13th February 2018 – Liam MacGabhann – Outstanding Journalist

Paul Synnott

by  Paul Synnott
(Skerries Historical Society Meeting – February 2018)

Liam MacGabhann
The February presentation to Skerries Historical Society was ‘Liam MacGabhann: Outstanding Journalist’ by Paul Synnott. I had not heard of Liam MacGabhann before but what a fascinating man he sounded – world renowned journalist, poet, socialist and Republican (he was editor of An Phoblacht 1933-34). Several in the audience expressed the sentiment that it had been a privilege to know him and at the end of the talk, I understood why.

Liam MacGabhann was born on Valentia, Co Kerry, one wild and windy night in September 1908. Being immersed in the language from his birth, he grew up a gaeilgeoir. Although he generally wrote both his poetry and his journalistic pieces in English, he used his Irish all his life.

Liam had started his working career as a teacher but soon graduated into journalism. His first major scoop was in 1937 when a group of Achill Islanders was forced, through lack of work, to migrate to Kirkintilloch, near Glasgow as very poorly paid potato pickers living in substandard accommodation (sadly some things do not change). There was a fire in the hut where they were staying and ten of the workers died in the flames. Liam rushed over to Scotland where he interviewed the grieving survivors in their native Irish and brought their appalling stories to light.

Irish proved useful again when he was travelling in the United States with his great friend, Taoiseach Eamon De Valera, and Frank Aiken in 1948.

They had gone to campaign for the unification of Ireland and conversed with each other in Irish when deciding how best to persuade their English speaking hosts of the legitimacy of their cause.

He was also a sailor – and a member of Skerries Sailing Club during the 1940s, being on the committee in 1944, ‘45 and ‘49. Liam crewed for Brendan Ryan, a founding member of Skerries Sailing Club on ‘Maureen’. When Skerries man, Jack Duff, happened on Erskine Childers’ Howth Gun Running yacht, ‘Asgard’, in Cornwall, Liam put journalistic pressure on the government to buy the yacht for the nation. It is now on display in Collins Barracks.

So what manner of man was Liam MacGabhann? Tom Barrett who had worked with him at The Irish Press said ‘he was a Labour man in the mould of Connolly and Larkin, a Republican in the mould of Tone and a newspaperman in his own particular way’. Clearly, as a poet, he had an artistic soul. But although his literary ability, both as poet and journalist, is beyond doubt, there was a great deal more to him than that. Perhaps an anecdote told to us by his niece, Davidine Grimes sums him up best. One day he met some travellers down on their luck, invited them home to dinner and when they left at the end of the evening, he gave the shoes off his feet to one of them because, as he explained to his wife, ‘I have another pair upstairs whereas that poor fellow had none.’

Report by Oona Roycroft