Fionnuala O Connor: Remembering much-missed scholar and gentleman Éamon Phoenix

Historian Dr Éamon Phoenix, who died in November aged 69. Photo: Hugh Russell
Historian Dr Éamon Phoenix, who died in November aged 69. Photo: Hugh Russell

The Irish News lost two fine writers this year, both big favourites with readers, Anita Robinson in February, Éamon Phoenix only last month.

Anita had a properly prolonged send-off after a hospital death only she foretold. Éamon left family and newspaper bereft with almost as little warning. What he did is even harder to replicate than Anita’s gold from straw. (Though respect to her deft and daring successor.)

What readers got from Phoenix was gold out of violent death and political mean-mindedness, from the ‘rough drafts’ of history in Irish News files. For more than 30 years his ‘On This Day’ sifted drama and what would have lasting significance from the archives of this paper and its 1855-founded predecessor, the Belfast Morning News. It was much more than a column. Phoenix’s scholarly ability to provide context in a few lines beneath each day’s excerpts also enabled sharp commentary. Editor Noel Doran fondly recalls him coming in for a chat after slogging through the files – in the office’s conference room, some in very poor shape, some he was uniquely permitted to take home. He gave good value: ‘as interested in the politics of today, very well-informed, not one bit soft in his comments.’

As the ‘Decade of Centuries’ began, particularly impelled by the birth of the Irish state, Phoenix began alternating archive excerpts from 50 years and 100 years earlier. The horror of the early 1920s in newsprint recalls memories many throughout Ireland heard from parents and grandparents, though some choked back details in an effort to diminish family bitterness. On This Day at times became an almost unbearable read. Enlightening, yes; unlikely to raise hopes of rapprochement in 2023 between northern Catholics and Protestants, Irish and British.

July 9, 2020 brought the Phoenix note that ‘the illegal UVF would soon become the Ulster Specials’, reservists in the new northern state’s police. Under the July 21 column headed ‘Northern RIC chief shot’, on the killing in Cork of Colonel G.B.Smyth, a longer than usual note begins ‘The IRA’s assassination of this northern-born commissioner, targeted by Collins for his notorious speech at Listowel, was to set in train the most serious outbreak of sectarian bloodshed in Belfast since the anti-Home Rule riots of 1886. In normally peaceful Banbridge, where the Smyth family were prominent industrialists, Catholic shops were attacked and looted by mobs...one man was shot dead.’

In broadcasts Phoenix recalled his own family’s history with characteristic mildness. The 20s violence in Short Strand he charted so well left his grandfather, already wounded in World War One (which killed his Protestant grandfather) bedridden for the rest of his life. Beaten so badly because he couldn’t run, he was only saved from death by the intervention of a Protestant neighbour.

Relatives say that his soft, musical accent may have come from the southern-born Christian Brothers who taught him from age four to 18. The voice was only part of what broadcasters loved in him. ‘You just told him the time you needed from him and pressed go,’ says ex-BBC producer Mary Kelly. ‘He would then give you a perfect historical summary full of colour as well as facts.’

When he died BBCNI’s Mark Simpson commented on Alex Kane’s tribute that Phoenix was a ‘national treasure’. Phoenix would have grinned at that and asked ‘which nation?’

He famously believed that history belonged to the people, shuttling tirelessly between venues tiny and grand. Those who wrote and phoned him to ask about relatives who had ‘walk-on parts in history’ were always answered, says Noel Doran, and ‘often he could give them answers immediately. He is sadly missed and readers will expect the column to return in some form. There is no doubt it leaves a huge gap.’

It’s the best that can be done about someone unique; scholar and gentleman.