Walsh, Dick (Richard Colman) (1937–2003), journalist, was born in Cratloe, Co. Clare, on 29 October 1937, youngest of two sons and two daughters of Seán Walsh, principal of Cratloe National School (in succession to his own father), and his wife Pauline (née McNamara), also a teacher from the locality. The family were Fianna Fáil supporters (though Walsh’s father supported Clann na Poblachta in 1948 because of the Fianna Fáil government’s intransigent handling of a strike by national teachers). Walsh’s 1986 study of Fianna Fáil, The party (1986), begins by sympathetically describing the personality cult surrounding Éamon de Valera (qv) in Clare, and much of his ability to annoy Fianna Fáil politicians in later life derived from his understanding of rural and small‐town society and politics – ‘an Ireland he despised and adored’ (Fintan O’Toole, Ir. Times, 18 Mar. 2003). Walsh recalled that while the local sense of history treated such events as the Treaty of Limerick (1691) as if they had happened yesterday, the new generation was told little about the origins of the state in which they lived; one of the driving forces of his later work was an effort to fill this gap in his own and others’ understanding. He always remained proud of Clare, but he frequently referred to the less salutary aspects of his childhood society (including his father’s early experience of teaching in an industrial school, and the presence of unacknowledged incest cases and marriages in which spouses continued to live together without ever speaking) to counteract nostalgia for de Valera’s Ireland.
Walsh, who was brought up speaking Irish as a second tongue, was educated at Cratloe National School and St Munchin’s College, Limerick, where he was a keen hurler. He began his journalistic career on the Clare Champion, which in 1958 published a small volume of his verse. He attended the funeral of the IRA volunteer Seán South (qv), whom he then described in the paper as having been ‘murdered’ (he later recalled this as exemplifying the destructive force of emotion without analysis behind it), and witnessed the arrival of Hungarian refugees, initially hailed as anti‐communist heroes but denounced as troublemakers when they objected to their living conditions. Walsh then spent a year on the staff of the Irish Press, which he recalled as sheltering ‘a fine collection of sacked schoolteachers, spoiled priests, and lapsed republicans’ (Dick Walsh remembered, 209); he briefly reported from Northern Ireland, where he thought the Ulster unionists’ view of the southern state as a priest‐ridden backwater was as short‐sighted and stereotyped as he now recognised his own view of the North had been. Anger at the economic failures, social authoritarianism, and silences and hypocrisies of the 1950s coloured his commentary for the rest of his life.
In 1960 Walsh married Ruth Kelly, who had been woman’s editor of the Irish Press; they had two daughters, and their marriage was mutually outspoken but affectionate. She came from a left‐wing republican background whose influence accelerated Walsh’s drift to the left; he recalled that by the opening of the Second Vatican Council (1962–5) he had long since abandoned catholicism, though he took an interest in subsequent changes in the catholic church and in the 1960s attended meetings of some left‐wing catholic groups.
After marriage Walsh moved to London, where he worked on a group of local newspapers including the Kilburn Times and the Wimbledon Borough News. In Britain, as in Ireland, journalists were often casualised and experienced low pay and poor conditions; for a period Walsh experienced homelessness and this underpinned his lifelong commitment to the National Union of Journalists. He was active in émigré groups which campaigned to secure various rights (including the right to vote in Irish elections) from the Irish government. He edited the bulletin of the Irish Workers’ Union; his social mixing with Irish‐speaking building labourers inspired some of his efforts to write fiction in Irish. He mixed with other London‐based Irish writers including Edna O’Brien (also from east Clare). Then and thereafter he was a noted and entertaining conversationalist, described in later life as possessing the physical appearance of a dissolute poodle. For much of the 1960s and 1970s Walsh supported Official Sinn Féin (later the Workers’ Party).
He returned to Ireland c.1963, taking advantage of employment opportunities opened up by the Lemass boom. He worked for a time in Galway on the Connacht Tribune, freelanced with the Irish Times, then worked for the Arrow advertising agency, where he promoted fertiliser and wrote a booklet commissioned by the National Farmers’ Association, The farmers’ fight.
In March 1968 Walsh joined the Irish Times as a sub‐editor and worked for that paper continuously until his retirement in October 2002. He soon became a reporter with particular responsibility for transport policy. In 1969 he was sent North on several occasions to cover the growing disturbances, and witnessed the attack on the Falls Road district by loyalists and the arrival of British army troops on the streets in August. He also played a major role in the Irish Times coverage of the 1970 arms crisis, which he saw as the major story of his career. This left him with a lasting admiration for Jack Lynch (qv) (with whom he later formed a lifelong friendship based on a mutual love of hurling) and Desmond O’Malley (a remote cousin). Walsh spoke with contempt of professed republicans who had suddenly developed indignation about the housing conditions endured by catholics in the Northern ghettoes, having ignored the working‐class housing estates of the Republic. In particular, he detested Charles Haughey (1925–2006). In 1970 Walsh published Géarchéim in Éirinn (Emergency in Ireland) giving his views on the Northern Ireland situation. Within the Official Sinn Féin movement he advocated the abandonment of paramilitarism for political action.
Douglas Gageby (qv) (1918–2004) realised Walsh’s skills as writer and reporter and made him assistant political correspondent to Michael McInerney (1906–80), whom he succeeded as political correspondent in 1973. Walsh’s title was changed to political editor in 1985 and to assistant editor – politics in 1999. He became a frequent contributor to RTÉ radio and television, and built up an unparalleled network of contacts in Leinster House. He was also known for encouraging cub reporters and for negotiating improved pay and conditions for staff and freelancers as a leading member of the Irish Times’s NUJ chapel. In 1976–7 Walsh took the initiative in negotiations with the management which led to the departure of Fergus Pyle (qv) and the return of Gageby as editor. He was also involved in the establishment of the paper’s editorial committee, intended to safeguard its observance of journalistic ethics.
Walsh’s reportage (particularly his regular Saturday column) was marked by a style of hard‐hitting, plain‐spoken prose which has been described as ‘Swiftian’ and compared to ‘the Gaelic poets of derision’. He embodied the view (held by many Irish Times journalists of the period) that the paper had a mission to expose Ireland’s hypocrisies and social evils and lead the country towards modernity. Walsh insisted that the economic and social modernisation which began in the 1960s necessarily involved complete removal of the catholic church’s influence from legislation and the replacement of hypocritical parish pump politics by forward planning based on transparency and social democratic principles. He advocated the legalisation of abortion on the grounds that the world should be met as it existed and not subjected to abstract principles which could not be realized. He denied that there was a necessary conflict between efficiency and equity in economic policy, and argued that the state should protect the most vulnerable.
From 1979 Walsh’s career was defined by relentless hostility to Charles Haughey’s leadership of Fianna Fáil. In 1986 he published The party: inside Fianna Fáil, generally regarded as one of the most insightful accounts of the traditional Fianna Fáil ethos and mindset, which accused Haughey of having turned Fianna Fáil’s populist tradition (which had contained elements of radicalism, however muddled and hesitant) into an ‘Irish Tory party’, allied with and appealing to the most backward‐looking elements in Irish society. In the same year Walsh produced Des O’Malley: profile in power, which was based on extensive interviews with its subject. This book was intended to prepare for the launch of O’Malley’s new Progressive Democrat party; Walsh admired its views on Northern Ireland and the removal of legal restrictions on sexual morality, but in his last years was highly critical of its neo‐liberal economic agenda. From the early 1980s Walsh was close to the Labour party, particularly Dick Spring’s political adviser Fergus Finlay, with whom he spoke on the phone several times a week. Walsh privately dissented from the decision of the Irish Times editor, Conor Brady, to endorse editorially Fianna Fáil in the 1987 general election; while Brady thought that under the circumstances only a Fianna Fáil government could provide the decisive leadership needed to solve the country’s problems, Walsh thought the Fine Gael–Labour coalition had dealt as well as could be expected with problems which he attributed to Haughey’s previous terms in office.
Walsh repeatedly asked how Haughey afforded his lifestyle, privately lamenting that ‘the hoor’ had concealed the sources of his wealth too thoroughly for discovery. Brady recalled John Healy (qv) complaining that Walsh was one of ‘the crowd that wants to nationalise the banks, collectivise the farms, tax everyone out of existence’, attributing Haughey’s wealth to superior financial acumen and suggesting most of his critics ‘haven’t the arse in their britches’ (Brady, 191). Walsh saw the social liberalisation of the 1990s (he compared Mary Robinson’s election to the presidency to the fall of the Berlin Wall), the disclosure of widespread sexual abuse by catholic priests and mistreatment of children in catholic institutions, and revelations about Haughey’s finances and lifestyle as his vindication.
In the late 1980s Walsh’s chronic back problems, initially ascribed to a slipped disc, were diagnosed as ankylosing spondylitis, a degenerative spinal disease which leads to increased spinal curvature and susceptibility to infection. Although in constant pain and increasingly stooped (there are stories of passers‐by trying to help him find some item which they assumed he had dropped, and of a Fianna Fáil activist who declared ‘we’ll straighten you out, Walsh’ being told ‘I only wish you could’), he kept up his column, writing increasingly from home after 1985; with the aid of medication and artificial oxygen supplies he survived and wrote far longer than had been anticipated. In 1996 he served on the commission on the newspaper industry. He was very proud of the Irish Times’s charitable trust ownership structure, which he contrasted with the ethos of more commercially driven media; in 1995, when concerns were expressed about possible nepotism by the chairman of the Irish Times board, Walsh took a leading role in the negotiations which led to the establishment of fair and transparent executive appointment procedures.
Walsh often composed his columns in his hospital bed. His last years were taken up with such causes as defending immigrants against hostility (he recalled his own experiences and those of many other Irish economic migrants), declaring that class politics had not lost their relevance, and calling for stricter and fairer economic regulation. His last column appeared on 26 October 2002, concluding with a call to challenge ‘the latest orthodoxy – that market forces will solve everything’.
He and his wife had retired to a small farm near Thomastown, Co. Kilkenny, where they kept a flock of sheep and numerous cats and dogs. He died in Dublin on 11 March 2003 and was buried after a humanist funeral service at Mount Jerome Cemetery; an address was delivered by John McGahern (qv) (1935–2006), a longstanding friend, who singled out for particular praise the scorn Walsh had poured on claims that legalising divorce in Ireland would lead to a general breakdown of marriage. In an unprecedented tribute to a political journalist, the dáil observed a minute’s silence in his memory. A selection of his columns from 1990 to 2002 was published in 2003 as Dick Walsh remembered, with a foreword by McGahern and an afterword by Geraldine Kennedy, whom Walsh supported in her successful application to become the first woman editor of the Irish Times.
Walsh spoke for a significant section of the generation born into the new state and coming of age in the 1950s and 1960s, who raged against the social and economic bankruptcy of the state’s official ideology and tried to understand and expose the silences and hypocrisies in the rhetoric which they had absorbed in their youth. Even those who did not agree with the left‐wing answers he offered respected him for asking important questions, and for all his ferocity he left many friends and admirers.
More information on this entry is available at the National Database of Irish-language biographies (Ainm.ie).