By Kernan Andrews
A passion for the printed word, in both its creation and its enjoyment, was always going to the heritage of Ronnie O’Gorman; newspaper founder, columnist, bookworm, and an indefatigable supporter of the arts.
Ronnie was born in Salthill and still lives in the house where he grew up. “If Freud was still around he would no doubt say the reason I never grew up was because I still sleep in the same room where I was born,” he tells me with a laugh.
The O’Gorman family home was filled with books and Ronnie inherited his passion for reading from his father.
“My father had a bookshop and the family owned a printing house which was the major printing works in Galway from 1910,” he says. “My father was an avid reader and books lined the walls of the house. I still have that collection which is a blessing.”
Ronnie’s love of reading was also encouraged by his English teacher, leading him to read the great classics of English literature and onwards to a lifelong love of Charles Dickens.
“Dickens is just absolutely brilliant,” he says. “His endless use of characters, his sense of fun, his wonderful language, and his crusades on behalf of the poor and of the neglected children, all that made an impression on me.”
Ronnie cites Dickens’ 1850 novel David Copperfield, as his favourite (although Great Expectations comes close). “I keep going back to it,” he says, “because the experiences of a young man in love and work don’t always work out.”
Readers of the Ronnie’s Galway Advertiser column, Galway Diary, will also be aware of the man’s abiding interest in history, particularly that of the west of Ireland. The attraction the subject held for him was similar to that which brought him to Dickens.
“I’ve always seen history as a series of stories about people, events, and places, and when you know a little about a place it makes that place so much richer and alive for you,” he declares.
Back in his school days though, Ronnie was more interested in European history than the Irish past. “Ireland was a backwater when compared to France, Germany, and Britain, the countries that hammered out the shape of Europe, and still do to this day.”
Following school Ronnie went to university in London in the 1960s to study literature and drama, with ambitions of becoming an actor, but a chance meeting in the British capital with a man involved in the emerging free newspaper business, altered the course of his life.
“He invited me to work with him at the Westminister Press,” recalls Ronnie. “He said ‘If you really want to see life get into publishing’. The publishing of free papers was immensely exciting and was sweeping through England like a forest fire. Setting up your base was very inexpensive and you could impress any personality on the paper that you wished, but after the initial burst it settled down and free newspapers became a serious business.”
Armed with this idea Ronnie came back to Galway in 1970 with a determination to create a similar kind of paper for the city to those he saw in England. On Thursday April 16 1970 the first edition of the Galway Advertiser hit the streets. The timing was good as it coincided with an unprecedented explosion of creativity in the arts in the city.
“The Galway Advertiser coincided with this emergence of the arts which was coming through the student body in NUI Galway, or UCG as it was then,” says Ronnie. “People like Ollie Jennings, Mike Diskin, Mick Lally, Garry Hynes, gave Galway a quality of life that was enviable. So if you wanted to re-locate to Galway it had that incredible quality. It was a case of right people, right place, right time. Their energy was enormous and it really made Galway. The IDA did their part but it was the arts that made people want to live and work and spend their lives here – I really mean that.”
That surge in the early part of the decade would lead to the foundation of Druid in 1975, the Galway Arts Festival in 1977, the Renmore Panto in 1978, and Music for Galway in 1980.
“There was very much a conscious decision on the part of the Galway Advertiser to support the arts,” says Ronnie. “That was a definite ambition and I hope we have done that down through the years.”
Charles Dickens was a journalist as well as a novelist, and another role model for Ronnie during those early years in the Galway Advertiser was the Irish journalist John Healy, best known for chronicling the crippling social and economic effects of emigration in No One Shouted Stop and Nineteen Acres.
“He railed against the neglect of the west of Ireland and wrote magnificently about emigration from Charlestown in County Mayo,” says Ronnie. “I was deeply affected by his books.”
Ronnie was the Galway Advertiser editor from 1970 until retiring in 2001. He now serves as the chairperson of the Galway Advertiser Newspapers Ltd. Looking back over his time as both a journalist and an editor, he says: “I would hope that I have recognised the Galway stories and written about them. It’s been a pleasure as you have had a ringside seat at Galway’s development over the past 40 years.”
He continues to write a weekly column for the paper, Galway Diary, which he describes as “a purely personal indulgence. I can write whatever I want to write”.
While in his youth he may have favoured European to Irish history, the Galway Diary, focusses on aspects of history of Galway city and the county.
“There are great stories out there about Galway and its people and the events which took place here,” he says. “You can’t always judge something that happened in the past by the morals of today, you have to try to look back and understand what people did. You find people who are endlessly brave, inventive, and full of courage and very often it is ordinary people who effect change.”
To conclude, I ask Ronnie what is he reading at the moment. Not surprisingly he is one of those people that often reads two or three books on the go.
“I’m reading my Christmas presents,” he laughs. “I’m reading a biography of Robert Oppenheimer, the man who invented the atomic bomb, it’s called Inside The Centre, by Ray Monk. It’s absolutely superb. I’m also reading Blood For Blood by William Henry.”
Ronnie is also immersed in The Black Count, Tom Reiss’ biography of General Tomas-Alexandre Dumas, the father of Alexandre Dumas, author of The Man In The Iron Mask.
“He was a general in Napoleon’s army during the invasion of Italy,” says Ronnie. “He’s a fascinating individual, a black man and the first black general in French history.”
As always it is the story of an ordinary person thrust into the turmoil of history that continues to guide Ronnie both as a reader and a writer.
Kernan Andrews is the arts editor and political correspondent of the Galway Advertiser.