Lives Remembered: The Irish News Saturday 10th January
Desmond Fisher 1920-2014

My father was one of two Derrymen heading RTÉ News on the day of the banned Civil Rights march in the city on October 5 1968. The other was his former Irish Press boss Jim McGuinness, who had been instrumental in bringing him back to Dublin in 1967. That was eighteen months after my father’s resignation on a matter of principle as Editor of the Catholic Herald over his coverage of Vatican II. His articles from Rome, although acclaimed internationally, were regarded as too progressive by members of the English and Irish hierarchy, including Bishop Farren of Derry, his former headmaster at St Columb’s College.

Jim McGuinness, according to my father, “made the cogent argument that posterity would never forgive RTÉ if it failed to cover, as well as the BBC did, the historic developments in the North, which we claimed to be part of our own country”. Thus it was that news cameraman Gay O’Brien obtained remarkable footage of the Derry demonstration including protestors being hit with batons by the RUC.  The film was offered by RTÉ to other television stations via the Eurovision news exchange. Those scenes put the North’s problems on the international agenda.

In August 1969 my father was the senior RTÉ executive on duty when Taoiseach Jack Lynch arrived to address the nation, following the outbreak of serious rioting in Derry. He arranged for the annotated script to be typed out. For the record Mr Lynch said: “It is clear…that the Irish Government can no longer stand by and see innocent people injured and perhaps worse” (not using the word ‘idly’). Many years later my father recalled how Mr Lynch had privately asked him what he thought would happen if he ordered the (Irish) army to go into the North, as some had advised. Des told Lynch he thought the army would get some 20 miles across the border into Derry or Co. Down before suffering heavy casualties in a fight with the British. Mr Lynch told him he had come to the same conclusion.

My father’s parents lived in West End Park, Derry, and moved to Dublin with their three children when he was 11. He won an all-Ireland scholarship for Good Counsel College in New Ross. He took the education, but decided the Augustinian priesthood was “not for me”. He began and ended his active career with the Carlow Nationalist. His knowledge of Irish, Greek and Latin was exceptional. At 94, he had just completed a book, typed by himself, containing a new translation of the Stabat Mater.

DESMOND FISHER who died in Dublin on December 30 is survived by his wife Peggy and four children: Michael, Carolyn, Hugh and John.


Desmond Fisher  Photo:  © Michael Fisher

Desmond Fisher Photo: © Michael Fisher

Desmond Fisher 1920-2014

An appreciation (in The Irish Catholicic-logo

Michael Fisher

It was, my father said, the best news he heard in 50 years. Days before his death, I read him Pope Francis’ address to the Curia, outlining 15 diseases they suffered. He had a progressive view of the Catholic Church, inspired by the time he reported from Rome on Vatican II, where he made many friends including Belgian Cardinal Leo Suenens and theologian Fr Karl Rahner.

The Vatican II version of the Church, he pointed out, is a “communion” of members sharing a common task, rather than a pyramid structure. As Editor of The Catholic Herald, his authoritative coverage of Pope John XXIII’s initiative for change was widely praised in the English-speaking Catholic world. However, it annoyed Archbishop John Charles McQuaid of Dublin who found his articles “very objectionable”.

The conservative English hierarchy, led by Cardinal John Heenan, complained to the newspaper’s directors, who recalled him to London. His archive notes describe this as one of the bitterest blows of his life. It was, he said, a consolation that history seemed to have supported his version of Vatican II rather than the Cardinal’s.

He resigned from the paper and freelanced for a year. One of his tasks was to handle the copious media enquiries he received regarding Charles Davis. In December 1966 Fr Davis, then the best-known Catholic theologian in Britain, announced he was leaving the Church.

My father was proud of his roots in Derry, where he was born in 1920. His parents (a mixed marriage) moved to Dublin and aged 11, he won an all-Ireland scholarship for secondary schooling at Good Counsel College in New Ross, run by the Augustinians. He took the education, but decided the priesthood was “not for me”.


His knowledge of Irish, Greek and Latin was exceptional, and at 94 he had just completed a book, typed by himself on his laptop, containing a new translation of the Stabat Mater. It is due to be published by Gracewing later this month. With a BA from UCD, his first job, at age 25, was assistant to the editor of The Nationalist and Leinster Times, Liam Bergin, who became a lifelong friend. In 2011 he stepped down as Vice-Chairman of the same paper.

My first memories of my father are from the time he was London Editor of the Irish Press in Fleet Street. He acted as the Group’s Diplomatic Correspondent, and in 1960 spent three months covering the UN when Frank Aiken chaired the General Assembly. The same year he reported from the Congo on Irish soldiers on UN duty being held prisoner in Jadotville.

Desmond Fisher returned to Ireland in 1967 as RTÉ’s Deputy Head of News, joining fellow Derryman Jim McGuinness.

He later became Head of Current Affairs in RTÉ and after a second resignation on a point of principle was appointed Director of Broadcasting Development. He became involved in the birth of Raidió na Gaeltachta and later RTÉ2.

On retirement from RTÉ in 1983 he returned to Carlow as Editor and Managing Editor of The Nationalist until 1989. He was author of The Church in Transition, a book on the Vatican Council, Broadcasting in Ireland, The Right to Communicate and several pamphlets.

Michael Fisher is a journalist.


A5 Western Transit Corridor  Photo: Mouchel

A5 Western Transit Corridor Photo: Mouchel

The A5 dualling scheme from the border at Aughnacloy to Derry (described as a ‘motorway’ by Sinn Féin) is like a STOP/GO/STOP board for traffic. One minute it’s on, then it’s held up, now it seems to be on again. It’s reported tonight by the Ulster Herald that Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has announced that the Irish government has agreed to review its decision to withdraw a £400million funding pledge for the A5 dual carriageway. Speaking in the Stormont Assembly Mr McGuinness said the development emerged at last week’s North-South Ministerial Council meeting in Armagh.

“We had a very constructive discussion at the NSMC and the Taoiseach gave a clear commitment to seek additional structural funds to restore their contribution to this essential North-South project,” said Mr McGuinness. The Irish government had originally pledged in the region of £400m towards the construction of a new £850m 55-mile dual carriageway between Derry and Aughnacloy, which would link in with Dublin bound traffic via the N2 towards Emyvale and Monaghan. However the funding pledge was withdrawn in November 2011.

Welcoming the announcement, West Tyrone MP Pat Doherty said, “A restoration of the funds from Dublin will reignite this entire project. At the same time, Sinn Féin will continue to engage with the North’s Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy to ensure the legal issues which have delayed the northern end of the project are expedited without delay.”



Brian Fisher 1924-2013

Brian Fisher 1924-2013

Today we said our farewells to my uncle Brian Fisher, who lived in Raheny in Dublin. Although he spent almost all of his 89 years in the capital city, he was born in Derry, like my father Des, his older brother, and their younger sister Deirdre. They grew up in a house at West End Park, overlooking the Bogside. It was therefore very appropriate that Phil Coulter’s ‘The Town I Loved so Well’ was played by the musicians from Baldoyle (Aifreann Gaeilge) including my cousin’s wife Eilís as the remains were leaving the church to be brought to Glasnevin Crematorium. The Coulters were neighbours in West End Park. My father has previously described what it was like growing up in Derry in those days in the 1920s. No-one knows the real reason my grandparents Michael Louis Fisher and his wife Evelyn Kate moved to Dublin, but one possible explanation is that it was because it was a mixed marriage, my grandfather being a Catholic and my grandmother a Protestant. Her maiden name was Shier, a family that we have traced back to the Palatinate in Germany in 1600. Richard, her father, was in the RIC and is buried in the City cemetery in Derry. His forebears came to work on the estate in Adare in County Limerick, where many of the Palatine families settled such as the Bovenizers and the Switzers. Brian was vey interested in that element of our family history and had done much research which in recent years he shared with my father. One thing about Brian I never knew until the removal yesterday when the parish priest passed on the sympathy of Cardinal Desmond Connell, Archbishop Emeritus of Dublin. He had been a contemporary of Brian’s at Belvedere College SJ. Until then I thought I had been the first of our family to receive a Jesuit education! Brian’s career was at the Dublin Port and Docks Board (as it then was). Talking to my cousins yesterday I understand that in his role as Paymaster he sometimes found himself delivering wages in cash to unlikely places like the North Bull lighthouse in the days before electronic funds transfer! Some of his grandchildren read the prayers of the faithful at the Mass at St John the Evangelist in Kilbarrack/Foxfield parish. Along with his wife Nuala (Henderson) he played a leading role in the development in the 1980s of the new church and he also acted as a lay minister. One of the prayers was a beautiful summary of his life and what he stood for:

Brian grew up in Derry and then spent most of his life in Dublin. He was proud of his multi-cultural heritage and was open and respectful to all traditions on this small island. Lord, we pray for continuing efforts for peace and reconciliation in Ireland“.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dilís.


Knockmore Céilí Band at the Fleadh  Photo: BBC (NI)

Knockmore Céilí Band Co. Fermanagh (2nd place) at the Fleadh Photo: BBC (NI)

One of the most successful events during London/Derry’s year as UK City of Culture, apart from tonight’s announcement of the Turner Prize winner, was the staging of the All-Ireland Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann, the first time this great traditional music competition was held in Northern Ireland. It was marked by a documentary on BBC Northern Ireland called ‘Fleadh‘, that was filmed, produced and directed by Sean McGuire with Paul McGuigan as Executive Producer.

McKenna Family, Clogher at Somers café Fardross  Photo: © Michael Fisher

McKenna Family, Clogher at Somers café Fardross Photo: © Michael Fisher

One of the groups appearing on the programme was the McKenna family from Clogher, who were competing in various categories. Peter plays the uilleann pipes. They are all very talented musicians, led by their father Martin. They performed during the William Carleton summer school at Somers café and caravan park at Fardross, Clogher, where they were joined by two pipers Frank Gildernew and Jim Brady as well as the Ulster-Scots Juvenile Pipe Band, who hold their practice sessions there.

Peter Mc Kenna (uilleann pipes) & his sister (guitar) at Somers café Fardross  Photo: © Michael Fisher

Peter Mc Kenna (uilleann pipes) & his sister (guitar) at Somers café Fardross Photo: © Michael Fisher

The BBC reported how every year hundreds of thousands of people gather for this festival of Irish traditional music, and for one week in August, Derry reverberated to the sound of fiddles, tin whistles and banjos. Organisers estimate that more than 400,000 people were at the fleadh over the course of the week, while 20,000 musicians were performing, whether on the big stages or in the streets and the city’s walls.

While the casual observer might have got swept up in the revelry, there were higher stakes involved for many of the musicians who had spent months and years fixated on winning a coveted all-Ireland title. It has been described as the Olympics of traditional music, and a new documentary goes behind the scenes to capture the pressure and tension at play when all those hours of practice come down to one nerve-wracking performance.

The programme charts the progress of a number of performers as they compete against hundreds of other hopefuls, first at county level, then at provincial level, in the hope of winning through to the main event. One of them is accordion player Justin Quinn, who likened the experience to “running down a hill faster than you feel comfortable”.

Justin grew up in Leeds but his parents are from Pomeroy in County Tyrone and Irish traditional music played a big part in his upbringing. While he won an all-Ireland title at the age of 14, he gave up the instrument when he went to university and did not return to it for another 20 years.

The competition itself is awful – having everything relying on five minutes, whether you forget the tune halfway through,” he says.

That pressure is echoed by accordion player Christopher Maguire, who says that by the time musicians have gone through provincial heats to reach the fleadh, everyone is of a high standard.

You’re in this massive room, and everyone’s watching you they’re like policemen for music, and you just have to perform your best. You have to know the song, you have to put feeling into the tune and imagine you’re singing it, you’re actually in the accordion,” he says.

While the world of traditional music is a close-knit community, friendships are put aside for a few hours while musicians do battle in front of the adjudicators. The programme’s producer and director, Sean McGuire, says the fleadh is about more than winning medals. Although there’s a competitive spirit, he says what he found in this world of music was friendship and camaraderie, along with  a lot of joy.


Removal of Security Gates: Photo Lorcan Doherty

Removal of Security Gates: Photo Lorcan Doherty

Derry’s walls are an integral part of the city and have survived for nearly four centuries. It’s the only remaining completely intact walled city in Ireland. With the progression of the peace process over the past fifteen years, the walls have become a tourist attraction, with guided walks daily. But the heavy metal security gates at sixteen locations  were a reminder of a troubled past. Now eleven of them are being removed.

Speaking during a visit to the walls, the NI Minister For Justice David Ford said he hoped the move would be welcomed by residents, businesses and visitors alike. He said in the year of Derry~Londonderry City of Culture, the walls would play a central role in the festivities and are a must see for any tourist visiting the city.  Derry has a real opportunity to show what the city has to offer.

He welcomed the removal of the gates for residents and tourists alike and described them as a blight on the historic walls.  The walls can now be enjoyed without the imposing structures that point to our past rather than our future, he added. Mr Ford thanked the local community, the PSNI and Derry City Council for their support and cooperation and said his department had invested £28,000 in providing additional CCTV coverage around the walls.

According to BBC Northern Ireland, Mr Ford said he hoped confidence could be built in the community so that people could feel safe and secure without the need for interface structures. “We obviously have to take account of the fact that there are small numbers of people in this city as there are elsewhere in Northern Ireland who are trying to drag us back,” he said, “but what I sense when I visit Derry is a very positive feel of people wanting to see movement forward, of the benefits of the City of Culture, of the Fleadh and all that coming forward and that is engaging with communities across Derry in a very positive way.”

Cannon from 1642 on Derry's Walls

Cannon from 1642 on Derry’s Walls

The mayor of Derry, Councillor Kevin Campbell, said the decision to remove the gates was about normalising the city. “It is about taking down symbols that have been here over thirty years,” he said. “There will still be a number of gates that are there to protect the Fountain, and you would obviously have to keep them there at the moment. But I think we have to be looking in the long term at having all those gates and barriers removed.”

DUP security spokesman Gregory Campbell also welcomed the removal of the gates, but warned against taking out the remainder. “It’s not just people in Londonderry, but tourists and visitors alike don’t like to see the aesthetics, the culture and history of the walls being encumbered by those gates which are a throwback to a previous era thankfully now past and I think everyone will welcome that,” he said.

Bishop's Gate, Derry

Bishop’s Gate, Derry

Five security gates overlooking the loyalist Fountain Estate in the Bishop Street area including one at Bishop’s Gate will remain in place. Restoration work has been continuing along the walls and at several important buildings in the city centre, including the Guildhall and St Columb’s Cathedral. I saw some of these sights during a visit in March and I hope to travel to the city again by train next week to see the difference, now that the security gates are coming down.

Derry's Walls at the Guildhall

Derry’s Walls at the Guildhall


BBC Belfast Strike

BBC Belfast Strike

This was a busy day for NUJ activity. First, union members at Broadcasting House in Belfast (and at BBC Radio Foyle in Derry) joined journalist colleagues around the UK in walking out at midday to hold a twelve hours strike.

BBC Radio Foyle picket

BBC Radio Foyle picket  © NUJ website

The first Radio Ulster programme affected was Talkback. The presenter and long-standing member Wendy Austin was among those joining the line outside the main entrance. Inside, members of management kept some output on the air including radio news bulletins. The NUJ action along with the broadcasting union BECTU is over job cuts, compulsory redundancies, harassment and bullying within the Corporation.

At BBC picket line

At BBC picket line

At the meeting of Belfast and District Branch of the NUJ, members expressed their solidarity with their colleagues on strike. Later some of the branch members including myself joined the chapel members on the picket line. It was an interesting branch meeting, during which we endorsed a statement by the union’s National Executive Council at its meeting last Friday that criticised the First Minister Peter Robinson:-

The National Executive Council of the NUJ has called on First Minister Peter Robinson to withdraw his remarks for the people of Northern Ireland to “stop reading the Irish News. The NEC considers the First Minister’s controversial remarks ill-considered and demands that he withdraws the boycott of the newspaper immediately. The Irish News and its journalists have the right to pursue legitimate questioning in the public interest and the NUJ will defend its members’ rights to do so.”

NUJ Belfast & District Branch meeting

NUJ Belfast & District Branch meeting

The Branch also heard from Ridwaan Haji, a Somali journalist and NUJ member based in London, about the serious situation facing journalists in the Horn of Africa. He told us that eighteen journalists had been killed there last year and so far this year three had died, almost all of them in the capital, Mogadishu. Last Sunday a female radio journalist 21 year-old Rahma Abdulkadir was shot dead near her house by three young men carrying pistols. The Guardian reports that her main focus was human rights in Somalia, particularly womens’ rights. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has condemned the killing.

reviews the list of murdered journalists

Ridwaan reviews the list of murdered journalists

Tonight the UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova denounced the murder and called for an investigation into the crime. Members of the media killed during conflict will be remembered during the IFJ Congress in Dublin later this year and it is hoped that the Branch will have a stand at the conference hall in Dublin Castle on June 6th. Preparations are also continuing for a one-day safety conference for journalists and media workers in Northern Ireland to be held before July.