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Frank McDonald: 'I wanted to paint a picture of Ireland in the 50s and 60s - it was a different country'

We talked to the retired journalist about writing his memoirs.

17 Frank & Eamon

WHEN JOURNALIST FRANK McDonald and his partner of 40 years got married in Dublin’s Botanic Gardens in 2016, their wedding wasn’t just a reflection of their love for each other, but of how Ireland has changed over those decades.

When they met, Frank and his now-husband Eamon Slater had to conduct a fairly clandestine relationship, when in public at least. The Ireland they fell in love in was not a friendly place if you were gay.

For one, it was illegal for you to be sexually active. When McDonald came of age in 1960s and 70s Dublin, to meet other men usually meant going to parks in the dark, or to specific public toilets, or to known gay-friendly bars.

In his newly-published book Truly Frank: A Dublin Memoir, McDonald is – of course – frank in detailing these nascent romances. He’s honest, too, when recounting his journey from student journalist and would-be politician to actual journalist at the Irish Press, later at the Irish Times, and later again the author of a book that detailed, as it said in its title, the Destruction of Dublin.

40 Pic taken by John Meagher Eamon Slater and Frank McDonald on their wedding day in 2016. Source: John Meagher

McDonald is honest about the highs and lows of his career so far, detailing the times he visited an editor’s office to complain about a colleague’s infraction, or about his work on pinning developers for their behaviour around Irish planning.

He says what has struck a lot of readers hardest is his depiction of such a socially un-liberal Ireland. “There’s been a great reaction from people I know certainly, and even people I don’t know – I’ve had letters from people, I’ve had an email from a 76-year-old guy from Dublin who now lives in Prague with his Czech male partner,” the author, now retired from the Irish Times, tells TheJournal.ie.

“I just think that’s one of the most important things about the book in a way – painting that picture of what it was like back in the 1950s and 60s, and how different it was to the Ireland today. It really was a different country.”

The first photo in the book is of his devoted Catholic parents in 1948 on their wedding day. The last picture is of him and Eamon on their wedding day, a year after the equal marriage referendum. 

That in itself is a metaphor for how Ireland has changed … and I suppose I’ve lived through it all.

Truly Frank high-res

It’s a book he says he couldn’t have written 10 years ago, pre-referendum.

“I think the referendum really changed everything and on the day that we got married after being together for 40 years we both acknowledged that this was only happening thanks to generosity of our fellow citizens,” says McDonald. “Change comes dripping slowly – the pace of change has picked up with the repeal of the 8th amendment as well, which of course I voted for, and a whole lot of other things.”

‘I couldn’t have imagined the Dáil doing it’

In the book, he details being in London aged 17 in 1967, when the Sexual Offences Act decriminalised homosexual acts in private between men. “I couldn’t imagine the Dáil doing anything of the sort ever,” he says now.

“What was really wonderful about it was that it wasn’t the Dáil that did it or the courts – it was the people who did it [voted for same-sex marriage in Ireland]. You know,that was what was so moving.”

It was “really challenging but also therapeutic” to record what it was like growing up, says McDonald. ”Because a lot of younger people wouldn’t know anything about that and a lot of older people identified so much with it and remembered what it was like. And I suppose I’m not sure too many other people have actually put that kind of stuff on record really. The underground culture that existed, really, it was just hidden away you know.”

10 with guitar, Xmas 1967 Aged 10 with his guitar. Source: Frank McDonald

To have to be hidden away for so long, you’d imagine this would forever have an impact on someone’s psyche. “I’m still working on it,” says McDonald. “I mean it’s a legacy that that one would prefer in a way not to have but on the other hand I couldn’t avoid writing about it – and yes some of it was sordid but I don’t think I have written about it in a salacious manner.”

And you know that’s one of the reasons why a lot of gay guys would have left Ireland in the 1960s and 70s, because it was such a repressive society in a way and it no longer is.

A career in journalism

McDonald says he never had a plan when it came to his career. He went to UCD aged just 17 to do Arts. He got involved with student journalism and almost got into student politics, but lost out in a vote. He’s never been a member of a political party and rules out ever joining one. 

While in New York, he wrote to contacts in Irish national newspapers and ended up freelancing for the Irish Press aged 22.

He was offered a job two years later in the newspaper as a sub editor. “I didn’t know what a sub editor was,” he recalls. “I had no idea how the stuff I was sending back was getting into print.”

11 Student Union congress, Sligo, 1969 At the Student Union Congress in 1969 Source: Frank McDonald

He moved on to reporting, and while he covered everything from the courts to the Dáil, it was when he started writing about derelict buildings in Dublin that he found his own niche.

“I would be cycling home from the Irish Press at 1am or 4am, when the city is taken over by squawking seagulls, and notice derelict sites all over the place. I reckoned there was a story behind every derelict hoarding and I was right – there was.”

He was encouraged to move to the Irish Times by his friend, the late Caroline Walsh, and ended up working there a few years later. He was commissioned by editor Conor Brady to write a big series of articles about Dublin and the ongoing heritage and planning dramas in 1979. 

Given “the luxury of original research” he was able to get out and about, poring through files and meeting the people at the centre of the story.  This later led to the book The Destruction of Dublin, which looked at planning issues in the capital from the 1950s to the 1980s.

Dublin today

Given McDonald’s role in charting the ‘destruction of Dublin’, he has strong thoughts on how the city is developing heading into 2019. 

Firstly, he’s conscious of his fortunate situation compared to young people today. He bought his first house in Harold’s Cross aged 25. “Now who do you know of the younger generation now who would be in that situation?” he says.

You just think: my God, this is happening at a time when younger people are being screwed to the wall for rent and extortionate rents, and haven’t a hope of buying a home of their own. I think it’s one of the worst things around at the moment.

03 pram, 1950 As a baby in 1950 Source: Frank McDonald

He says he finds it hard to see the way in which public money is being used to subsidise the private sector – housing assistance payments and rent subsidies paid to private landlords – as a response to the housing emergency. 

“When what they need to do is go out there and build affordable housing or provide funding to housing agencies to build affordable housing people can buy,” he says of the government.

“That is the only way future communities can be created – if there is a high degree of owner occupation. That is not the case in Germany or in France or in most continental countries cause tenants are secure. Here they can be turfed out, as many of them have been.”

He’s hugely critical of Airbnb, and says he’s a big supporter of direct action around housing issues. He’s taking part in today’s march organised by Take Back The City.

Throughout his career, McDonald says he “never felt seriously constrained about writing what I saw as the truth, or what I managed to establish was the truth about what was happening at any given time”.

24 with Nick Robinson and priest, 1989 With Nick Robinson and priest in 1989 Source: Frank McDonald

He’s particularly proud of the 2003 series on planning that he wrote with Mark Brennock for the Irish Times. This led to the establishment of a tribunal. “It was not handed as well as it might have been, but at end of the day at least nobody can say there wasn’t corruption – there was,” says McDonald of the tribunal.

He’s retired from the Irish Times, but that isn’t stopping McDonald from continuing to have his say on how Dublin, and Ireland, is doing.

Now, he still writes, but he’s particularly active on Twitter. His most recent tweets and retweets were about some familiar topics – high rent, planning, development, and Dublin city centre’s past. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose, after all. 

Truly Frank: A Dublin Memoir is published by Penguin Ireland available to buy from Dubray Books and bookshops nationwide.

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