Glass ceiling broken: The Limerick Leader's first female reporter describes life in the male world of '60s journalism

Maureen Browne


Maureen Browne

Glass ceiling broken: The Limerick Leader's first female reporter describes life in the male world of '60s journalism

Amongst men: Maureen Browne in a Limerick Leader staff picture taken in 1965 - below, today, with her family

MY first day in the Limerick Leader was fraught with horror – not least trying to retain my composure as I was introduced to the awesome personages of the editor, the news editor, the sports editor and the lesser mortals of reporters and features writers who made up the newsroom in the heady year of 1964.

I had a bad start. In those long ago days, the Leader journalists didn’t start work until a leisurely 10 o’clock in the morning and having arrived on the Bruff bus at 8.40, I was left with time on my hands. In despair at the thought of waiting in an empty office, I thought I’d go to Mass at the Crescent, which might help to get me through the day.

My first mistake was to pass this information on to the charming lady in the front office, assuring her I would be back long before 10. Delightedly, she relayed this titbit upstairs and by the time I got in, they thought I was some kind of cross between Maria Goretti and Sinead, Bean de Valera. They were all set to further my education – and not in the best of ways.

I later discovered that editor Pat Comyn had warned them to be decorous. The Limerick Leader was taking a major step into the 20th century by employing its first woman reporter, she wouldn’t be used to bad language or risqué stories, so they should cut them out.

They responded magnificently. Over the following weeks I learned to swear with aplomb and fluency - something which has stood me in good stead ever since, memorably some years later when a security guard tried to prevent me entering the Dublin docks to report on a late-night murder.

“Ladies”, he said were not allowed enter the dockland area after nine at night. He was sure I would understand why. I was sure my editor’s small stock of understanding wouldn’t stretch that far. Five minutes later I was through and the security officer was telling his boss I was no lady.

The editor himself gave me my first marking. The Leader was short of “hair spaces” he told me — and they wouldn’t be able to bring out that day’s issue unless they found some. I should pop up to the Limerick Echo and borrow a bucket of them. He impressed on me that I was on trial and if I failed to do this first and very simple task, he might have second thoughts about hiring me. Because it was my first day, I didn’t want to admit that I didn’t know what hair spaces were.

In the Limerick Weekly Echo in Glentworth Street, journalist Frank Corr was affable, but regretful – they had only just enough hair spaces for themselves but he thought the Irish Press Offices in Davis Street might have some to spare.

In the Press offices, Limerick editor Kevin O’Connor — one of the gentlemen of the local press corps — was in grumpy form. He was sick and tired of the Leader trying to borrow hair spaces from him and sending junior reporters to do it into the bargain. Was there any place else I might get them? I could try the Independent in O’Connell Street.

The Indo’s Limerick editor, Noel Smith, took pity on me, explaining that in those days when papers were produced on hot metal, hair spaces were the narrowest space between two metal letters.

I learned about journalism the hard way in the Leader, where no quarter was given for stupidity, inexperience, being stuck on a story or being a woman in a man’s world.

I was sent off to learn about court reporting with senior journalist Michael O’Toole. My job, he told me, would be to sit beside him and as he wrote each page of his report, run out to the phone and ring it through to the newsroom. All I really needed was a supply of pennies for the phone.

He handed me my first page and hissed at me to be sure and curtsy to the judge before I left. At the FCJ Convent in Bruff, Mother Columba believed that despite our peasant origins we were all destined to marry colonial governors. She had taught us the art of curtsying properly when presented to royalty. Delighted that this was something I knew, I swept the judge Mother Columba’s deepest curtsy, raising my eyes to find him goggling, scarlet faced, while the solicitors (whom, I seem to remember, numbered a new recruit, Des O’Malley) tried to smother their laughter.

Subsequently, O’Toole relented and taught me all I know about journalism – forcing me to do mock interviews, write up stories and think about poetry, literature and art on evenings when all I wanted was to be out dancing.

Photographer Donal MacMonagle coaxed me to write about an apparition of Our Lady’s face (which he saw on the bushes in Pallasgreen). I hit the big time when news editor Bernard Carey allowed me to report on the Todd’s fire for the BBC, for which he was the local correspondent. Alas, since nobody I knew listened to the BBC that was a bit of a damp squib.

The erudite Dick Naughton introduced me to the delights of opera and the Limerick Boat Club; Cormac Liddy and Tony Purcell to the doubtful pleasures of Garryowen Rugby Club, where I learned to bang out ‘There Is an Isle’ with the best of them. Sports editor Des Hanrahan taught me how to lose money at the greyhound track, and personnel manager Gerry Kennedy saved me from many of “the ballhops” and ensured I was paid every week.

In the wider media group, Frank Corr offered me lifelong friendship, as did the legendary photographers, Pat and John Finn, Pat’s wife Breda and Limerick socialist Jimmy Kemmy. Government minister Donogh O’Malley helped me to stay in my job by giving me the odd exclusive and his beautiful wife Hilda (whose dark hair weaved a snare for Paddy Kavanagh in Raglan Road) guided me through the complex intricacies of Limerick social etiquette.

One of the exciting parts of working in Limerick in those days was that so much was happening. I remember doing stories about a new town which was to be built at Shannon Airport, as well as an ambitious project to run medieval banquets in Bunratty Castle and set up a folk park nearby.

I can only remember being late for work one morning, while I was in the Leader. “You picked a good day,” the news editor said bitterly. “A man called Sean Bourke, who apparently comes from Limerick, has sprung the Russian spy George Blake from Wormwood Scrubs. Everyone is out on markings and we have an edition in a couple of hours.” The luck which has always been with me in journalism smiled on me and I found and interviewed Bourke’s mother.

Being a woman journalist was always a great help. In the early days people thought it was a joke. When they discovered I wasn’t Mr Browne, but just a young wan, a few wet days in the job and in danger of being sacked by a horrid editor if I didn’t get a story, they confided in me what they would never have told a man.

Then, in a move of unusual benevolence, the Leader sent me on an international journalistic course at Manchester University. It was great fun, even if the lecturers took some convincing that when a story broke the best place to follow it up in Ireland was the local pub.

Apart from the need to fill a newspaper six days a week, the bane of our lives in the Leader were the owners, the Buckleys. They lived in Ballybunion but made frequent forays to Limerick. The news that “the Bs are in town” sent us all scurrying to our desks, industriously typing or making “investigative” calls on the off chance they might drop into the newsroom, which they rarely did. Later, their only daughter (and my friend) Helen Buckley chaired the Limerick Leader board.

I learned much more than “the old black art” in the Limerick Leader – I learned the value of “ballhops” and craic, to think for myself, to stand up to bullies, to pick myself up when I fell down, to know that life and journalism must always be founded on fair play and justice, “to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable”.

To paraphrase Kate O’Brien, I think I have always viewed journalism and life through the prism of my two years in the Limerick Leader and the Limerick Chronicle.

As I walked along the Shannon Banks in sunshine and starlight, I also dreamt of adventures I would have and wonderful places I would visit.

But most importantly, I fell in love – a love which was to last all our lives, bring us three wonderful children and seven wonderful grandchildren, and which has grown deeper and stronger in the years we have been parted.

Maureen's journey: A lifetime in journalism and communications

Maureen Browne, the Limerick Leader’s first woman reporter, subsequently worked in the Irish Press, reported on Irish affairs for a number of overseas papers, edited Irish Medical Times and was the first National Director of Communications with the HSE.

She was appointed by the Government to the Second Commission on the Status of Women. She currently runs Hartcliffe Communications, Media Management & Public Affairs Consultancy, is editor of The Consultant (the official journal of the Irish Hospital Consultants Association) and Health Manager (the official journal of the Health Management Institute of Ireland).

She travels widely, has a holiday home in Kilkee and is a frequent visitor to Limerick.

In 1968 Maureen married award-winning journalist and author Michael O’Toole, who had been her colleague at the Limerick Leader. Michael, a native of Hospital, was the Irish Press Group’s aviation correspondent and a news editor, features writer and Dubliner’s Diary columnist with the Evening Press.

Michael also worked for the Evening Herald, the Daily Telegraph, RTE and the BBC and was Ireland Correspondent of The Tablet.

He wrote and lectured widely and was an authority on Limerick writer Kate O’Brien. He was also the author of two widely praised books, More Kicks Than Pence (a memoir of his career in journalism) and Cleared for Disaster. Michael died in 2000.