight atheist,” a way of thinking he summarized thus: “You know there’s something there. You’re not too sure, but you know it’s important and you’re not going to go through all the hoops every day of the week.”
His freethinking cast of mind led him during his younger days to cross swords occasionally with Archbishop McQuaid, something that the subject of his doctoral thesis, Taoiseach Sean Lemass, wisely decided to avoid as far as was possible.
Horgan’s thesis supervisor, it turned out, was someone of his own age who was also from the Tralee area. They hadn’t known each other while growing up. The future politician had been sent off to boarding school at age 8 ½ and had little to do with the social scene there, while Professor J.J. Lee, the son of a garda, was educated locally by the Christian Brothers. “Joe is terrific,” he said of the former director of Glucksman Ireland House, NYU. “He was so conscientious, so precise in his advice.”
The thesis became a book, “Seán Lemass: The Enigmatic Patriot,” which has been described as the definitive biography of the modernizing head of government from 1959 to 1966. “He was a realist and a man in a hurry,” its author said.
Of those whose time in the Dáil overlapped with his own, Horgan identified a few as worthy of mention. Fianna Fáil’s Albert Reynolds – who later became Taoiseach – was for him an example of a businessman who could bring those skills to the negotiating table, while he recalled Fine Gael’s John Kelly as a “wonderful political speaker [who] had an ability to crystalize an issue, even if you didn’t agree with him.”
John Horgan’s works include a full-scale biography of the Taoiseach from 1959-66, “Sean Lemass: The Enigmatic Patriot.”
He rates highly his party leader during his time in the Dáil. “Frank Cluskey was my idol,” he said. “He had enormous experience as a trade unionist. He knew how to exercise power in subtle ways.”
Horgan’s two other biographical studies are of people who had been like him at one time members of the Parliamentary Labour Party: the leftist maverick Dr. Noel Browne and the future President Robinson.
Browne was originally elected on the Clann na Poblachta ticket in 1948 and on his first day in the Dail was appointed minister for health. “He didn’t have enough time to learn the nitty-gritty of party politics and of government,” Horgan said. “He assumed that people would be much more rational that they actually are. He was admired and could inspire people, but had no tactical sense.”
He remains personally close to Robinson almost 50 years after they became friends and is amazed at how she maintains a busy globe-traveling schedule into her 70s.
As for future prospects, Horgan said, “Politics is more fluid and more volatile in Ireland than it has ever been.” There are still two conservative parties, but they are obviously no longer dominant. He believes that a realignment is very possible and pointed to the large number of independent TDs who identify with the left.
“The election after next Sinn Féin will have received a level of respectability, if you like,” he added.
“I hope for a Labour recovery because it has a very strong tradition. I think it has a more rounded philosophy than that of Sinn Féin, a more comprehensive philosophy.”
Horgan and his wife Mary Jones, a fellow academic, live in a north Dublin suburb, and there their daughter carries on the family’s political traditions as a Labour member of the city council. Jane Horgan-Jones has also embraced a part of the family legacy her father spurned: she’s a practicing barrister.
Their son, Jack Horgan-Jones, is a reporter with the Sunday Business Post. A son from his first marriage, Conor Horgan, is a prominent photographer and filmmaker.
“I’m proud of all of my children,” he said.
Horgan said that most of them seemed to have gravitated towards media work at what is perhaps not the most ideal time in history.
“Journalism is in crisis because the old model is broken and nobody knows how to fix it,” he said.
He was concerned with a rather different set of issues as Ireland’s inaugural press ombudsman from 2007. Part of his job was to ask for the media to adhere to reasonable ways of behaving.
About four or five times a year, he said, he would send a letter to editors to request they desist from what he believed was or would become intrusive coverage. “Papers were free to disregard it,” he said.
Typically, it concerned the privacy of an innocent individual or family not in the public eye. In one instance, a local doctor informed him that press photographers were being sent to document the first day at school of a child who had been the victim of a crime a couple of years before. Horgan intervened and the editors agreed not to pursue the story.
Generally editors would accede to his request to hold off, but he was aware that he had to use this power of intervention sparingly or it would lose its force.
Perhaps, given that experience, there are grounds for optimism that media can behave and act rationally. Horgan is certainly hopeful that the best of “free media and paid media” and the “best of electronic and of print” can find a way to a new model.
And although the press can be outrageous at times and “go overboard,” politicians in general favor free expression and understand its importance to democracy. They might consider then taking a “few risks, including financial risks,” to help protect it. “In the long run an independent press is worth a lot,” Horgan said, “compared to the short-term discomfort.”