R. M. Smyllie (1894-1954)


Life
[Robert Maire Smyllie; err. Smylie; fam. “Bertie”] b. Glasgow, son of a Scottish journalist who moved to Sligo to edit the Sligo Times; ed. Sligo Grammar School; entered TCD 1912; vacation tutor to American boy in Germany; interned in Ruhleben, nr. Berlin, during World War I; engaged in drama productions with other cosmopolitan interns and gleaned wide political education; on returning reported on the Versailles Treaty for John E. Healy, ed. of Irish Times; scooped interview with Lloyd George; contrib. “Irishman’s Diary” to Irish Times from 1927; appointed ed., in succession to Healy, 1934; established non-partisan profile and modern Irish character of the erstwhile ascendancy paper, e.g., dropping “Kingstown Harbour” for “Dun Laoghaire”;
assisted by Alec Newman and Lionel Fleming; recruited Patrick (“Paddy”) Campbell; backed C. S. Andrew’s Bord na Mona [turf] scheme, 1936; enlisted Flann O’Brien to write his thrice-weekly column “Cruiskeen Lawn” as Myles na gCopaleen; contributed his own column as “Nichevo”; patronised the Palace Bar, where he is included with literary num. contemps. in Alan Reeve’s framed cartoon, but later frequented the Pearl after a rift with the former; for Patrick Kavanagh he was ‘a gasbag with no talent’ but held otherwise by Paddy Campbell and others who worked with him; there is a biography by John Gray.

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Commentary
Brian Inglis, Downstart (London: Chatto & Windus 1990), “Smyllie” [Chap. 7]; commences with quotation from Patrick Campbell’s column in the Spectator during 1959: ‘When, in these trying times, it’s possible to work on the lower slopes of a national newspaper for several weeks without discovering which of the scurrying executives is the editor, I count myself fortunate to have served under one who wore a green sombrero, weighed twenty-two stone, sang part of his leading articles in operative recitative, and grew the nail on his little finger into the shape of a pen nib, like Keats.’ (Inglis, op. cit. p.93.) Cites C. S. (Todd) Andrews writing of Smyllie: ‘He integrated the Irish Times and what it stood for with the Irish nation’, in A Man of No Property (here p.95.) Smyllie at war: ‘Smyllie, I found, was showing signs of wear and tear. The Irish Times was down to a single folded sheet - four pages; and he had been involved in a protracted battle with the Censors. A couple of notable victories had been gained, including one which had featured in newspapers all over the English-speaking world. Commenting on one of Churchill’s speeches, in which he had named nine militatry commanders who had won fame in the Middle East, an Irishman’s Diary paragraph noted that only one of them had [133] been British. Three, it went on - Generals Wilson, Dill and Brooke - were Japanese (North Island); four - Generals O’Connor and O’Moore Creagh; Admirals Somerville and Cunningham - were Japanese (South Island). Nobody was later able to discover how this spoof got past the Censors, but they retaliated by becoming even more tough than before.’ (pp.133-34.) Relates that Smyllie reached an accommodation with the Censors (‘promising not to play any more tricks on him if they would play none on him’) but quit the game with a ‘Parthian shot’ in printing the pictures of the Allied leaders in the shape of a “V” on the front page in edition on announce victory in Europe. (p.150.)

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Notes
Not inglorious: Smyllie is the probable subject of Yeats’s phrase, ‘a drunken journalist’ in ‘Why Should Not Old Men Be Mad?’ Note that Smyllie wrote [a leader] in The Irish Times (7 Feb. 1939) contesting a report that W. B. Yeats was incapable of familiarity with friends. (See under St. John Ervine, supra.)

Romance and Reality’, an Irish Times leader of 29 Sept. 1943, exposes the hollowness of the language revival movement: ‘The revival of Irish aroused popular enthusiasm when it was a political catch-cry, the symbol of revolt; but the British power has left Ireland, the revolt is over.’ Smyllie was answered by Eamon de Valera who castigated The Irish Times as the embodiment of colonial oppression and an organ of ‘foreign civilisation’, urging that ‘enemies of the language’ should be regarded in the same light as ‘enemies of the national advance to political freedom’ (30 Sept & 11 Oct. 1943.) See also under Vivian Mercier, supra.

The Irish Times: fnd. by Major Lawrence Knox, as a six-pager appearing three times a week; acquired by Sir John Arnott in 1873; early editors incl. James Scott, 1877-99, John Healy, 1904-34, and R. M. Smyllie, 1934-54; subsequent editors incl. Douglas Gageby (twice), Fergus Pyle (briefly between Gageby’s reigns); News eds. incl. Donal Foley; current ed. Geraldine Kennedy and current man. dir. Maeve Donovan, in 2008. (See Hugh Oram review of Dermot James, From the Margin to the Centre: A History of the Irish Times, in Books Ireland, May 2008, p.117f.; note that Oram finds the work thin on narratives of Irish Times staff and the ethos of the paper.)

William Miller Smylie of Belfast was among those 9,000 Irishmen recruited in Australia for the World War I and died at Anzac - the infamous Gallipoli Beach landing which cost so many lives - and commemorated in a dawn ceremony at the Military Cemetery in Grangegorman, Dublin, on 25 April 2014 in the presence of diplomatic representatives from Australian, New Zealand and Turkey as well as senior members of the Irish Armed Forces. An oration was given by Professor Keith Kildea, a historian of Australia at UCD.

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