Gageby, (Robert John) Douglas (1918–2004), newspaper editor, was born 29 September 1918 in Ranelagh, Dublin, only son of Thomas Robert Gageby, civil servant, and his wife Ethel (née Smith), a former national school teacher; an elder sister died of meningitis aged five in 1921. Gageby's grandfather was a Belfast Labour councillor and parliamentary candidate; Gageby claimed the family was victimised as a result and this influenced his own hostility to constitutional unionism. Brought up in the Church of Ireland, as a young man he became a Christian Scientist, and that denomination's emphasis on the power of consciousness to transcend and transform the material world sat well with his entrepreneurship and his belief that media could help transform society.
Education; military service; marriage; influences
On his father's transfer to the Northern Ireland civil service (1922), the family moved to Belfast. Educated at Belfast Royal Academy, he excelled in modern languages, especially German; visits to Germany (including two summers at Heidelberg) allowed him to witness with distaste the development of the Nazi dictatorship; he also visited Paris. Although he won three scholarships to QUB, Gageby was encouraged by his mother to study at Trinity College Dublin (1937–42). He was an enthusiastic member of the university rowing club, took a degree in modern languages and studied for an LLB. In May 1940 he won a much‑prized college scholarship, opening the prospect of an eventual academic career, which he rejected. He also developed a fascination with the politics of the southern state and sympathy for Éamon de Valera (qv) in his removal of the remaining connections with the British empire; he had read the Irish Press since his teens.
Although Gageby wished to abandon his studies and join the Irish army, he was persuaded by his parents to wait until finishing his degree. Enlisting as a private (July 1942), he was recognised as officer material, commissioned after training as a second lieutenant (9 September 1943), and assigned to G2 (Military Intelligence) under Colonel Dan Bryan (qv). His duties included censoring the correspondence of German internees in the Curragh. Gageby always retained pride in his army service and a fondness for military minutiae; his brusque manner of addressing subordinates, often involving barrack‑room language, had military undertones. Some acquaintances thought he regretted not having been a professional soldier; he liked to take journalists to dine in the mess at McKee Barracks, Dublin. His military experience consolidated his pride in Irish neutrality (some commentators later criticised his refusal to admit that Ireland's involvement in European union – which he enthusiastically promoted – necessarily qualified neutrality), and a sense of being part of a national collectivity. The darker side of this patriotism was a bitter Anglophobia: he informed the journalist Cathal O'Shannon, recently returned from the RAF, that he was a traitor. Throughout his life he positively disliked visiting Britain.
Gageby married (12 July 1944) Dorothy Lester (d. 2002), daughter of the diplomat Seán Lester (qv); they had met as Trinity students. The marriage was extremely loving and supportive; they had two sons and two daughters, including the future Supreme Court judge Susan Denham. It has been suggested that Dorothy and the Lesters influenced the development of Gageby's republican views. They certainly brought him into contact with Bulmer Hobson (qv), whose later career, though obscure and cranky, was driven by a deep integrity; the old protestant republican became one of Gageby's heroes and role models (with Theobald Wolfe Tone (qv) and J. B. Armour (qv)). Through these contacts and his family background, Gageby imbibed the sense, held by fin de siècle Ulster revivalists such as Hobson and Alice Milligan (qv), of inheriting an Ulster protestant republican tradition stretching back to the United Irishmen, and beyond them to an Irishness pre‑dating Christian divisions, or even Christianity. (His editorial invocations of Wolfe Tone and Newgrange as symbolising this essential Irishness would become a cliché.)
Like many other representatives of this tradition, Gageby tended to see all reformist traditions amongst Ulster protestants – such as his grandfather's labourism – as inherently nationalist or republican (in fact they were often liberal‑unionist or – less frequently – pro‑home rule, as with Armour); to cherish unrealistic expectations of the rapid transformation of Ulster unionists into nationalists; and to dismiss unionism as demented bigotry unworthy of serious attention. One of his future deputy editors, Denis Kennedy, complained that Gageby not only failed to understand why Ulster unionists were unionists, but actively resisted any attempt at explanation. Some liberal catholic or ex‑catholic colleagues also regarded as patronising his view that an influx of Ulster protestants was necessary to promote liberalisation in the Republic
Early career in journalism
In 1945 Gageby became a sub‑editor and reporter on the Irish Press, for which he had written occasional articles while in the army; he later stated that if his politics had not been 'in or around Fianna Fáil' he would not have sought the job. He took advantage of a visit (October–November 1946) to his father‑in‑law – who, having been marooned in Geneva during the war, was now engaged in the final winding‑down of the League of Nations apparatus – to report for the Press on war‑ruined Germany; his despatches were splashed on the front page and brought him immediate notice. Discovering that the son of a family with whom he had stayed on a pre‑war visit had joined the SS and was in prison for his activities in a detention camp, Gageby interviewed him in an attempt to understand how men could do such things. He also enquired after his pre‑war Jewish landlady, but never learned her fate. He revisited Germany to cover the 1948–9 Berlin airlift. His German experiences underlay Gageby's commitment to the European project; in 1989, some time after his retirement, he reported for the Irish Times on German reunification, contrasting the Germany of the late 1980s with that of the late 1940s.
Gageby was appointed assistant editor of the Sunday Press on its establishment (1947). He left the paper to become editor‑in‑chief of the Irish News Agency (1951–4), where he met John Healy (qv), who became one of his closest friends, his fishing‑partner and his guide to Irish politics. Some left‑liberal admirers attributed some of Gageby's opinions, which they found uncongenial, to Healy's influence, but Gageby's Fianna Fáil sympathies pre‑dated his acquaintance with Healy. Journalist Conor Brady explained the relationship in terms of the personal and parochial workings of Irish political life, in which Healy excelled, but Gageby always remained to some extent a puzzled outsider.
He returned to the Press group as the first editor of the newly launched Evening Press (1954). His managerial skills were largely responsible for its overtaking the established Evening Herald and Evening Mail. His tactics involved maximising audiences by avoiding political commentary and emphasising social coverage appealing to women readers, close attention to commercial detail, and a certain ruthlessness in pursuing small ads. As the Press was usually unforgiving to defectors, and regarded the INA – a creation of the first inter‑party government – with particular suspicion, his return demonstrates the extent to which his abilities were recognised. This recognition was not, however, matched by resources either for the paper or Gageby personally. Had he remained at the Press group, Gageby could never have expected to reach the highest levels of management, and he was ambitious to advance his own fortunes and give his family the lifestyle he believed they deserved.
Reviving the Irish Times
Recruited in 1959 as joint managing director of the Irish Times, Gageby accepted the position after informing the directors of his political sympathies, and on condition that he become a board member; he also acquired a significant shareholding. The newspaper was regarded as the voice of Ireland's ex‑unionist protestant business and professional elite, though it also enjoyed a certain readership among liberal catholics, and employed some republicans who appreciated its distance from the catholic clergy and the institutions of state. Gageby retained an abiding dislike for the paper's famous wartime editor, R. M. Smyllie (qv), resenting Smyllie's loudly expressed view that, as a bright young protestant, Gageby belonged on the Irish Times. With assistance from his mother‑in‑law (who came to live with the family), Gageby acquired a large house in south Dublin overlooking the River Dodder, which became his principal residence for the rest of his life. As the paper's fortunes revived in the 1960s he acquired a summer residence at Moynalty, in the Boyne valley of Co. Meath, where he fished, planted trees, and ensured extensive coverage of the local steam threshing festival.
Gageby became sole managing director in 1962, and was appointed editor in October 1963. By this time he had formed an alliance with Thomas Bleakley McDowell (1928–2009), who had been recruited two years earlier to run the commercial side of the paper. Together they dominated the board, and sought to make the Irish Times the national paper of record. Previous editors had regarded the literary side of the paper as paramount, gave little attention to its commercial aspect, and were content to appeal to a niche market. Gageby realised that that market, and the paper with it, were in long‑term decline, but also grasped that new trends in Irish society offered rich opportunities. While Smyllie had appealed to discontented catholic liberals, his Irish Times had remained vulnerable to claims by catholic populists such as Alfred O'Rahilly (qv) that its liberalism represented the decadent pretensions of a privileged clique alien to the plain people of Ireland. In the new decade, Gageby seized the potential of appealing to an expanding and more affluent middle class that was less attached to traditional loyalties and curious about the new horizons being opened by the second Vatican council (John Horgan's reports on the council's final session (1965) became a major selling point), the move away from old‑style economic and cultural protectionism in the Lemass era, and the expansion of educational opportunities. In combination with Donal Foley (qv), whom he brought in as news editor, Gageby recruited new writers, including several talented women, such as Mary Holland (qv), who documented the state's social problems and challenged traditional attitudes. John Healy's 'Backbencher' column displayed a new, less deferential approach to political coverage. Foreign coverage was expanded; correspondents were sent abroad with a good deal of scope concerning expenses and the time needed to develop deep understanding of a situation, and an emphasis on accuracy.
Gageby modelled the Irish Times on European liberal dailies such as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Le Monde, both highly influential in their respective countries. He had little regard for American newspapers, excepting the New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor. Gageby did not believe that higher‑quality comment alone could revive the Irish Times; he also knew that quality was expensive. Owing to the administrative experience and knowledge of the organisation that he had gained as managing director, he concentrated on strengthening the paper commercially, recruiting sales and circulation representatives across Ireland. Between the start of his first editorship in 1963 and his final retirement in 1986, circulation increased from some 30,000 to just under 90,000.
Gageby shared with his staff a belief that the Irish Times had a role to play in transforming Irish society. Where many of them saw this in socialist terms, Gageby continued to identify with Fianna Fáil, seeing it as the embodiment of the nation, as a great modernising force, and as potentially the locus of Wolfe Tone's non‑sectarian republicanism. (In the 1960s he occasionally horrified colleagues by suggesting that a united Ireland would be permanently ruled by a combination of Fianna Fáil and a reformed Ulster Unionist Party, and that this would be a good thing.) In private, he sometimes wondered whether some of the underprivileged championed by his staff were simply losers. Gageby was fully aware, however, that the paper could not simply be a reflection of his own views; although he was a determined and somewhat autocratic leader, staff were given generous (though not absolutely unlimited) scope to pursue their own causes and styles of reportage. He used Healy's column as a counterbalance to others' leftist enthusiasms, and contended that Healy provided a western focus that moved the paper away from being a predominantly east‑coast organ. Gageby also insisted that a balance should be preserved in the letters pages; articulate critics of the newspaper's views had an extremely good chance of publication. It may be relevant that Gageby's experience was primarily editorial rather than reportorial (though he loved the hot‑metal ritual of putting the paper to bed and witnessing the appearance of its first copies). While his many editorials contained pungent phrases, they were not particularly distinguished overall. Though he maintained a certain officer‑style reserve before other ranks, editorial colleagues who disagreed with him encountered the rebarbative side of his personality, and his rule over the office was punctuated by brief and stormy displays of temper (an aspect of his personality never seen in his home). He was generally admired as a visionary and gifted leader, a view encouraged by such activities as his part in rehabilitating at least one alcoholic colleague, and the role that his forceful encouragement played in the completion of Healy's classic reminiscences, Nineteen acres and Nobody shouted stop.
Issues: the Church; Northern Ireland; Haughey and Fianna Fáil
Gageby's admiration for strong leaders who got things done coloured his attitude towards such figures as Donogh O'Malley (qv) and Charles Haughey (qv). A later and somewhat more exotic example of this trait was the admiration he conceived for Pope John Paul II in the early stages of his pontificate. Although Gageby was sceptical (in a self‑consciously protestant manner) of organised religion while retaining religious belief, and shared the view that modernisation required considerable diminution of the influence of the catholic church and the repeal of catholic‑influenced legislation in the Republic (he described the 1983 referendum on the pro‑life constitutional amendment as 'the second partitioning of Ireland' – O'Brien, 226), his exhortations to his overwhelmingly feminist and anti‑clerical staff to show due respect to the 1979 papal visit to Ireland as a great occasion for the Irish people led to his being humorously called the 'first catholic editor of the Irish Times' (Whittaker, 93).
For a time in the 1960s Gageby eulogised the Northern Ireland prime minister, Terence O'Neill (qv), as a strong leader, assuming that his often‑pronounced commitment to reform and modernisation must naturally succeed and just as naturally awaken the latent nationalism Gageby believed to slumber in the Ulster protestant breast. This induced him to increase considerably the attention that the Irish Times gave to Northern Ireland affairs, an editorial policy that paid dividends in the paper's subsequent coverage of the Northern Ireland troubles (to the prospective outbreak of which he had been wilfully oblivious). Gageby's attitude toward the troubles was strongly influenced by the civil rights activist and deputy SDLP leader John Hume. Some critics thought Hume's influence encouraged Gageby's instinctive preference for a 'green' approach which they saw as unduly dismissive towards unionist concerns, and problematic in its assumption that any workable settlement must necessarily be oriented towards Irish reunification in the short to medium term; others argued that Gageby's support for Hume helped to stabilise constitutional nationalism in Northern Ireland and prevent southern politicians from ignoring its legitimate concerns.
British state papers discovered in 2002 revealed that in 1969 T. B. McDowell (the Irish Times chairman) approached various British officials to express concern about Gageby's coverage of the Northern situation, and offered to use the newspaper to help to bring the communities in the North together. A report by Sir Andrew Gilchrist, British ambassador to Dublin, of a conversation with McDowell described Gageby as 'a renegade' or 'white nigger' (as segregationists in the southern states of the USA described white supporters of the civil rights movement; it is unclear whether this was McDowell's term or Gilchrist's paraphrase). McDowell denied he had used the term: 'I never thought he was a renegade. Douglas never made any secret of what he was' (Irish Times, 12 September 2009). McDowell's intervention probably represented little more than a maladroit attempt at peacemaking.
In April 1974 Gageby and the newspaper's other directors, who were the major shareholders, sold their shares to the Irish Times Trust, a new charitable body controlled by McDowell. This allowed the directors (who apart from Gageby and McDowell were elderly) to realise their capital while preventing a takeover which might affect the paper's ethos. The manoeuvre attracted comment, the acquisition of the shares by the Trust being timed to avoid capital gains tax, and the Trust financing the acquisition by a loan from the Bank of Ireland, which left the newspaper heavily indebted in the economic downturn that followed almost immediately. It should be noted that Gageby and McDowell had created a huge increase in circulation and profitability, the economic downturn was not foreseen, and the tax avoidance was entirely legal. Some of the derision to which the deal was subjected might have been avoided if the paper had been less self‑consciously high‑minded.
Suggestions have been made that Gageby's subsequent insistence that staff not investigate the financial affairs of Charles Haughey reflected unease about possible public discussion of the Trust. It is more likely to have reflected Gageby's Fianna Fáil loyalties and his belief that Haughey was a big personality who could get things done. The two men to some extent shared a generational sensibility, which included a resentful Anglophobia fuelled by a sense of the failures and restrictions of mid‑century Ireland and a romantic nationalism, intermingled with confidence in their ability to create a less parochial and more European Ireland and do well for themselves in the process. Gageby, however, did not share Haughey's fathomless cynicism, and was disappointed by the failure of Haughey's first two governments to confront the state's accumulating problems, and outraged by his more blatant displays of opportunism in opposition.
Gageby's attitudes to Fianna Fáil's internal divisions were also influenced by the 1970 arms trial. One of the army values that he generally observed in his newsroom was the belief that superiors should take responsibility for subordinates; he constantly defended journalists accused of breaching official confidentiality. Although Gageby opposed direct intervention by the Republic in Northern Ireland, he believed that the arms-smuggling intelligence officer Captain James Kelly (qv) thought himself to be acting on lawful orders, that Colonel Michael Hefferon (former director of intelligence) had been victimised for telling the truth about Kelly's position, and that both men had been scapegoated by Jack Lynch (qv) and his lieutenants to hide their own blunders.
Retirement and return
Having made £325,000 from the Trust, Gageby stepped down as editor in June 1974; he had previously said 'ten years as editor are enough', and he may also have been affected by the downfall of the Northern Ireland power‑sharing executive (which he hailed up to the day of its collapse as a lasting settlement paving the way for Irish unity, overriding accurate predictions by Northern staff members that it would collapse under unionist opposition). His successor, Fergus Pyle (qv), was personally disorganised and faced an economic downturn that would have taxed the strongest editorial talents; the Irish Times only survived through the long‑extended forbearance of the Bank of Ireland. Gageby later stated privately that his personal identification with the security forces would have kept him from printing the revelations about mistreatment of suspects by a 'heavy gang' operating within the Garda Siochána, which appeared in the Irish Times in February 1977 under Pyle's editorship
Gageby returned as editor in July 1977 as part of a restructuring demanded by creditors; even the harshest critics of this 'second coming' concede that his return was necessary to create the investor confidence that gave the paper the breathing space to take advantage of economic revival. It is debated how far the subsequent revival of the paper's fortunes was due to Gageby's contribution as distinct from an economic upturn from which Dublin papers in general benefited. Though he spoke of returning for two or three years, Gageby stayed until 1986. He oversaw the development of new marketing techniques (including radio advertisements), an increase in the resources devoted to editorial coverage (particularly of the arts), and the slow transition from hot‑metal to computerised printing, funded by the windfall flotation of its Reuters shares (though James Downey claims Gageby's hesitations unnecessarily prolonged the transition). He even recruited his former Trinity tutor Conor Cruise O'Brien (1917–2008), whose views on Northern Ireland were utterly opposed to his own, as a columnist (though when O'Brien received a tempting offer from the Irish Independent shortly before Gageby's retirement, the editor was not anxious to persuade him to stay). Gageby's presence promoted a sense of his indispensability; in retrospect it has been argued that he clung on too long, delaying necessary remodelling. The perception that he influenced the editorial succession in favour of Conor Brady (the majority of staff preferred James Downey) also caused some recrimination.
Gageby wrote and presented a television series on 'The heritage of Ireland' for RTÉ, and after his retirement continued to contribute (as 'Y') the nature notes 'In time's eye' to the Irish Times. He worked with the National Newspapers of Ireland to put together a series of proposals to relax Irish defamation laws (1987). In 1991 he unveiled a plaque in Belfast marking the bicentenary of the establishment of that city's branch of the United Irishmen. He received honorary degrees from the NUI and TCD, and was awarded the A. T. Cross Hall of Fame award for services to Irish journalism (1994). He wrote The last secretary general: Seán Lester and the League of Nations (1999), an admiring biography of his father‑in‑law as emblem of Northern patriotism at its best. Gageby died 24 June 2004 after two years' illness, and had a private funeral conducted by Rev. Terence McCaughey, a family friend (he once had told Conor Brady that when he died nobody would hear about it for four days until his funeral had taken place). The Irish Times endowed an annual Douglas Gageby Fellowship for young journalists, and a stand of trees was planted in his memory at Moynalty. His papers were presented to DCU.
Gageby was a transitional figure between the provincialisms and eccentricities of the older Irish newspaper world, and the commercial rationalisation of a more cosmopolitan Ireland, where newspapers became more purely commercial and were increasingly marginalised by newer media. Those who memorialised him agreed he was one of the few Irish newspaper editors whose influence on society and their own papers entitled them to be called 'great'; perhaps the greatest, certainly the last.