Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Half a century of headlines: “Topic” celebrates fifty years of respected journalism

Half a century ago this week, on Thursday, 11 November, 1971, the first copies of Topic appeared in newsagents’ shops in Mullingar and surrounding areas of Westmeath.

To say that this newspaper had small beginnings would definitely be an understatement.

The first edition was a mini sized publication, and at the time, few would have seen it as something capable of growing into a weekly newspaper. However, as is so often said, making a start is half the battle, and year by year, progress was made, the production system was improved, circulation increased and Topic continued to grow.

The newspaper’s story really began less than six months earlier in mid 1971, when a new firm, Express Print, opened for business in a County Council building located behind the Old Mullingar Infirmary (housing the Westmeath Library Headquarters), on the Dublin Road in Mullingar. The founders of the company were Albert Morris, Dick Hogan and Tommy Kiernan, all of whom had been working for years with the Westmeath Examiner newspaper, with the fourth, a local businessman Michael Eivers.

Just how much everything (particularly the cost of living) has changed in half a century can be gleaned from the fact that the rent being paid by Express Print for the use of the unoccupied store on the Dublin Road, Mullingar was the princely sum of £2 a week – which would probably equate to something like €150 in 2021. And it was through the helpfulness at the time of Co. Council officials, the late Christy Kiernan and the late Aidan Golden, that the business premises was obtained and a start could be made.

The building where Topic began in 1971 was in what is now a public carpark, but was then the yard behind the Old Infirmary Buildings (used as the County Library Headquarters). The business was located on the left,  in an unoccupied building, the property of Westmeath Council in the yard, until it moved to Lynn Industrial Estate a decade later.

With a compositor, a journalist and a printer from the local newspaper, starting the business as a printing firm, the idea of a local publication of some kind soon surfaced. Even if it was in difficult economic times, it was felt that the community could be provided with an additional voice, and a forum, reflecting the views and opinions of the local people.

However, even though there was sufficient scope within the community for an extra publication of some kind as a forum for this purpose, at the time, Express Print had neither the resources nor the scope to produce a conventional style newspaper. So it was that Topic took shape as it did – using the lithographic printing process for the first time in Mullingar. This allowed for the inclusion of far more photographs than the ordinary letterpress newspapers, (which all were at the time), could provide.

After the first week, it became clear that the publication couldn’t continue without a larger page size, but to achieve this on the small (and only) job printing machine available meant that in the first year, each edition of the weekly paper, the 1,500 to 2,000 copies produced, had to be finished by hand-stapling all the pages together! For all involved it was not unlike old style Chinese torture, and needed late nights and voluntary help. In hindsight, it is obvious that the weekly production shouldn’t really have succeeded, but optimism, doggedness, determination, and stickability saw it continue. The help, support and loyalty of friends and regular weekly columnists made a huge difference in the first few years.

Probably the most valuable help was provided by the late Bob Acton, a great friend of Topic, whose photographs each week, often several dozen of them, became a major attraction in those early days. It was something other newspapers couldn’t provide at the time, and thus attracted readers, as did the early columnists, like the late Johnny Molloy, Máire Walsh, Rosalind Brown (Brian Boru), J. J. McGrath, Etna Molloy, John Sheehy, Michael Mallon – and more. Sadly, so many of them have departed, but they haven’t been forgotten, or the contributions they made. Those early contributors and supporters helped Topic to survive in difficult times.

Apart from outrageous levels of commitment and working hours, the other factors which greatly helped included some invaluable advertising, when the ESB advertised the Rural Electrification Scheme for most of Westmeath in 1972, and the Irish Army advertised for an input of recruits. These proved real business-savers, as did the 1971 changeover in currency from the old sterling system of pounds, shillings and pence, to the decimal currency, of pounds and pence. Being able to charge 6p (new pence) a copy, rather than the old 6d meant a great deal, when every pound counted. It helped to keep a dubious looking bank manager happy, a few staff employed and keep bread on the table (if in meagre amounts!).

The cover of issue 1 of “Topic” Magazine.

Within less than a handful of years, just two of the principals in the business remained, but the need to survive, belief that things would improve and loyal support, kept things going. And things did improve. Even though he had moved on from Topic within a matter of years, and set up his own printing firm in Patrick Street, Mullingar, Wexford man Albert Morris always retained an interest in the paper, and up to last summer, a matter of months before his much regretted death in September last, he was still a frequent visitor and proud of the fact that the paper had survived for five decades. The late Michael Eivers, who had left the company within a short time and went on to open a business in London, sadly died at a young age, following an accident.

Several significant changes came about in the first decade, when Topic became the first newspaper in the midlands to editionise, with an edition titled Offaly Topic making its appearance in order to cater for the needs of Offaly readers and some years later a Meath edition was produced, catering for the south Meath area. More than a quarter of a century ago, the first editions of Athlone Topic appeared. As can be seen, Topic expanded in several directions over the decades, and all of these presented new challenges that needed to be overcome.

The Mullingar business and printworks moved to a new premises in Lynn Industrial Estate about four decades ago, and from there, moved in 1995 to their present business premises in Dominick Street, in the town centre.

Over the decades, many dozens of people have worked with Topic Newspapers and quite a few have begun their careers in the paper and made their mark elsewhere, particularly in the world of journalism, having moved on to greener and more prominent pastures. Such is the nature of things.

SOME REMAIN, MANY HAVE GONE
Looking back half century at the editions of Topic in the first year, and at the businesses in Mullingar and in the area who advertised in the early 1970s in the paper, it is another sign of the times that just a small number of the businesses are still there. They include the town’s longest serving hairdressers, Michael Daly’s (Austin Friars St), Whelan’s Fuel Merchants (now in Lynn Industrial Estate), Treanor’s of Pearse Street; Seamus Gibney (stonemason), Fagan’s of Pearse Street, Caffrey’s Bar in Mount Street (then called Larry’s), O’Sullivan’s Menswear and Swarbrigg’s Shoe Shop, Oliver Plunkett St., The Bridge Bar (Austin Friars St., Gilleran’s of Harbour Street; Shay Murtagh’s Concrete Products (Riverdale), Raharney, The Beech Tree, Streamstown and The Rustic Inn, Abbeyshrule.

Others, like Millmount Shopping Centre (now Buckley’s Centra); Tom Bermingham’s (then O’Donnell’s Menswear); Donoghue’s Central Shoe Store (now Cordner’s), Finn’s Lounge, Austin Friars St (now The Crossed Keys); McEvilly’s Pharmacy (now O’Briens); Weir’s Pharmacy; Christy Maye, The Greville Arms (then Disc A Go Go); Broders’ Hotel (now The Newbury) and Dermot Graham (formerly of J & D. Graham’s Electrical) are still in business, but many businesses with changed ownership.

A great many others who were advertisers back then have gone, like the popular Mullally’s Bakery, Dominick Street (then in the building where Topic is now located), Owen McHugh’s Supermarket; Fox’s The Cash Stores; the Hibernian Cinema, (Castle St); Eddie Byrne’s Bee-Plan Furniture; Chris Fitzsimons (Timber) Ltd., (Grove Street); Godwin’s (M. Frayne’s) Pearse Street; The Ennell Lounge, Joe Harte’s Undertaker and Taxi Service; the late Paddy Fagan’s Lake County Hotel; McDee’s Garage, Patrick St.; Bellview Service Station, Dublin Road; Gallagher’s of Oliver Plunkett Street, McCormick’s Restaurant, Oliver Plunkett Street; Heatherville House, Kinnegad; St. Michael’s Cinema, Castlepollard; Joseph Clarke & Sons., Builders, Castletown Geo., Lizann’s Boutique; Healy Brothers Drapery; Reynolds’ Jewellers, Green Bridge; Hughes’ of The Corner House; Manny’s of Dysart and so many more.

Mullingar and Westmeath, and the wider midlands have seen huge changes over the years and hopefully, Topic has contributed something to all those it has sought to serve since 1971. In 1972, we wrote that “newspapers and similar publications now tend to be controlled by a smaller and smaller number of large organisations” and we saw it as a most “unwelcome development.” Then, the newspaper industry in Ireland was still locally owned and produced, and was proud of its independence. Now so much has changed because successive governments and elected politicians over the decades gave the powerful free rein to wipe out or swallow up the “little people”, whether they were shopkeepers, farmers, newspapers or whatever.

Independence of thought and expression are now often frowned upon, and basic democracy has been greatly eroded in 2021, and on the island of Ireland now, there’s very few newspapers that still retain their full independence and ownership. Topic is today the only weekly newspaper in Ireland still locally owned, locally produced and locally printed in the same building, and hopefully it can continue to do so, even though the challenges are now greater than ever. Providing scope for independence of thought and expression, and seeking answers are today often viewed with suspicion or even hostility.

Topic will remain at the service of the community as long as it is permitted to do so, and continues to receive the support it needs.

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