Douglas Gageby

Liberal and lively editor who resuscitated 'The Irish Times'
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The Independent Online

Robert John Douglas Gageby, journalist and intelligence officer: born Dublin 29 September 1918; Editor, Evening Press 1954-59; Joint Managing Editor, Irish Times 1959-63, Editor 1963-74, 1977-86; married 1944 Dorothy Lester (died 2002; two sons, two daughters); died Dublin 24 June 2004.

The Irish Times occupies a curious place in the history of Irish public opinion, and Douglas Gageby, its editor from 1963 until 1974, and again from 1977 to 1986, was central to the conundrum. One Irish reference work describes his remarkable resuscitation of the newspaper as "the outstanding editorial achievement of the [20th] century".

A paper of liberal Unionist origins in the 1860s, The Irish Times struggled into the era of independence more by good luck than management. Its survival is generally attributed to Robert Smyllie (Editor from 1934 to 1954), who hauled it through the isolated years of the Second World War. Gageby disliked Smyllie, but the two men shared a passion for European politics - the older trained at the Versailles peace talks in 1919, the younger blooded as a student visiting Hitler's Germany where he discovered in himself a moral commitment greater than any academic talent for languages.

Douglas Gageby's career exemplified a positive rapprochement between a new state and the children of a minority who might have stood aloof or aside. As a wartime army officer, and especially as a low-ranker, he represented a slender but important strand of military appointments whereby non-Catholics were assimilated and empowered. As Editor of The Irish Times he reciprocated by bringing the former trumpeter of West Britonism into positive dialogue with the nation's fears and aspirations.

Many people assumed he hailed direct from Ulster, perhaps a Belfastman who had sought asylum, like many Catholics. This chameleon quality may have been nurtured during Gageby's intelligence years, but it also made him a natural gentleman, a freelance diplomat.

He was born in Dublin a few weeks before the First World War ended, the only son of Thomas Robert Gageby (a civil servant) and his wife, a National School teacher from Co Cavan. Baptised into the Church of Ireland, later in life Douglas Gageby diluted this conventional Protestantism by taking a dram of Christian Science (his stated religion on entering the Irish defence forces in 1942).

The Gageby parents cannot have held the new Free State in the highest regard, for they moved north to Belfast (T.R. Gageby's home town) in 1922, and Douglas was sent to the Belfast Royal Academy. When it was time to think of university, Gageby moved back to his native city to enter Trinity College in 1937, reading German.

In July 1942, he enlisted at Portobello Barracks, Dublin. In a post-Pearl Harbor world, some elements in the Irish establishment were rethinking neutrality. Following infantry training, Gageby was assigned to Army Intelligence (G2) in January 1943, reporting directly to Colonel Dan Bryan, legendary head of that tiny unit. Shortly afterwards, he moved to the Curragh Camp, where he scrutinised correspondence to and from German internees. Occasionally acting as oral interpreter, he was expected always "to have his turf fire going by the time the Command Intelligence Officer arrived". He was promoted temporary second lieutenant in September that year.

Neutral Ireland during the Second World War was not a hothouse of intrigue. On the whole, Gageby found things quiet. In the last months of the war, however, a U-boat scuttled itself off the coast of Cork, and he interviewed the 20 or so crewmen and examined the contents of two canisters which the crew thought they had disposed of. The documents inside revealed the German navy's conditional views on the immunity of Irish ships at sea.

Gageby was informally released from service one minute before midnight on 15 April 1945. He travelled to Germany, where he sought out the son of a family he had stayed with in Heidelberg. The young man was now interned as a member of the SS, and Gageby interviewed him in a private capacity, keen to get to grips with the personal realities underpinning so much horrific violence.

The future Irish Taoiseach Eamon de Valera had set up a newspaper in the 1930s, controlled by a family arrangement. Gageby joined his Irish Press group and was briefly assistant editor of The Sunday Press. But, with a new government after 1948, he transferred to the Irish News Agency, where he was Editor-in-Chief, and worked with Conor Cruise O'Brien (then a civil servant). The agency was an instrument of policy, directly concerned with national issues such as partition upon which the Minister for External Affairs, Sean MacBride, held trenchant views.

The coalition government broke up in 1951, and shortly afterwards Gageby became the first editor of a new paper in the de Valera stable, The Evening Press. He had found his métier, independent of government yet linked to the broad consensus of national feeling. The paper thrived under Gageby's lively direction, and soon drove one of its rivals, the old Evening Mail, off the streets. More than any other editor, he changed the consensus.

In 1959, he began his long and distinguished career in Westmorland Street, becoming Joint Managing Editor of The Irish Times. Four years later, he was sole editor, a position he held from 1963 to 1974, years which pivoted round the outbreak of communal violence in Ulster.

Gageby inherited some fine veteran journalists from the Smyllie era - notably Bruce Williamson and Michael MacInerney, the first a poet, the second a firebrand socialist. He also recruited younger writers from well beyond the Protestant enclave of the paper's proprietors and even beyond the Bohemianism of Smyllie's wartime team. Women became noticably more frequent contributors. Donal Foley and Mary Maher (the latter from Chicago) gave the paper a strong social conscience under Gageby, while John Healy (his close friend, rescued from a defunct Sunday paper) wrote impassionately from an outraged traditionalist position - often in direct collision with MacInerney on the same page. The "paper of record" was famed for its lengthy reports of Dail Eireann debates, and Healy's irreverent "Backbencher" feature. Only Gageby's innate sense of balance kept the show on the road.

This quality proved invaluable as the latest Troubles broke out in the North. At least by comparison with its Unionist origins, The Irish Times had acquired a left-wing flavour, covering developments in the Irish Labour Party in a sympathetic way. The Troubles brought division to the Irish left, while events leading to the arms trial of 1971 brought the Irish Army's intelligence corps into engagement with leading politicians. There is no doubt that Gageby's familiarity with his old unit, and the army's awareness of his sound judgement, assisted in the relatively successful outcome of the crisis for state and army alike.

After Gageby's retirement at the age of 55, the paper nose-dived in the worsening political situation. Gageby was recalled in 1977, remaining until 1986, when he finally quit. His 12 noon news conferences are remembered for the editor's high comic efficiency and range of interest - excepting midweek sport, which he could not understand.

Douglas Gageby in his second retirement was a sprightly, cheerful figure, devoting much time to the planting of trees at Moynalty in Co Meath, and on the banks of the Dodder in Dublin. In further service to Ireland's natural history, he contributed a weekly column to his old paper. This was not quite anonymous, neither did it bear his initials: it was modestly signed Y - the final letter of his surname. He also contributed to An Cosanthoir (the Defence Forces journal), preferring his articles to appear as if they were unsigned editorial snippets.

More assertively, he wrote The Last Secretary General (1999), a lengthy study of his father-in-law, Sean Lester, High Commissioner of Danzig and last Secretary General of the League of Nations. Although occasionally personal in focus, it is a notable contribution to diplomatic history.

In 1944, Gageby had married Dorothy Lester, Sean Lester's eldest daughter. The household was one of cheerful rigour, manifest affection, good talk, and outgoing thoughtfulness. He was the father of the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court (Mrs Justice Gageby Denham).

Douglas Gageby's final year was marked by the recrudescence of an old alleged libel attributed to a grandee of The Irish Times, to the effect that Gageby, in pursuing a liberal editorial line on the Troubles in Ulster, had turned "white nigger". The pity is that so few were able to appreciate his wry amusement at the original, unintended compliment.

W. J. Mc Cormack