Newspaperman known for his passion for Sligo and contempt for the powerful
Séamus Finn, the former editor of the Sligo Champion who has died aged 70, was as a cub reporter banned by Sligo Rovers from their home turf, the Showgrounds – a unique achievement, according to his longtime colleague and friend Jim Gray.
Finn had felt no need to mince his words when reporting on how Rovers, a full-time professional team in 1969, got dumped out of the FAI Cup after a dismal defeat by lowly non-league side Longford Town. When he showed up for his next assignment at the Showgrounds he was told he was no longer welcome in the press box.
Typically he fought back, mustering the support of the National Union of Journalists to such a degree that no reporter, local or national, would cover a Rovers game, and soon the ban was lifted.
It was the first of many scraps with authority throughout a long career characterised by an insistence on balance, a zeal for highlighting injustice, and a passion for getting Sligo a better deal from those in power.
Séamus, whose parents John and Bridget ran a shop on Holborn Street, showed a talent for writing as a student in Summerhill College. In October 1968, he was recruited by Tom Palmer, editor of the Sligo Champion.
It was the beginning of a 41-year career with the newspaper. The Sligo man was just 24 when he became the youngest editor in the country. He retired in 2009.
His tenure was marked by many agenda-setting campaigns in support of issues such as better hospital services and a third bridge for Sligo, as well as successful appeals on behalf of local families who had encountered great personal tragedies.
In 2004, he won the national Connacht Gold/John Healy award for his campaigning reportage on the provision of the
The bemused priest was told gruffly that when Bishop Dominic was editor he could decide what goes into the ‘Sligo Champion’
Kazelain project, a facility for ex-offenders and others in need, which was not universally welcomed in the community.
Kieran Devaney a former Channel 4 and Sky TV journalist, believes his friend could have edited “any newspaper in the world” but he chose to remain in his home town.
Devaney recalls Sligo exiles in London queuing up every Saturday to buy the Champion at Archway tube station. “His column On the Line was a lifeline for Sligo people,” said Devaney .
Finn’s devotion to his late wife Sheila, who battled cancer alongside him for years, and his talent for photography were hallmarks of a life busy even apart from journalism.
Tommie Gorman, RTÉ’s Northern editor, got his first byline from Finn when, as a journalism student, he did a placement with the Sligo Champion. Gorman says that like John McGahern, Finn was “dedicated to the local”. He remembers an editor with a “fiercely independent side” who was not afraid to be an outsider. “He was brave,” said Gorman.
At a time when society still baulked at any challenge to the Catholic Church, Finn took the opposing view during the divisive abortion amendment campaign in 1983. An unfortunate priest was sent to the editor’s office as an envoy for the late bishop of Elphin Dominic Conway, with a request that the bishop’s views on the matter be used “as is” in the following edition.
The proffered statement was quickly scanned before being tossed into the bin, while the bemused priest was told gruffly that when Dominic was editor he could decide what goes into the Sligo Champion.
Anyone with the temerity to arrive into the editor’s office pleading for a court case to be kept out of the paper was met with an equally terse response.
While colleagues such as Jim Gray and his twin brother Leo, who went on to be editor and sports editor respectively at the Champion, admired Finn’s writing and integrity, younger reporters were less sure of themselves with the sometimes gruff editor, who never showed much enthusiasm for promoting women journalists.
Yet his love of a good story and his wry humour won him many admirers.
He is survived by sons Séamus (Barcelona) and Kevin (Australia), his sisters Eileen (Washington), Mary (Dublin) and Breege (Sligo), his grandson Ilan, daughters-in-law Keren and Ester and extended family.
‘Dedicated to the local’