Arts

My humble forebear was newspaper editor for 30 years despite being severely disabled

Maureen Coleman travelled to Wexford recently to trace the roots both of her family and her interest in journalism, discovering in the process that a remarkable, devoutly Catholic forebear may have passed on a penchant for racy writing

Bridge over the River Slaney, Wexford town
Maureen Coleman

ON A steep road leading out of Wexford town stands a house called Old Court. It's a large detached property with well-tended gardens, home to a local businessman these days. But at the turn of last century, Old Court was occupied by Edward O'Cullen, former editor of the Wexford People and creator of the publication Ireland's Own. He was also my great grand uncle.

Edward O'Cullen was a remarkable man. Paralysed from the neck down, he had to be carried to and from the editor's office every day. In his latter years, as his health deteriorated, Edward was nursed at Old Court by two of his nieces Sally and Moya, while their younger sisters Greta and Kathleen paid regular visits from their home in north Belfast. He died in 1933 at age 69, having edited the Wexford People for 30 years.

As a child who loved to read, I had a particular fascination with Ireland's Own and its quaint, wholesome content. There was always a copy of the weekly magazine in my great aunts' home and I would read it, cover to cover, engrossed in the puzzles, ghost stories and crime fiction.

Long before Tinder and Bumble changed how we date, Ireland's Own Pen Friends was the go-to column for hundreds of lonely hearts looking for companionship or love. In this age of dating apps, it's still going strong, many readers preferring the old-fashioned approach of writing letters to swiping right.

Undoubtedly my great aunts told me back then about the family connection to Ireland's Own and "dear Uncle Edward" but history is so often wasted on the young. It wasn't until I became a journalist myself that I realised how significant my career choice was to my elderly relatives.

When I landed my first job as a cub reporter in the now defunct Belfast weekly Herald and Post, they were thrilled. Yet still, Edward O'Cullen was just a throwback to a bygone era; a name on a headstone in a quiet Wexford graveyard, of little relevance to my life. Perhaps it's because there are so few links now among the living to the past, that my ancestry has become more important to me. And so I headed off to Wexford to find out more about the man.

My first port of call was Wexford County Library in the centre of town, where librarian and genealogy expert Michael Dempsey was able to fill in some blanks about Edward's life.

My great grand uncle was born in 1864 in a village called St Mullin's in Carlow, one of five children. His father Thomas worked in a mill but at some stage, moved his young family to Wexford.

When he was 15, Edward gained employment with the Wexford People, working his way way up through the ranks until he was appointed managing editor following the death of his predecessor, Edward Walsh. How Edward came to be paralysed is unknown, but according to an obituary in the New Ross Standard in 1933, penned by an unnamed colleague at the time of his death, he had been an invalid most of his life.

The obituary, entitled 'Loss To Irish Journalism', read: “Though he became an invalid in early life, he remained in the editorial chair and though his physical condition continued to disimprove, the strength of his brain was not impaired. His pen was facile and powerful and he was fearless in the championing of the cause of his country and of the rights of her people.”

In the days of the Irish National Land League, a political movement which sought to help tenant farmers, Edward was a keen campaigner on their behalf, using his pen to represent them. A devout Catholic, he was also an avid supporter of the Irish Parliamentary Party, which was led by Wexford man John Redmond until his death in 1918.

But of all the causes which were close to his heart, he was most passionate about helping the poor and the sick. According to the obituary, Edward, though reserved and something of a recluse, was a "kind, courteous and exceptionally generous man", who "contributed lavishly but without ostentation" to various charities.

“The poor and especially the sick poor, always had his sympathy and he gave freely in his anxiety to lighten the burden of poverty and alleviate the suffering of those stricken by disease,” the obit continued. “Many of those who benefited by his generosity are unaware of the identity of their benefactor, as he did good by stealth.”

Those words really struck me. It's poignant to think that this man, so plagued by ill health as he was throughout his life, put the suffering of others ahead of his own without ever revealing his philanthropy or asking for anything in return.

In 1902 Edward was "solely responsible" for the creation of Ireland's Own. The writer of the obituary noted at the time of Edward's death that it was still popular in 1933. I wonder what he would make of the fact it remains a constant in so many homes across Ireland today.

I next visited the Ireland's Own office, where I talked to assistant editor Shea Tomkins and was shown old copies of the magazine dating back to its inception. An introductory article in my great grand uncle's own words described it as a publication of "short stories and racy sketches".

I've often considered what Edward would have thought about my former role as a showbiz reporter and I'm guessing his 'racy sketches' would have been a world away from the juicy gossip I dabbled in. But maybe we weren't that different after all.

During Edward's tenure at the Wexford People, one of his two sisters, Margaret, met and married my great grandfather, James Coleman, a Monaghan man. They set up home in north Belfast and went on to have 12 children, including my aforementioned great aunts, my great uncles PJ and Peter, who ran the educational establishment Orange's Academy, where my father taught for a while, and my grandfather Denis.

Sadly my grandfather was killed in a tragic accident when my father was a young man so I never got to meet him or hear his childhood tales but my great aunts often recalled their uncle Edward and spoke about what an inspirational man he was.

The obit of 1933 stated that Edward O'Cullen was of a '"retiring disposition" and "shrank from anything in the nature of praise". He disliked any form of publicity concerning himself, prompting the writer to question if he was doing the right thing by extolling his many virtues in print. But his admiration for the man won out in the end.

Almost 90 years on from Edward's death, I wonder what he would think of my own personal tribute. Embarrassment, no doubt. But this shy, humble man passed on to me his love for the pen so it seems only fitting that I should honour his name.

:: The 10th Ireland’s Own Anthology of Short Stories and Memories has just been published; included are five entries from the north of Ireland – two from Newry, two from Antrim and one from Derry.

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