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Obituary: Michael Hand

Michael Hand was an award-winning and richly talented journalist, but as a raconteur and gossip he was a Dublin institution.

Best known as Editor of the Sunday Independent in Dublin and earlier as the roving author of the Sunday Press's "Down Your Way" column, a weekly chronicle of life where the roads were bad, Mick, or "Mickser" to his cronies, carried another dimension of colour and real-life human quirkiness to the printed page.

He came from Drogheda and never lost the warm growling accent of the mainly working-class port on the Boyne. He worked first on the town's Argus newspaper, after appearing for interview on behalf of his identical twin brother, Jim. The employers failed to catch the ruse and by the time they did Michael had his feet well planted under the desk. He was allowed to stay.

After Drogheda he rose through the ranks, working at the Irish News Agency, then the Dublin Evening News, the Sunday Review, and the Sunday Press.

His gentle manner enabled him to mix easily with and win confidences from both sides during Northern Ireland coverage which included the horrors of the Shankill Butchers' atrocities in the early Seventies.

His personality was the antithesis of Daily Mail foot-in-the-door pushiness. His special talent was putting interviewees at their ease, patiently guiding them in a confessional direction, drawing out stories in rich and curious detail. This required onerous duty in innumerable bars, a burden he endured for the greater good of journalism.

Appointed editor of the Sunday Independent in 1976, Hand encouraged witty columnists such as the playwright Hugh Leonard. With his younger, more forceful assistant, Michael Denieffe, he brought to the news pages both an edge and more rounded background to larger stories, giving the public livelier reading and consolidating circulation. Leonard himself would recount the pleasure of the extensive lunches Hand felt appropriate to arrange whenever a new contract loomed.

Unlike more charged colleagues, Hand seldom seemed ruffled by the tensions of production deadlines. He had a sure, confident touch for the angle and presentation of a story.

Though his Fianna Fail sympathies were at odds with the previous colouring of the Independent Newspapers stable in Abbey Street, he attracted no enemies among editorial ranks. His disregard for confining budgets however created nervous trauma for his financial masters on the fourth floor.

His political leanings enabled the publishers to assert that theirs was not a blind Fine Gael adherence, an allegiance in any case unravelling by the mid-Eighties as the FF leader Charles Haughey, encouraged by his aide P.J. Mara, wooed editors with a long-lunch offensive. Hand, already an admirer, found himself the recipient of Christmas presents including the finest grand cru wines with specially printed labels proclaiming "To Mr Michael Hand from his friend Charles J. Haughey".

His droll wit could hit a target but without showing malice. At an annual review of progress by the company's titles, Hand explained he was wooing a wider audience with expanded arts coverage, led by a competition for poets and short-story writers. When a junior director, keen to impress the chairman, interjected to ask "And what sort of people entered?" there was a lethal pause as Hand fixed him with a stare and replied: "Mainly poets and short-story writers."

His capacity for food was considerable. At home he would reportedly take an entire rice pudding into another room to avoid sharing it. At Abbey Street he became the centre of a coterie of bon viveurs who dined frequently and grandly as guests at Sean Kinsella's "Mirabeau" in Sandycove, south Dublin. He appreciated the company of women, and they seemed to like him too.

A particular close colleague was the voluble and iconoclastic social diarist John Feeney. When Feeney and his close colleagues Kevin Marren, Tony Heffernan and Niall Hanley died in a light plane crash on the south coast of England in 1984, Hand was devastated. Losing his closest friends drained away much of the pleasure of work. He had himself only pulled out of the fateful trip at a late stage.

After the Sunday Independent, Hand moved to the rival Sunday Tribune, penning a variety of features and larger assignments including travelling to Africa - despite having earlier suffered a stroke - where his poignant writing caught the full tragedy of events in Rwanda and won him an award in 1994.

Unfailingly warm, genial and good-mannered, Hand gave generous encouragement to a long line of aspiring reporters. When he and his brother Jim were treated to a joint 50th birthday party in Scruffy Murphy's pub, the event was attended by admirers from all walks of public life. A Dublin magazine observed of one former beauty queen clad in a minute dress, "Parts of her anatomy seemed to be forming an escape committee."

Michael Hand's easy-going manner could also get him into trouble. Returning late at night from a restaurant after earlier hospitality in the Dail, he was accosted by a patrolling garda. After rolling down the car window, the officer ventured gently, "And would it be the case that you have drink taken, Sir?" Hand replied candidly, "Ten out of ten, Sherlock." A summons duly followed.

Alan Murdoch

Michael Hand, journalist, born Drogheda, Co Louth 5 May 1936; Editor, Sunday Independent 1976-84; married (two daughters); died Dublin 10 July 1997.