How the Moon Landing was Covered by the Irish Newspapers

ApolloToday marks the 45th anniversary of the historic lunar landing by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (ably supported in orbit by pilot Michael Collins), an achievement as momentous as it is distant from the more modest space ambitions of today. The event is being commemorated around the world as part of the #Apollo45 campaign, and I thought it might be interesting to add an Irish perspective by taking a quick look back at how contemporary newspapers here reported on the mission and the crew of Apollo 11.

I was pleased to find that, in the main, they did so with interest and enthusiasm (almost always being careful to preserve the image of Ireland’s neutrality by soliciting comments from Soviet representatives) and all three of the country’s main papers at the time, the Irish Times, the Irish Independent, and the now defunct Irish Press devoted the entirety of their front pages to coverage of Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins.

Of course, the most curious thing from today’s perspective is how each paper also allocated a portion of those pages to the reaction of the Catholic Church. It is easy to make fun of nowadays (the thought of seeking a bishop’s opinion, let alone the Pope’s, on a major space mission, an undertaking of engineering and technology, is cartoonish at best), but it is a measure of how deeply (one might say dangerously) entrenched the Church was in Irish life at the time. Nevertheless, this “Catholic coverage” is a trend visible across all the Irish newspapers reporting on Apollo 11 and it gives a particularly (if regretfully stereotypical) Irish bent to the greatest news story of the last century.

Irish Times, July 21st 1969

Irish Times, July 21st 1969

Irish Times: The Moon Landing dominated the front page of the Irish Times. File photos of Armstrong and Aldrin – somewhat incorrectly referred to as ‘the first Earthmen on another planet’ – are balanced by a grainy screengrab of the ‘epic walk on the Moon’ itself. Yet the paper eschewes (one suspects deliberately) the obvious photograph of the American flag on the lunar surface. It also includes coverage of the unmanned Soviet Luna-15 probe (prominently placed in a column on the center of the page), which had just entered a new orbit around the moon with a closest approach of at an altitude of only 10 miles (Soviet news-service Tass is also quoted extensively on the lunar landing itself).

The paper offered no Irish reaction on its cover. Instead, in articles largely sourced from news services, it quoted Sir Bernard Lovell, director of the UK’s Jodrell Bank Observatory (‘The moment of touch-down was one of the moments of greatest drama in the history of man’), British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who was just about to send troops into Northern Ireland (‘Our deep wish is for a safe return’), and from Pope Paul (‘A celebration on the part of the whole terrestrial globe’).

As well as being quoted in the main article, the Pope’s reaction also receives dedicated coverage in a column beneath the photos of the astronauts. Scientific progress had reached an historic landmark, he said, adding ‘the admiration, the enthusiasm, the passion for instruments, for the products of man’s ingenuity and his hand fascinates us, perhaps even to the point of madness’. A second religiously themed article reports on Aldrin’s bringing of communion wafer to the lunar surface, quoting members of the astronaut’s church on the subject of his faith.

Inside, the paper’s editorial acknowledged that ‘the oldest and wildest dream of the human race has been realized’ while also lamenting that ‘the cause of science had not been the predominating motive’ as well as ‘the decision to bring the American flag instead of the United Nations flag’. Perhaps taking its lead from the Pope, the editorial concluded that ‘man has reached the moon without any revolution in his moral being. It remains the saddest paradox’.

Irish Independent, July 21st 1969

Irish Independent, July 21st 1969

Irish Independent: Ireland’s other main broadsheet offered readers a front cover very similar to that of the Irish Times (down to the Luna-15 coverage in a center column). ‘Man sets foot on moon for first time,’ the headline declares. But again the accompanying photography leaves something to be desired (the Independent offers a ‘spectacular’ photo of the Earth rising above the moon’s surface’ but it is both dark and grainy as well as being an image ‘taken by a previous Apollo’). Neil Armstrong, ‘Commander of moonship Eagle’, is reported to have said, ‘It’s one small step for man but one large step for man’. Yes, one of the most famous utterances in history is misquoted, but Armstrong’s piloting is lauded: ‘He grabbed control of his ship, sent it clear of the area where it would have met almost certain disaster, and landed four miles beyond the original landing point’.

Pope Paul again gets a dedicated article (‘Pope Greets Landing with “Glory to God”’) which, as in the Times, is quite prominently placed. The Independent quotes extensively from the ‘unscheduled speech’ in which he hailed the astronauts as having conquered the ‘pale lamp of our nights and our dreams’. Inside the paper was a picture of the Pontiff looking ‘at the lunar zone where the Apollo astronauts landed’ through the telescope at the Vatican Observatory, as well as further coverage of his speech (‘It is absolutely necessary that the heart of man should become freer, better, more religious as the power of his machines, his weapons, become more dangerous [..] Where is true humanity? Where is brotherhood? Where is peace?’). The inside pages also contain an article on what was described as Aldrin’s ‘communion service on the moon’.

Coverage continued during the week, though it utilized fewer pieces from the wires and is noticeably less rigorous than the ongoing reportage from the Irish Times. The next day’s edition of the Independent included a recipe for ‘Apollo brownies’ (a ‘recipe for junior Apollo lunarnauts which you can make in your own kitchen’) as well as a prayer composed by Bishop Fultan Sheen, an American visiting Dublin: ‘Man has got the Earth into his head, now he must get the heavens into his head by understanding them and mastering them. There yet remains the task of man getting his head into the Heavens of God, which is the most important of all’. The prayer was said for the first time at the Carmelite Church on Whitefriar St. where Sheen was conducting a novena and is… an odd read, let’s put it that way

Irish Press, July 21 1969

Irish Press, July 21 1969

Irish Press: ‘Astronauts walk Moon’s surface’ the cover of the Irish Press announces, accompanied by a “hero shot” of Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins in front of a lunar lander. It is as close to the triumphalist American newspaper front pages as was to be found in Ireland at the time (there is, for instance, no mention of the Soviet probe on the cover, though it is covered inside). Really, if one were to frame and display any of these pages, it would be this one. The lunar landing, the paper says, ‘was not only a great feat of American technology, it was a triumph of the human spirit’. Armstrong is again praised and his piloting skill is cited as an example of why exploration ought to be conducted by people rather than machines. Aldrin too receives acclaim as ‘one of the best scientific minds America has ever sent into space’.

Meanwhile, a separate headline tells us that ‘Pope Paul exclaims with joy’. The article is largely the same as those in the Times and Independent, though it humanizes the Pontiff by noting how his address was ‘written out by hand just hours before the Moon landing’ and was ‘one of the most emotional speeches’ he has ever delivered.

Extensive interior coverage is distinguished by its reliance on the paper’s own writers rather than on quotes from wire services and, in all, it makes the Irish Press’s take on events the most interesting (perhaps the most amusing) from an Irish perspective. For instance, the paper is keen to remind its readers that ‘Ireland has a family stake in the Apollo 11 mission – Patricia Collins, wife of astronaut Michael Collins, is the daughter of an Irishman. Her father was the late Joseph Finnegan of Lissinaskea, Bekan, Claremorris, Co. Mayo. He emigrated to America as a young man where he qualified as a lawyer’.

Further articles of “local” interest included a piece on the Irish contribution to the history of rocketry as well as reaction from the streets (‘I think a person would have to be very dense not to be interested in this fantastic achievement,’ said taximan Gerard Fearon; meanwhile ‘film actress Susannah York, casually walking through St. Stephen’s Green, couldn’t see any point in the whole exercise’). This look at the responses of Dubliners was rounded out by a description of the reaction in the Irish Press bullpen itself: ‘Typewriters died in mid-stutter. Telephones lay in their cradles […] Even Alec Newman’s pipe wet out. Man on the Moon will be remembered as the story, the big story, which stopped the newsroom in its tracks’.

Throughout the interior feature, the Irish Press is breathless about all aspects of the mission (‘A perfect landing’! ‘Dead on time’!). Additional coverage included a photo spread of the astronauts, their wives, and the Pope (of course!), as well as those astronauts who lost their lives in the Apollo 1 fire (Rodger Chaffe, Edward White, and Virgil Grissom), along with the late cosmonauts Yuri Gagarin and Vladimir Komarov.

Limerick Leader, July 21st 1969

Limerick Leader, July 21st 1969

Finally, even the local papers such as the Limerick Leader got in on the story. ‘Moon men set for blast off,’ its headline reads, referring to Armstrong and Aldrin’s ascent back into lunar orbit. The story lies rather incongruously alongside coverage of clerical appointments and a new ‘express cruiser for Killaloe’. The Leader’s Apollo story does not offer any notable moments and, admittedly, has the feel of obligatory coverage of an event which isn’t strictly within the paper’s remit (and which is being covered much more extensively by the national media), though one supposes it was very far away from the actresses and ambassadors of the Irish Press’s Dublin beat. Still, as someone from Limerick, I’m pleased that the story received some attention back home.

Indeed, the Irish coverage of the lunar landing is something I may return to again, perhaps writing something more extensive about it in the future. There’s a value to it, I think, at least once one gets beyond the material from wire services. Might be interesting to expand the net beyond the day of the landing itself and see what else is out there. After all, what was Apollo about if not exploration?

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Like a Hand on the Shoulder…

Always a pleasure to engage with the work of the late John McGahern. Here’s a recent piece I wrote for the Irish Examiner on the newest edition of his Collected Stories

John McGahern - Collected Stories

John McGahern – Collected Stories

Collected Stories
John McGahern
Faber; £10.99
Review: Val Nolan

Even in death, John McGahern remains Ireland’s greatest living writer. A strange thing to say, perhaps, but then, as an author known for decade-long silences, it does not feel as if he has truly left us. We might have expected a new novel from him by now if he were still alive but, in place of that, comes this reminder that he is in fact gone. It provokes sadness, yes, but also gratitude for the powerful work which he gifted us in the time available to him.

Famously, McGahern believed that Ireland was less a coherent state than a mosaic of ‘little republics called families’. Something similar can be said of his Collected Stories. It is a volume which exceeds the sum of its varied contents; a selection which both echoes and enhances McGahern’s long form prose in terms of its symbolism and its use of local reference. The stories here speak to the author’s working through – or, to borrow the title of his second collection, perhaps Getting Through – of the themes and architectures which have ultimately come to define him.

But McGahern’s stories are far more than exercises in narrative style or structure; they are masterpieces in their own right. ‘Korea’ surely ranks with Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ and Frank O’Connor’s ‘Guests of the Nation’ as one of the greatest Irish short stories. ‘Eddie Mac’ and ‘The Conversion of William Kirkwood’ deliver fresh angles on the well-worn ground of Anglo-Irish decline. The striking but atypical ‘Peaches’ plumbs McGahern’s own autobiography while ‘Faith, Hope and Charity’ unravels the impact of the Irish emigrant experience.

Of course, there are differences between this volume and the previous edition, styled Creatures of the Earth: New and Selected Stories and chosen by McGahern before his death. The contents here return to those of the 1992 Collected Stories and so, while the fine valedictory offerings ‘Creatures of the Earth’ and ‘Love of the World’ are absent, a number of key pieces are reinstated. These include not just the Spain-set ‘Peaches’, but also ‘Coming into his Kingdom’, in which a young boy discovers the adult world, ‘Doorways’, an urbane, and at times satirical novella of romantic entanglement, as well as the haunting ‘The Beginning of an Idea’.

The result is a stronger collection in that it presents more facets of McGahern, especially the work of the 1970s and 1980s. It foregrounds his outsider perspective at the time, something which allowed him to articulate the harshness of Ireland in a way few others have achieved. Indeed, it is debateable whether McGahern would have produced such striking short fiction had he not been sacked from his teaching job at the insistence of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid and forced into exile after publishing The Dark in 1965.

And yet McGahern forgave the Church. Although he ceased to be a believer, his maturity – evidenced by his Memoir and by his decorum in general – makes him a very Christian writer at a time when the clergy were embarrassing themselves or, worse, actively harming the vulnerable. The complex relationship he developed with Irish Catholicism is apparent when one compares the sympathetic portraits of priests in stories like ‘The Wine Breath’ to his uncompromising critiques of the nation’s mid-century theocracy in pieces such as ‘The Recruiting Officer’.

What would McGahern have made of the ruinous state of the country today? Of the economic crash? Of the clerical sex-abuse scandals? In a way it doesn’t matter. ‘It is a writer’s job to look after his sentences. Nothing more,’ he once said, and when he broached such subjects in his work it was out of an interest in the way external forces squeezed the lives carved out by Everyman and Everywoman figures.

It is therefore the privilege of the reader and the scholar to explore his life and work anew with every passing year. For instance, Peter Guy, writing in Studies, has ably read McGahern’s fiction through the lens of the Murphy Report. Denis Sampson has recently published a volume on the author’s early, formative years and the influences which led to his fiction. Meanwhile academics such as Antoinette Quinn and David Malcolm have given detailed attention to the stories collected here.

Writers too continue to look to McGahern in an effort to emulate his credible depiction of Ireland’s conflicted heart and tortured soul. As he told Sampson in 1979, ‘Fiction always has to be believable, I mean that you have to convince the reader that it happened’. A corollary, perhaps, is that life is not just misery; life is going on despite the misery, as the characters of ‘Crossing the Line’ and ‘All Sorts of Impossible Things’ do. Though that said, the central, Chekhovian third of this volume can be hard going.

Those heavier pieces contribute to the impression that McGahern’s writing is mostly concerned with the old and the dying and the dead, but in fact young people predominate throughout the Collected Stories. Likewise, work such as ‘Gold Watch’ and ‘Bank Holiday’ is downright optimistic when compared to McGahern’s early novels. Sex, in particular, is acknowledged as an essential part of life. Its musk infuses the figuring-out of relationships in the twin vignettes of ‘Along the Edges’, the bittersweet comedy of ‘My Love, My Umbrella’, and the dagger pangs of want which stab at the heart of ‘Sierra Leone’ amongst others.

Thus these are stories about bodies as much as about characters. There is a physicality to the work collected here, and the timeless vitality of McGahern’s writing derives from the impact of just this weight upon the reader. The pieces here often arrive violently – Anne Enright has rightly called them ‘the literary equivalent of a hand grenade rolled across the kitchen floor’ – but they also linger long after the initial jolt. They lodge imaginative shrapnel, slivers of difficult choices, deep within the mind of the reader.

Such an effect ensures that the Collected Stories is less a time-capsule to be sealed and buried than it is a box of vivid memories to be opened and experienced again and again. The book possesses an instructional quality, this is true, but it never becomes didactic. Instead the pieces here are reassuring like a hand on the shoulder. They comprise a volume in which pragmatism is spiked with ambition, pleasure is tempered by realism, and out of which a unique vision of an Ireland in transition emerges. Reissued eight years after his death, McGahern’s Collected Stories presents us with the opportunity not for reassessment – his reputation is secure – but for reengagement. It is the work of a writer who will no doubt live forever.

Dr. Val Nolan teaches at NUI Galway. His work includes the definitive account of the McGahern banning, “If it was Just Th’ol Book”, published in
Irish Studies Review.

This article originally appeared in the Irish Examiner, Saturday 5 July 2014 (Weekend, pp.24-25).

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A History of the John McGahern Banning Controversy

Irish Studies Review

I meant to plug this sooner, but ‘If it was Just Th’oul Book …’: A History of the McGahern Banning Controversy – my article on the banning of John McGahern in 1965 – was published a little while ago in the Irish Studies Review. It’s the first time this crucial event in McGahern’s life has been looked at it any depth.

The article examines the banning of John McGahern’s novel The Dark in Ireland in 1965, along with the subsequent controversy surrounding its author’s dismissal from his teaching position in Dublin. This so-called McGahern Affair provoked wide-ranging and vigorous debate about both the censorship legislation and the role of clerical authority in the Irish educational system. Throughout the article I delve pretty heavily into contemporary journalism, reviews, parliamentary records, and letters-to-editors to construct the most detailed account available of this central event in the development of McGahern’s reputation, with the involvement of figures such as Bishop John Charles McQuaid, journalist Peter Lennon, and Senator Owen Sheehy-Skeffington contextualised against the social transformation of 1960s Ireland.

Anyone with institutional access to a decent university library ought to be able to access the article online via the link above, though if you’re having trouble with that or are locked out by the ivory tower paywalls, just let me know and I’ll send you on the PDF. Knowledge should be free, etc., etc.

For what’s it’s worth, the gestation of this project was a curious one. It was originally an idea for a short story, an alternate history of what might have happened if McGahern had not been banned.  The process of putting together the divergent timeline necessitated researching what actually happened in considerable detail, with the lack of one single history of the banning sending me deep into the embarrassment of riches offered by the newspapers of the era. It didn’t take long to conclude that reality was far more fascinating than anything I was going to make up on the topic.

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