Death of an Irish Fleet Street journalistic legend

Death Irish Fleet Street journalistic legend

Champagne-loving gentleman journalist represented The Irish Press from the 1960s to the ‘90s before ‘retiring’

Former Irish Press London Editor Aidan Hennigan OBE died last Friday a few weeks short of his 91st birthday.

Francis Aidan Bernard Hennigan, to give him his full name, was originally from Ballina and was for many years synonymous with the Irish in this country. He had a wide-ranging journalistic career, but it was as London editor of the Irish Press that he became a familiar face at Westminster and developed the extraordinary network of contacts that made him one of the best connected and most popular Irish men in London.

He also took pride in continuing to work as a journalist after his nominal retirement (and the closure of the Press), for the Irish Examiner, and for other new outlets, often in demand as a commentator and pundit on the news channels. He received an OBE from then Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain at the Embassy of Ireland in 2006, an unusual event as such presentations normally took place at British venues. He also received an Irish World award that year.

For many years, Aidan treated his year of birth as a state secret (it was 1925), to the consternation of some of his younger but nevertheless established colleagues, because he would claim they had started out as cub reporters together. To that end he was always circumspect about letting them know he had covered de Valera’s last general election campaign as a TD in Clare, and he would “telescope” decades by saying he and they had worked in the west of Ireland together or were all past pupils of Muredach’s College in Ballina. It was London that defined him.

During his stewardship of the Irish Press’s operations in Fleet Street – a period which coincided with the great wave of Irish emigration to the UK – he held court over a bureau that included wiremen/telex operators, a number of reporters and sales and administrative staff. That office, and also his home, was open house to any number of journalists, writers, diplomats and politicians, British and Irish – many of whom have since become household names. The cohort included close friends Eamonn Andrews, Edna O’Brien, Maeve Binchy, Henry Kelly, Andrew Neil, Jon Snow, Airey Neave, Daithi O Ceallaigh, journalist Jim Downey and many others, some better known than others but all treated to the same warm friendship.

Callers to Aidan at the office were quite varied and included chiropractor Stephen Ward, best known for the Profumo scandal. The Irish Press always got far more from him and its association with him than it ever returned, but such a thought would never have occurred to him. He helped many, many young journalists along the way. While he always had a gracious and jovial air he was also a private, shrewd, kind and sophisticated soul with a great many aspects to his life including firm friendships right across the political spectrum, unionist and nationalist, Tory, Labour and Liberal, which he forged over many years in the House of Commons.

In late middle age he took a degree in economics at the LSE to enable him to take a qualifying law degree and be called to the bar at Gray’s Inn. Fellow law students at the time included the late Clarissa Dickson Wright (of Two Fat Ladies fame, who was burning her way through her million pound inheritance) and Dominic Grieve, later to become Attorney General here.

Aidan never practised as a barrister but it was very important to him that he had qualified and it widened his circle of contacts, always invaluable to a reporter. He covered, or supervised the coverage of, all the big Irish-related stories a reader would expect – the Birmingham Six, Guildford Four, Maguire Seven, Judith Ward, the IRA bombing campaigns and the abuses of the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Such were his soft skills and brass neck, indispensable to any good reporter, that he was always able to do so without becoming alienated from the British authorities. That personable quality applied across the board.

On one occasion, when called into Sky News as a pundit on Irish matters, the anchor person turned to him and started asking questions about agriculture, mistaking him in the running order for the president of the National Farmers’ Union.

Ever gracious, and with the cameras about to go live, he said that as he had grown up on a farm he’d be very happy to wing it and answer her questions but perhaps she had the wrong guest. He was wheeled out at breakneck speed, he later recalled. He maintained his place as an Irishman and reporter for Irish newspapers in the Palaces of Westminster and Courts of Justice with pride and as an earned right, without apology.

As a reporter, he covered the funeral of Robert F Kennedy but without doubt the one person he remained thrilled throughout his career to have interviewed was American musician Louis Armstrong. Aidan’s last years in London were made more comfortable and dignified by the tireless and loving efforts of his niece Bernadette Hennigan, an NHS professional.

His funeral will be at St Joseph’s Catholic Church, 191 High Street, Harrow Weald HA3 5EE on Wednesday 9 Nov.

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