I was struggling to find a neat way to describe Kevin Myers’ personal, political and journalistic journey over the last two or three decades, when there it was on page 216 of Burning Heresies, the hugely entertaining but shamefully ignored follow up to the first, equally enjoyable part of his memoir as an Irish journalist, Watching the Door:
“At a dinner with Atlantic’s editors in Dublin, we were joined by Christopher Hitchens, and though we had not seen one another in two decades, we fell into one another’s arms like soulmates who had made our separate journeys from the muddy groupthink of the lazy liberal left to individual libertarianism. He downed Chivas Regal whisky and smoked cigarettes with a hedonistic frenzy that suggested that a firing squad was waiting for him, which, figuratively, it was. We never lost touch until the laws of medicine finally supervened, as they were surely obliged to if they were to retain any authority over human affairs, and, with a dauntless grace, this gallantly dogmatic atheist went to meet his maker. I hope Christopher was suitably chastened by the warm and Trinitarian welcome He gave him.”
So, there you are. Kevin Myers is Ireland’s Christopher Hitchens. The parallels are not exact – they never are with human beings – but close enough. Hitchens’ political starting point was the British Labour party followed by a liaison of sorts with Trotskyism, while Myers, although generally liberal/leftish, at least in my experience, would never have been so dogmatic. If he ever joined a political party or organisation then he has managed to keep that chapter in his life well hidden.
Hitchens ended up welcoming the odious and lying warmonger Ahmed Chalabi as a house guest whereas Myers had come close enough to the real thing to despise violence, in particular the industrial slaughter Hitchen’s Iraqi accomplice sought to visit upon his erstwhile countrymen. I doubt he would have allowed someone like Chalabi to darken his door.
But inasmuch as both men traversed the path from ‘left’ to ‘right’, in a sufficiently pronounced fashion to enrage former friends, but managed to do so while retaining their ability to write wonderfully well, to make their readers laugh, cry, wonder and occasionally scream with anger or groan in disappointment, the comparison is apt.
Myer’s rightward shift was very Irish. The first casualty was all things nationalist, motivated principally by a detestation of the Provos, the results of whose violence he, more than most reporters of the Troubles in the Seventies, had witnessed close up.
I first met Kevin Myers in 1972 when he was dating a good friend; but in the mid to late ’70’s we became somewhat closer, cogs in the same dissolute social circle in Belfast and I have counted him a friend ever since. These were years of decline for Kevin, made worse by a badly broken heart. Then came his move to Dublin.
It took a long time for him to recover from Belfast and I sometimes wondered if a deeper disquiet pushed him, not just in a rightwards direction, but on an anti-Nationalist tack. He had been in the North too long, had seen and experienced too many terrible things and he had lost the then love of his life, a sometime activist in the world of left-wing, Nationalist politics who came from a very republican family. Was it this rejection, I wondered more than once, that drove him rightwards and especially in an anti-republican direction.
When he moved to Dublin we heard stories of a deep depression that sent him literally to bed it for weeks at a time. It was Vincent Browne who helped him back to life and to writing for Magill and before long he graduated to the Irish Times, where he nestled comfortably into a ready-made cranny writing the daily An Irishman’s Diary and discovered a soulmate of sorts in the ample form of deputy editor, Bruce Williamson.
But not Douglas Gageby, the Times‘ editor during his and my time at that paper. Nor did Browne remain his friend for long and I can think of only one person, the late Gerald Barry, who seemingly survived unharmed, his close quarters with Vincent. Like Kevin, and countless others, I too had bitter run-ins with Browne, so bitter they leave almost tangible evidence, like the stinging tentacle marks tropical jelly fish leave embedded in your flesh.
The distance of 100 miles separated me from Browne, that and a stubborn refusal to attend the weekly auto de fe in the Tribune’s Dublin office, otherwise known as the editorial conference, which preserved something resembling cordiality between us.
Myers and Browne’s relationship, as this excerpt of a review of Kevin’s contribution to a collection of posthumously written essays on Douglas Gageby’s career as editor of The Irish Times, could not survive close quarter contact.
In Myer’s eyes, Gageby was ‘a crook’ for his self-serving role, aside the former company chairman and wartime MI5 officer, Major Tom McDowell, in the creation of paper’s Trust. (More of which anon)
Browne wrote: ‘The characterisation of Douglas Gageby as a “crook” is a despicable libel, motivated, it would seem, by an impulse to seek retribution for the perceived snub Myers suffered by Gageby’s failure to recognise and acknowledge Myers’ enormous talents. Or perhaps a little attention-seeking? Or both?‘
Ouch! When words cut so deep, the wound is beyond healing.
Myers employed the Diary to launch a campaign dear to his heart, the rehabilitation of Irishmen who had served in the British Army, during the First and Second World wars, especially those who had given their lives, sacrifices that were neither acknowledged nor commemorated in Ireland.
His enemies in Provo land and beyond could only stand by helpless, since to do any more than mutter angrily into their pints would just bring denunciation and indefensible accusations of bigotry down on their heads.
But then he turned to a more powerful and assertive target: Irish feminism or rather what he regarded as its wilder fringes. Whether this was a wise or necessary move is at least debatable, but he made it and added to the list of enemies he had built up, a more potently dangerous, assertive and politically well connected set of adversaries.
That might have been a fatal mistake for it set the stage for a disaster, his clumsy words in his weekly column for the the Irish edition of The Sunday Times which led to accusations of anti-semitism, a charge which if it sticks is invariably a career-killer, especially for a journalist.
Those of us who had known Kevin for long enough, recognised what had taken place. He thought only of the words he had written, how they sounded in his head, dancing around to make a pretty pattern, not how others saw them, how they could twist and turn them and use them like a knife to bring him down. If he has one big fault it is an inability to perceive, or care, how others view him.
Kevin Myers is not an anti-Semite. He is in fact such an undisguised supporter of the Jewish state, so uncritical of Israel that he is more open to the charge of ignoring or minimizing the depredations visited on the Palestinians by the leaders of that bully state. Not being anti-Zionist, how can he be anti–Semitic?
A subsidiary charge of being a Holocaust denier, which was revived when his Sunday Times article appeared, was actually a consequence of Myers’ own pedantry.
The Holocaust (literally the burning of a sacrifice on an altar) refers to the gas chambers and ovens of death camps like Auschwitz or Treblinka but more Jews in places like Russia, where a different railway gauge made the transporting of Soviet Jews to the death camps impossible, were killed with Nazi bullets or worked to death in factories.
When he wrote all this up for his column in The Irish Independent a subeditor obligingly gave it the headline ‘I am a Holocaust Denier‘, words which were to haunt him when The Sunday Times tempest broke around his head.
Subeditors, or subs, are regarded, with reason, by many newsroom’s scribes as possibly the lowest form of life in the world of journalism, since they have the power to destroy a year’s, a month’s or if you’re lucky a week’s work with a few strokes of their pen; they can and do ruin a writer’s reputation or even, in the worst of all scenarios, get a writer harmed or even killed (I exaggerate not!).
But what Myers’ clumsy writing achieved was to gift enemies with an opportunity to hurt him that otherwise would never have been available.
No matter how grievously he insulted republicans or feminists nothing he could write that they might want to respond to, would compare to the damage done by adding ‘Holocaust denier’ to the tag ‘anti-Semite’. So potent is the combination that even those who might come to his aid, those who knew Myers had clumsily but inadvertently contrived his own downfall, fearing the same fate would befall them, remained silent as his figurative fingernails were wrenched out by their roots.
The evidence that those enemies he had made with his writing about non-Semitic matters jumped at the chance to do him more damage was unearthed by Myers himself, and is described in detail in Burning Heresies:
“The foremost of these was Roy Greenslade, Professor of Journalism at London City University, and an unapologetic supporter of the Sinn Féin cause: for years, even while working for The Sunday Times, no less, he had been a pseudonymous columnist in the Sinn Féin-IRA publication An Phoblacht. Moreover, Greenslade is particularly well-respected in Ireland, and he is a close friend of Pat Doherty, a one-time member of the IRA’s army council. He is also a regular guest on RTÉ programmes.
“What follows was discovered by the Irish social media analytical company, VMGroup, whose splendid MD, Vivienne Mee, upon her “own initiative, began to analyse the social media traffic against me. That Sunday, six separate accounts with links to media outlets alleged that I was an anti-Semite and/or a Holocaust denier. Three of these had strong links to the Guardian Media Group, both before and after this episode.”
“However, it was Greenslade who was by far the most powerful and influential of them. At 7.09 that Sunday evening he gloated, ‘Kevin Myers adds anti-semitism [sic] to his anti-republicanism. Result? Sunday Times drops him. Good.’ At 7.37 he added, ‘It took the Irish Independent eight years to remove Kevin Myers’s article on being a holocaust [sic] denier from its website.”
So, who exactly is Roy Greenslade, who at this time was The Guardian’s media correspondent and it still, these days, an occasional columnist?
Steven Glover of the London Independent wrote the definitive article on Greenslade which you can read in full here. But here is the relevant section describing Greenslade’s links to the Provos:
“Few people are aware that The Guardian’s media sage has affiliations with Sinn Fein. During the late 1980s, when he was managing news editor of The Sunday Times, he secretly wrote for An Phoblacht, the Sinn Fein newspaper, which then served as a propaganda sheet for the Provisional IRA. His pseudonym was George King. We know this from Flat Earth News by Nick Davies, a Guardian colleague and instigator of the journalistic investigation into phone hacking. When Mr Greenslade reviewed Mr Davies’s book on his blog in 2008, he did not deny what some may regard as a pretty serious allegation. In a more recent blog, he described Mr Davies as his friend.
“The connections endure. Last June, Mr Greenslade spoke at a Sinn Fein conference in London on the 30th anniversary of the hunger strikes, and he wrote an article on the same subject for An Phoblacht. He has had a house in County Donegal for many years. One friend is Pat Doherty, from 1988 until 2009 vice president of Sinn Fein, who has been named as a former member of the IRA Army Council.“
So a clumsily written article was seized upon, circulated widely and inflated into one of the damaging charges that can be made against a journalist, by an enemy whose real beef with him was not anti-Semitism but his abhorrence of the Provos and his support for British Army veterans in Ireland.
(Disclosure: I too have clashed with Greenslade who has tried to parlay my critique of the Provos into evidence of support of dissidents. He is in my experience an evil, dishonest creature who should be shunned by decent journalists)
After The Sunday Times sacked him that day, others piled on and soon Myers was the journalistic equivalent of a leper. His livelihood was taken away, his name besmirched and very soon he became the butt of cruel humour. The potency of the anti-Semitic charge is that it spreads cowardice like some medieval plague. Those who knew that he was no bigot were paralysed by fear and stayed silent.
Not even a successful and apparently expensive (to the Irish taxpayer) libel action against the state broadcaster, RTE could turn the public tide. In fact most of the Irish media, not least his former employers, now downsized to the newspaper equivalent of a semi-D in Tara Street, ignored the verdict and kept silent. What is that old Irish saw about eaten bread?
Burning Heresies was published in September this year. It is now nearly November and I write this as a real bigot is attempting to secure another four years in the White House. In the two or so months since publication The Irish Times has had ample opportunities to review Kevin Myers’ book, but have failed to do so.
In Burning Heresies, Myers devotes several thousand words to the conflicts he covered for that paper in Beirut, during the ugly civil war that raged there, and in Bosnia during that awful, bloody internecine conflict. As his gripping account makes abundantly clear, in both places he came close if not to death then to crippling injuries, but managed always to deliver beautifully written articles for The Times.
Burning Heresies has been in places where they sell books in Ireland for over two months now, and no review yet has appeared in The Irish Times, of a work written by a journalist who put his life on the limb to make that organ what was, at least in those days, one of the finest newspapers in Europe.
Perhaps, as Myers hints, the rot began long before he had even heard of Bosnia or Beirut:
Burning Heresies: A Memoir of a Life in Conflict, 1979-2020
By Kevin Myers
Published by Merrion Press, Co Kildare, September 2020