‘Arnold had newspaper ink in his veins’

Roscommon a memorable part of journey through publishing world

By 1988, when I arrived in Roscommon (very, very young), I had already worked for Eugene McGee, then editor and later proprietor of the Longford Leader. Dancing to Eugene’s beat was never a dull experience. He was gruff, but an admittedly brilliantly well hidden sense of humour lurked below the often stern surface. He had an instinctive feel for what readers wanted in a newspaper. I liked him then and now.

  I had also, briefly enough, worked for Lucius Farrell, a genial and colourful character whose family were steeped in the newspaper business for over a century. When the stories and photos were being glued on to pages and into eternity on a Tuesday night, Lucius sat across from the journalists and compositors on a high stool, puffing on a huge cigar, cajoling and criticising, a man of supreme self-confidence. I am not making a direct comparison between the two; Lucius was a keen and enthusiastic newspaperman – and a likeable eccentric who brightened our lives – but Eugene, who wouldn’t see the point of smoking a huge cigar, was the real deal, a giant of local journalism over many decades who subsequently made (and continues to do so) his mark nationally.

  In 1988, I left Longford and Cavan for the Roscommon newspaper world, where a familiar landscape had begun to change. 

  The previous year, an era had come to an end when the Quigley family decided to sell the Roscommon Champion. The Quigleys had been in charge for sixty years; and, trust me, there is still a sense of nostalgia in Roscommon for that Quigley era, for those days when locals loyally produced weekly Champions under the direction of ‘Sainty’ and his brother, Walter.

  With the ‘For Sale’ sign up at the Champion, and having just been thwarted in his efforts to purchase the Westmeath Independent, Birr-based newspaper proprietor Arnold Fanning turned his gaze to Roscommon.

  The Fannings have newsprint ink in their veins. Arnold’s father, Jim, had started the Midland Tribune in Birr. (Arnold’s late cousin, Aengus Fanning, would go on to lead the Sunday Independent to unprecedented dominance of the Irish media landscape from the early 1990s on). Many Fanning bylines appear to this day in Independent News & Media publications!

  By 1987, Arnold was proprietor of the Midland Tribune and its sister paper, the Tullamore Tribune. In 1987, along with Longford businessmen Warren and Derrick Turner, Arnold acquired the Roscommon Champion. Later, they purchased the Longford NEWS. The Fanning family invested heavily in the most modern print technology and established a printing facility in Birr.

  When I arrived at the Fanning-owned Champion in 1988, my editor was Seamus Dooley. Now long-time head of the NUJ in Ireland, you may have seen him guest on Vincent Browne’s show on Monday night. It was Dooley who hired me; a great communicator, a social animal and a man of boundless energy, he lifted the fortunes of the Champion before moving to Dublin’s bright lights in 1990.

  Boyle native John O’Callaghan succeeded Dooley, but within a few months had moved to Birr to edit the Midland Tribune. I wanted the job; and that’s why I drove to Birr on a Saturday afternoon to make my pitch to Arnold Fanning. We discussed newspapers and what might be achievable with the Roscommon Champion. Soon, I had gone from being an acquaintance of Arnold’s to a friend. He appointed me editor of the Champion in 1990 and also put me in charge of the Longford NEWS (in 1992). We worked closely together for fifteen years in all.

  He was an extraordinary character. He had practised as a Barrister (which he loved) but was now totally immersed in the publishing business. He loved newspapers, publishing, rugby (most sports indeed), sailing, music. He was, without doubt, the most charismatic newspaperman I’ve come across in what has always been a fascinating industry. 

  As a boss, he was incredibly demanding. At times he seemed to thrive on confrontation. Then, in later years, he mellowed. But, even when there was conflict, there were no grudges. He got a buzz, an adrenaline rush, from the daily challenges of this industry at what was a particularly exciting period in its development. He was fiery and funny, often at the same time.

  A hard-nosed businessman by day, Arnold was brilliant social company by night or early evening. He could talk all night about newspapers and publishing, politics and history, rugby and cricket, music and mischief.

  Eccentric, charismatic, charming, generous, highly intelligent, he was truly a one-off.

  Not that many people in Roscommon knew him, but those who met him won’t have forgotten him. For sixteen years he owned the Roscommon Champion, and provided a lot of employment over that golden era for the newspaper. With the Champion’s circulation at an all-time high, the paper was sold to Lord Kilclooney (John Taylor) in 2003.

  We met Arnold on and off in the years since then. He opened a national evening paper at one stage, but that venture didn’t turn out well. For a number of years, the family’s printing business was thriving, but hard times fell there too.

  Arnold never lost his charisma or his great passion for newspapers. The last time I saw him was in Birr. He was just back from a Munster match and ready to chat over some gins and tonics.

  When we bid farewell to him last Sunday, I felt great sadness at the loss of such a force of nature. Gone with Arnold is an extraordinary knowledge of publishing. Gone too, a charismatic, colourful newspaper giant who Fiona and I were proud to work with and call a friend. Over the years we also became friends with his wife Sheila and their three sons.

  His eventful publishing journey had included a memorable stay in Roscommon.

  He died, aged 74, without ever having compromised on his larger than life ways. It was a beautiful, calm, serene day, as Birr said goodbye to a family man and a newspaper legend.