sunday world at 50 | 

‘The Sunday World offered a release from the dourness... A bit of craic, humour and controversy’

Des Ekin remembers life in the grim eighties, roaring around Uluru on a Harley and an infamous chat with father Michael Cleary

Former columnist Des Ekin enjoying a pint at the Guinness Storehouse

Des Ekin poses with a Kalashnikov AK 47 during his time at the Sunday World

Des at the launch of his book The Last Armada in 2014

Des with Bertie Ahern in 1997

Des Ekin

First Sofia Vergara, then Ben Affleck, Jude Law, and Eminem… and now the Sunday World has joined the list of youthful icons who suddenly, unexpectedly, and seemingly impossibly, have hit the big five-oh.

Fifty years old? Honestly? Can it really be a half a century since the Sunday World first hit the streets — brash, colourful, brazen, cheeky, irreverent — to upset all the apple-carts and change forever the accepted conventions of newspaper publishing?

It was back in 1973 that the paper first burst on to the scene, like some gobby scarlet-haired punk chick at an accountants’ convention, to wrinkle the noses of the establishment and draw down the thunder of condemnation from a plethora of priestly pulpits.

I was a staffer for thirty years, from 1982 to 2012, and for over a quarter-century I wrote a weekly column that became part of the paper’s identity. Like Ron Wood joining the Stones, I arrived late, but fitted in so well that it seemed I’d always been there.

I look back on those years as a wild and exhilarating white- water ride — sometimes fun, sometimes scary, but in the final analysis, hugely enjoyable.

Seventies Ireland was a different planet. “Wireless” meant a transistor radio, a “mobile” was a fancy caravan in Courtown, and a Good Friday Agreement was the arrangement you made with your publican to let you in the back door because all the bars were closed on that day.

Des Ekin poses with a Kalashnikov AK 47 during his time at the Sunday World

A pint cost the equivalent of 24c, twenty cigarettes cost 34c, and you could buy a three-bed semi in Dublin for around €11,000.

The Eighties, when I joined the paper, were a bleak decade. Shootings. Bombings. A seemingly endless recession. Young people emigrating so quickly that one US immigration officer reportedly joked: “Is Ireland on fire?”

The Sunday World couldn’t cure any of this, but at least it offered a weekly release from the dourness. A bit of craic. As well as serious news stories and exposes, we injected an invigorating dose of humour and controversy.

Sunday World was sassy. It was fun. It was irreverent. And a million readers loved its cheekiness, its youthful energy, and its zest for life.

It also gave a voice to those who had none — not just in the city flats, but in the towns and villages of rural Ireland where people often felt forgotten.

Once, when we arrived in a rural town, locals queued up, political-clinic style, to ask us to highlight their individual problems.

Politicians and clerics were nervous around us. When I was new to the job, I interviewed the late Father Michael Cleary, a clerical pundit who’d declared that women who carried condoms were “an easy lay”.

I innocently asked him about priestly celibacy, and received a Rasputin glare of sheer violent menace from the full-bearded cleric. “If you want to f*** me around,” he snarled back, “I can find ways to f*** you around.”

When he saw my shock, and realised my question wasn’t loaded, he laughed it off. But he’d been as serious as a Mass card.

Years later, his housekeeper revealed that she’d had his secret love child. Ah well, at least he wasn’t a hypocrite about using contraception.

Des at the launch of his book The Last Armada in 2014

One of the things that initially drew me to the Sunday World was that it gave rock music its proper place on the news pages: the philosophy of the then editor, Colin McClelland, who had managed a punk band. This has now, of course, become standard practice in newspapers.

I was lucky to meet many of my rock heroes, but the encounters didn’t always turn out well.

When I was covering one gig at Slane, a bearded chap moved in front of me, blocking my view of the stage. I poked his back, none too gently. He turned, and I found myself looking at… Eric Clapton.

You know how a devout Catholic might feel on meeting the Pope? Well, that was nothing compared to what any music fan of my generation would feel to encounter the then-reclusive guitar hero. “What?” Clapton asked brusquely.

All my journalistic skills evaporated. “Could I have your autograph?” I asked lamely.

It was not my finest hour, professionally speaking. But at least I still have the autograph.

Many of our staff writers became successful authors. And some people who wrote for us achieved international stardom: for instance, Dara Ó Briain (who kindly praised my own column) and Cathy Kelly, who was just as warm, wise and witty in everyday life as she appears in public.

I once asked a pre-fame Cathy Kelly if she wanted to collaborate on a novel. She politely declined. She was right, since our possible composite author-name might have been “Des Kelly”, and that sounds more like someone who sells red carpets than walks on them.

The paper went through bad times: the air crash that killed our former editor Kevin Marron, and the paramilitary murder of reporter Martin O’Hagan.

My best memories of SW?

The craic in the office — it was constantly cranked up to eleven.

The travel. Not just the nice stuff — the helicopter over Niagara Falls, riding on a Harley at dawn around Ayers’ Rock — but also the tough assignments at refugee camps in Uganda, the Burmese frontier, and Ethiopia. Never have I felt so aware of my great fortune to live in a country of relative peace and plenty.

My most vivid memory? Covering Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Croke Park. As I watched the British monarch sitting there at the scene of the Bloodied Field and receiving a warm welcome from a generous GAA, it seemed almost like a manipulated image from Photoshop.

Des with Bertie Ahern in 1997

You could practically hear the gears of history clunking and shifting towards a better future.

So, happy fiftieth birthday, Sunday World. I still can’t believe you’ve been around for half the life of the Irish State. May you continue to thrive. I’m proud I was part of your story: in fact, I wouldn’t have missed it for the World.

  • Des Ekin’s sixth book, The Lionkeeper of Algiers, will be published in May.

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