Bertie Ahern once commented to RTE that only three copies of the Irish Times were sold in his Dublin constituency. “We’ve worked out who buys the first two and we’re still working on the third.” People smiled knowingly at his words, just a piece of hyperbole from the Fianna Fail leader, a silly piece of exaggeration; except it was probably much closer to the truth than might have been imagined. Ahern’s enduring popularity at a time when Ireland was beset by persistent political scandals mystified those Irish Times readers who seemed to assume that everyone saw the world as they did.
When Enda Kenny became leader of Fine Gael, a cartoon in the Irish Times suggested this might be “the end a’ Fine Gael”. Writers in the Dublin newspaper were dismissive of the national schoolteacher from the West who had taken his father’s seat in the Dail at the age of 24. Kenny’s success in fending off the challenge of Richard Bruton in June 2010 prompted Miriam Lord to write in the Irish Times, “It’s the defeat of the cappuccino generation by the men who eat their dinner in the middle of the day.” The caricature suggested the mainstream of Fine Gael were unsophisticated rustics who had frustrated the rising generation of suave, urban sophisticates; eight months later the midday diners triumphed in the general election, confounding the predictions of Dublin sceptics in Kenny’s early years as party leader.
If the Irish Times’ record of gauging political opinion is hardly enviable; their reading of religious sentiment is not much better. The Dublin-centred world occupied by their writers persistently led to an under-estimation of the enduring strength of the Catholic Church. Anyone who had accepted the prophecies of the decline and disappearance of the church would have been surprised to have driven through rural Ireland on a Sunday morning and found full car parks and well-attended Masses.
The latest piece of misapprehension by the Irish Times is the assumption that the debate in Dublin regarding remarks made by Archbishop Michael Jackson is a matter of such national discussion that it is worthy of coverage by a national newspaper. Discussion of church matters within the columns of the Irish Times has a very limited readership, within the already very limited circulation of the newspaper. (The Irish Times’ sales of 84,000 copies was actually exceeded by the 87,000 copies of the Irish Farmers’ Journal sold during the week of the National Ploughing Championships). Jackson’s comments have hardly attracted the attention of ordinary Church of Ireland members. Outside of Dublin, copies of the Irish Times are as rare as their alleged scarcity in North Dublin; in my own parish I know of one copy being bought. Editorials, columns and letters to the editor are of no consequence in a community where no-one is reading them.
At the Cashel, Ferns and Ossory diocesan synod last week, the bishop made reference to having worn polyester trousers as a teenager; the allusion was lost on all but a handful of those present. “What is he talking about?” asked one synod member. “Some stuff up in Dublin”, came the answer.
For the record, ministering in south Co Dublin from 1999-2010, I never once heard the term “polyester Protestant”, but its usage or otherwise is the debate of a tiny minority within a tiny minority. To continue to persistently misread popular opinion can only further the process of the decline of the Irish Times.