Irish Times Obituary Saturday 10th January 2015 p.12
Lifelong journalist known for integrity and encouragement to colleagues
Desmond Fisher Born: September 9th 1920 Died: December 30th 2014
Desmond Fisher, who has died aged 94, was a journalist whose working life in Ireland and abroad was marked by a consistently high dedication to professional standards in a career that spanned almost seven decades.
Born in Derry in 1920, he got his first job — after a brief detour into a seminary — with the Nationalist and Leinster Times in Carlow, to which he had been recruited by its legendary editor Liam Begin.
Bergin’s talent-spotting was later to include such figures as Jim Downey, Olivia O’Leary, Michael Finlan, Des Cahill and Micheline McCormack — among many others who went on to higher things.
In 1948 Fisher joined the Irish Press and worked there (and, from 1949, on the Sunday Press) until 1952, when he was (also) recruited to the Irish News Agency.
Just a year later , he was appointed by Jim McGuinness, then editor of the Irish Press, as London editor of the Irish Press group, and he served there until 1962. From this base he covered a wide range of foreign assignments, including Ireland’s UN involvement in what was then the Belgian Congo, and the initial application by Seán Lemass’s government to join the European Economic Community in 1961.
On that occasion Lemass gave Fisher a personal interview in which he predicted that membership of the community would probably mean that Ireland would have to give up neutrality and legalise contraception and divorce and that some of the more positive aspects of Irish culture would be lost as a result of growing prosperity.
In 1962 he accepted an invitation to edit the Catholic Herald in London. It was a tempestuous time, not only for Catholicism generally, but for English Catholicism in particular. Fisher was unaware at the time of his appointment that his predecessor, Michael de la Bédoyère, had been squeezed out of the paper because of his openness to change.
He was to discover in time that the wheels of change in British Catholicism still moved extremely slowly. His evident sympathy for the aggiornamento launched by Pope John XXIII was not widely shared within either the British or Irish hierarchies, and his friendship with the controversial British theologian Charles Davis (who stayed in his house in Wimbledon while the storm about his departure from the priesthood raged) helped to bring matters to a head.
In 1964 he resigned “over policy differences with the Board”, as he later, rather temperately, expressed it.
For the following four years he worked only as a freelance in both print and broadcast journalism: he had been the Irish correspondent for the British economic publication The Statist for many years, and also developed strong relationships with newspapers like the National Catholic Reporter in the USA, the Anglican Church Times in Britain, and later, The Economist.
Eventually, however, he was headhunted by Jim McGuinness, now RTÉ head of news, to be his deputy, and he returned to Dublin to take up that post in 1968.
“He was to discover in time that the wheels of change in British Catholicism still moved extremely slowly”
It was a torrid time at RTÉ, not least because of the escalating Northern crisis. In October 1973 he was appointed head of current affairs at the station. This forced marriage of news and current affairs had been decided on by the RTÉ Authority at least in part because of criticism by the government of the independently-minded programming emanating from the latter department.
The unwilling — and under-financed fusion of journalists and producers from different trade unions was probably doomed from the start. Fisher later became involved in a three-cornered political fracas involving the producer Eoghan Harris, RTÉ itself, and the then minister for posts and telegraphs, Conor Cruise O’Brien, centring on a programme about Northern Ireland.
Subsequently, after the authority had rejected his request for an appropriate role, budget and staff for the current affairs grouping, he resigned from these responsibilities in 1975 and the grouping was disbanded. He later served as director of TV development and chaired the RTÉ2 planning group, as well as launching the Irish Broadcasting Review, which ran from 1978 until shortly before his retirement from RTÉ in 1983.
After an interval of 36 years, he returned to the Nationalist and Leinster Times in Carlow as editor and managing director, following Liam Bergin’s retirement. He retired from this position in 1989, but continued to write for a wide range of publications — including on occasion The Irish Times — until shortly before his death. His final work — an annotated translation of the Stabat Mater — is due for publication this year.
Des Fisher was never — nor would he have wanted to be considered — a celebrity journalist. But his career was marked by a deep Catholicism, independence of spirit, intellectual integrity, an insistence on accuracy and fairness, and by his practical encouragement and training of many younger journalists.
These attributes marked him out as a substantial practitioner of his chosen profession in a period when journalism itself was undergoing seismic changes.
He is survived by his wife, Peggy (nee Smyth), and their children, Michael, Carolyn, Hugh and John.