Pa McAdam--The Grandfather I Never Knew
My maternal grandfather, Pa McAdam, died two years before I was born. Somehow
I grew up with the notion that I had only one grandfather. My paternal
grandfather is almost totally lost, very little of him remaining in family lore.
He was a builder by trade, according to a somewhat tattered church certificate.
He also died before my birth, but when I don't know.
Aside from the fact that Pa is central to the Vindicator story, I
wonder why the sudden interest in grandparents? A current television commercial
peddling God knows what--I always switch the sound off when commercials are
shown--concentrates on an elderly man and a young boy, obviously granddad and
grandchild, and its images have triggered the memory cells, electrons in the
brain ricochetting left to right, picking up long forgotten references to my
mother's dad, known to my older brothers but not to me, the youngest of four
"Do you remember when Pa....."
"Pa always said...."
"I'll never forget the day Pa...."
No, I don't remember. I never heard him say anything. And whatever happened
that day, I wasn't there.
Pa. He was Pa to his family, and to everybody else except when formally
Pa, it appears, was more than a character. A one-man institution is more like
it. That's what comes through from their stories, and even from an old
sepia-toned photograph of Pa wearing moustache, homburg hat, pearl stickpin, and
showing a self-assured steadiness of eye, looking straight at the camera lens.
There is a slight corpulence of body detectable, but he was not portly.
Anybody who worked so hard throughout his life could not carry too much
averdepois. Age? Advanced middle years. As to height nothing is revealed.
His children, my mother, my aunts, but more particularly my uncles, were not
tall, hence the ready assumption that Pa himself missed the six-foot mark by
some inches. By all accounts, lack of tallness in no way detracted from his
At the time the photograph was taken he had achieved a measure of success as
a newspaperman, the founding editor and proprietor of three newspapers in
north-west Ireland, "The Donegal Vindicator", "The Tyrone Herald",
and the "Derry Weekly News", all now vanished into archives in London and
Dublin. As an aside, a goodly number of the files on microfilm are available
through the Internet.
Surprisingly, when I went to locate that photograph of Pa, so carefully
preserved over the decades, in order to publish it with "The Vindicator Story",
I discovered it had gone missing. One possible explanation is that its subject
too had disappeared, no doubt in a spiritually symbolistic manner, still at
large, still reporting, still seeking news as "The Peripatetic Pressman on the
Prowl". That was the title of his weekly column which appeared in the
"Vin" for years and years.
Born in Scotland of Irish ancestry, the young John McAdam made his
journalistic debut in sad circumstances. My knowledge of him begins when he was
in his teens, serving his apprenticeship to a pawnbroker. As such, one of his
duties was to collect and return items lodged by temporarily penniless art
students at St. Mungo's Academy, an art college in Glasgow which enjoyed quite a
high reputation. Somehow or other, he managed to gain admittance to the drawing
classes where he displayed a good hand with an enviable talent for detail. All
through his life he retained two samples of his work which, when I first saw
them, hung in the living room of our home over the offices of the Vin.
Mounted in the ornate wooden frames of the time, one was a stylised drawing of
St. Patrick, crozier in hand, wearing, surprisingly, the nineteenth century
vestments of a bishop, and the other a striking Ecce Homo, the
thorn-crowned head of Christ before his crucifixion.
At the time he had a special chum with whom he was accustomed to spend his
leisure time on walks through the city. One evening as he was on his way to meet
his chum, he was alerted to an accident by the shouts of spectators. Somebody
had fallen and was drowning in the Broomielaw.
The drowning person had disappeared by the time Pa arrived on the scene, so
he went on to meet his chum. His friend never appeared. Pa went home. Next day
he learned that it was his friend who had drowned. He was grief stricken.
Pa put pen to paper to record his thoughts. The pen took over, and Pa wrote
his first article. He titled it "The Appointment", and slipped it in the letter
box of the "Glasgow Herald". Unsigned. Next day the article appeared,
with a footnote from the editor asking its unnamed writer to contact him at the
newspaper office. Pa went. The sequel was lifelong.
After learning his trade as a cub reporter in Glasgow--apprentice was the
term then in vogue--Pa eventually found his way to Tuam, in Ireland, where he
worked for a time as a reporter on the "Tuam Herald". According to
Cristín Leach, a great great granddaughter of Pa, whose thesis for her M.A. in
Journalism, completed in 1998, was on one of Pa's daughters, Eily McAdam, the
"Tuam Herald's" 150th commemorative edition, published in 1987, recorded
that John McAdam was a reporter on that paper in 1888. There his style of
writing, vigorous, forthright, and his personality, caught the attention of
leaders among the Irish Land League, then engaged in the fight to rescue poor
Irish tenants from the avarice of absentee English landlords.
Donegal was one of the most economically depressed counties in the country,
and the local Land Leaguers lacked a media outlet for their grievances. The only
Donegal newspaper of the day was "The Donegal Independent", mouthpiece of
the ascendancy class, and whose editor was one Samuel Delmage Trimble. To
counter Trimble the Land League invited Pa to Donegal where he founded "The
Donegal Vindicator". The first issue was dated February 4, 1889.
Charles Stewart Parnell had launched his "Plan of Campaign" in that year, and
the Vindicator was promoted by the local branch of the Parnellite organisation
as an organ of the tenant-rights movement.
Mr. William O'Brien M.P., one of the leading nationalist parliamentarians of
the day, writing in his paper "United Ireland", noted the debut of the
"Vindicator", and under the heading "Light for Dark Donegal" wrote:
"There is a sound manly ring about it which we like--a ring that bodes badly
for the rack-renters and exterminators of that long suffering county."
To return briefly to McAdam's Scottish roots, he was born in Glasgow in 1856.
This meant he was 33 years of age in 1889 when he landed in Ballyshannon. He
married an Elizabeth Brown, whose family may have been teachers, and who gave
birth to three daughters and two sons. His eldest daughter, Marie, and my own
mother, Elizabeth Brown McAdam (Lizzie), are known to have been born in
Scotland, mother's birthplace being given as Greenock. His eldest son John was
also born in Scotland, and the younger boys, James Brown McAdam and Alex Brown
McAdam (Dolly), in Donegal, in 1890 and 1891 respectively. According to Cristín
Leach, Pa's own mother, Mary McAdam, "a native of Donegal", was listed in the
1901 census as living with her son in Ballyshannon. She was then 90 years of
age. In passing, I understand she died as the result of her clothes catching
fire in an an accidental blaze in the kitchen at No. 7, East Port, the postal
address of the Vindicator.
After the death of his first wife, Pa, at age 40, remarried, his second wife
being Mary Ann Dalton, who was a singer with the D'Oyly Carte light opera
company, famed for its lengthy experience in the production of Gilbert and
Sullivan operettas. The name Dalton has a long association with the Irish stage,
the playwright Louis Dalton being one of them. As a young boy I was taken by
mother to a production of "East Lynne" in Bundoran, in which a pair of Daltons,
mother and daughter, starred. Summer theatre by touring companies was a staple
of life in the 1930s, and a few members of an older generation still fondly
remember Agnew McMaster, the doyen of Shakespearean touring actors, who
introduced the English bard's works to culture-starved provincial audiences.
When the Dalton duo visited us at home in Ballyshannon their stage presence left
an indelible impression on one small boy--real live actresses with manners to
match! Out of a sense of noblesse oblige, I attended a Louis Dalton play
as late as 1996, mounted by the Tara Players in Ottawa, Canada. "The Money
Doesn't Matter", though not his best work, still had worn well.
By the time of his second marriage, Pa was firmly established as proprietor
and editor not only of the Vindicator but of the "Derry Weekly
News" and the "Tyrone Herald". Thus, when a second family arrived,
three daughters, Eily, Kathleen, and Norah, he was in a financial position to
assure them of a university education, from which all three successfully emerged
with degrees. Their lives are chronicled later on in this story.
To finish this portion of Pa's family life, he brought his new wife to
Ballyshannon, and her mother, also Mary Ann, who lived at No. 33 East Port, at
age 68 in 1901. It is of interest to note that the three girls of the second
marriage often used Dalton as their middle names, probably to differentiate
themselves from the Brown middle name of the first family, a possible first sign
of later squabbling among step-families.
A final note on one of the premises listed above. Number 7 East Port, a
street more familiarly known as
"the Purt", was occupied by a
Dan Duffy some 20 years prior to its housing Pa, his two families, and his
newspaper works. Ground rent on the site was being paid as late as 1950 to an
English estate until my father negotiated an end to it.
Pa wasted no time in locking horns with Samuel Delmage Trimble, the editor of
the "Donegal Independent. That Dickens had limned both editors in
"Pickwick Papers" forty years before does not appear to have impaired their
In the second number of the "Vindicator" he took a sighting shot in
what was to be a long duel:
"His style is unique and incomparable. As a pure and simple lie the article
is a failure, because to be a modified success a lie must have a foundation,
however slight, and such is lacking in this vile and monstrous fabrication."
But Sam was no mean adversary.
"Leaving out the brutality of such a remark"--some item in a McAdam
editorial--"which could only emanate from the most ignorant and bigoted of
mortals, we can truly say a more atrocious lie was never penned."
Judging by what followed, they were still being polite to each other, but
editorial bombards drew editorial broadsides. The clash and clang of editorial
broadswords rang out, week after week, month after month, year after year, until
Mr. Trimble sold out and the "Independent" later came under Mr. McAdam's
control and was merged with the "Vindicator".
Heartened by his success, Pa went on to found his two other papers, the
"Derry Weekly News" and the "Tyrone Herald", and in the process
over-reached his capacity to weather economic downturns. The advent of Partition
in the 1920s, and the artificially drawn border between the Irish Free State and
Stormont's Six Counties, spelled the beginning of the end of the "Vin's"
sister papers. Although their copyrights were preserved, they became mere
To Hugh Curran, for many years chief political correspondent of "The Irish
Times", we are indebted for a professional's account of McAdam's trials,
difficulties and successes, in the first years of the "Vin's" existence.
In "A Journalist's Memories of Ballyshannon", printed in the Christmas issue on
December 1, 1940, he recalled his entry to journalism under McAdam's tutelage
fifty years previously.
Curran recounted that when a stray copy of one of the first issues of the
"Vin" came into his hands he felt prompted to send its editor "some
contributions in prose" after which "came a letter from the Editor with a
request for a talk. Other developments followed quickly." Mayhap Pa remembered
his own call to the "Glasgow Herald" many years before.
In his memoir Curran covered many facets of McAdam's character and abilities.
Under a subheading "An Editor's Difficulties" he wrote:
"Looking back over the long vista of nearly half a century at the year spent
with the "Vindicator" one's main thought is of gratitude for the
opportunity it afforded for getting one's foot on the first rung of the
journalistic ladder, for the insight it gave into what till then were the
mysteries of newspaper production. But particularly, with one's greater
experience of modern methods, one cannot with-hold an expression of admiration
at the success achieved in those remote days with the crudest of equipment,
obsolete machinery, and almost complete lack of mechanical accessories that go
to the make-up of an even moderately efficient plant. Then, as now, those things
needed money, and--McAdam was not a millionaire. If he lacked cash, however, he
had resourcefulness and versatility which money could not buy. In many respects
he was the most remarkable man I have ever met. No difficulty, mechanical or
financial, could baulk him once his mind was set on any particular purpose. If
the ancient flat-bed machine sulked and refused to print, as it often did, and
if the available mechanical doctor pronounced the disease fatal, as I often
heard him do, Mr. McAdam took off his jacket.....(the photostat available is
blurred at this point but no doubt the text told what I heard said many times,
that Pa entered the innards of Mary Anne, an ancient flatbed printing press,
spanner in hand, and when he emerged, the press was, to continue with Hugh
Curran's article)...for the time, at all events, set right.
"With all the many drawbacks in type, machinery, in personnel, it easily can
be imagined that the process of "going to press" was an experiment that might or
might not be attended with disaster....
"What motive power is now used to produce the "Vindicator" I do not
know, but in those days man power was sufficient to turn the "fly-wheel". In
this it was the privilege of the cub-reporter to take his share. There were no
Trade Union inhibitions and so he could also set his "stick" of type, or help to
print off a poster on the hand machine. In fact he had his turn at every aspect
of the job including the writing of editorials and reading proofs. The whole
business was one great adventure, full of novelty and never-ending variety.
"And here I should like to pay a tribute to McAdam's genius as a news
gatherer. He knew everybody in Ballyshannon, and in the surrounding area where
his paper circulated; was familiar with every phase of local life; every
happening, big or little, was the subject of a news paragraph. On an evening
before publication he would hie him to the local billiards saloon and come back
with a column of local items on his shirt cuff!"
Curran had a further memory of Pa's ability in recruiting talent from the
regional pool of writers, some of whom were to make their mark in a variety of
spheres in later years. And here, even at this late date, one must take issue
with one of them who, having attained success in later years, cast a slur on the
young "Vindicator" and its founder. As narrated by Curran:
"A notable characteristic of the Editor of the "Vindicator" was his genius
for gathering around him young enthusiasts who showed an aptitude for writing.
At the time I speak of these included Seamus McManus, a man who has since made a
name far beyond the confines of Donegal."
That Pa had opened the pages of the Vin to the young McManus has been
duly acknowledged by him in his book "The Rocky Road to Dublin", a first edition
of which was recently offered for sale for $100 by a Canadian dealer in rare
books. In preening the account of his early success as "the Vindicator's
own poet laureate", McManus asserted that its circulation was strictly limited.
While researching other material at the British Museum's newspaper holdings at
Collingwood, my brother Brian happened on the second issue of the Vin--the first
had gone missing--in which a notice appeared offering to buy back any available
copies of the previous week's paper at the original price price of one
penny--and detailed that the original run was 1,000 copies. It added that the
second weekly run had been boosted to 1,500 copies to meet public demand. In the
1880s in Donegal this was quite an achievement.
Sixty years after he penned his memories of Ballyshannon and the
Vindicator, credit is due to Hugh Curran for revealing one somewhat
significant fact about the paper's place in the public life of the country.
Although consigned to history, the politics of the era reflected the mores of
the times in matters matrimonial. In our own age, political leaders have earned
opprobrium for moral failures. Recent and current examples show some have the
audacity to cling to office and even flaunt their mistresses in public, with
little regard for the trust conferred on them by the office they hold. The press
they disdain, and attempt to treat with arrogance those who elected them to high
office. But in simple fact "the Emperor--(King, Leader, or what have you)--has
The event on which Hugh Curran shed light was, of course, the Parnell affair.
Charles Stewart Parnell, "the uncrowned king of Ireland", had entered into a
liaison with the wife of one of his own parliamentary supporters. His affair was
exposed. Politics erupted in a boil. Regrettably the country was split into
Parnellite and Anti-Parnellite factions. The Parnellites wanted him to stay as
leader, in effect to stare down his opponents who wanted him to resign.
As told by Curran:
"During my year with the "Vindicator" the great Parnell Split was in full
blast. McAdam ranged himself with the opponents of the Chief [Parnell], and
fought tooth and nail against the local Parnellites. He had a strong backer in
the then young Bishop of Raphoe, Most Rev. Dr. O'Donnell, who afterwards became
Cardinal Archbishop of Armagh. It will not be considered a breach of confidence
at this distance in time to disclose the fact that not a few of the leading
articles which appeared in the "Vindicator" of those days were written by Dr.
So, a future Cardinal was a leader writer for the Vin. Not bad! It may
explain my own lack of reverence for episcopal rank in a later story about a
subsequent Bishop of Raphoe who once spent some time with a lady of my
acquaintance, in her boudoir no less. Horrors! (This is known as a teaser to
maintain the interest of the prurient and the gullible.)
Returning from the national to the parochial, Curran in lighter vein told of
two local battles that took place during his year in Ballyshannon, one that may
be termed the Battle of the Posters, and the other celebrated in poetry, "The
Battle of Mullinashee". Anyone familiar with newspapers knows it was long the
custom for each paper to print a contents poster, designed to catch the
attention of passers-by and tempt them to buy a copy of that week's issue.
As told by Curran, both the "Independent" and "Vindicator" were
running serial stories, a popular feature in weeklies at that time. In his own
"The "Independent's" was a story called "Who Killed John Cameron?" and the
"Vindicator" was concentrating on the story of the notorious Burke and Hare. The
"Independent" plastered the walls with a poster which read "Who Killed John
Cameron? Read the Donegal Independent." When McAdam saw this he brought out
another poster with the words "Burke and Hare: See the Vindicator". With this he
caused the "Independent" posters to be covered in such a way that what the
public read was--
WHO KILLED JOHN CAMERON?
BURKE AND HARE
READ THE "VINDICATOR"
The next quotation has a churchly tingle, and may be familiar in local lore
to the worshippers at St. Anne's Church, which overlooks the town of
"Robert Lipsett, owner of a big business in Main Street, I remember in
connection with the Church dispute about the admission to Mullinashee Church of
the memorial to District Inspector Martin who met his death when Father McFadden
was arrested at Gweedore. This memorial plaque contained some emblem which in
Lipsett's opinion was contrary to Church law. He was a Low Church Evangelical
and as such was opposed to anything savouring of ritualism. When attempts were
made to bring the memorial into the church Lipsett was there with his men
barring the way. After several of these attempts, success was ultimately
obtained, whether by strategy or by accommodation I do not remember. The affair
was subsequently celebrated in verse by the late E. C. Matthews who wrote a poem
entitled "The Battle of Mullinashee" after the style of Macauley's "Battle of
Lake Regillus". This appeared in the "Vindicator" about this time."
Hugh Curran was in every sense "a gentleman of the Press", courtly, trusted
in the highest political circles, and impartial. Would that the same could be
said of more of his successors. I met him but once, when I was a lad of 18 about
to embark on my own career in journalism.
Recently I re-aquired a letter which he wrote to my father in January 1945,
and his opening address "My dear Ward" shows much of the manner of the man. In
it he tells of handing a copy of the "Vin" to then Minister of Industry,
Sean Lemass, and drawing his attention to Dad's leader on the prospect of future
employment for thousands on the planned Erne hydro-electricity project. "I
gather", he added, "that you are settling down to the inevitable, and that the
scheme will go through. It may turn out to be not such a disaster to the
Friendly Town after all." Naturally, he added that Lemass's reply was to be
considered confidential, and the confidence was not broken, nor will it be now.
The inevitable became reality, and the scheme, though providing much needed
electric power, became an environmental disaster.
These were the recollections of Pa as penned by one of his contemporaries, a
pen picture of the young, nationalist, crusading journalist who had undertaken
to defend a still economically downtrodden people. His pugnacity and
determination brought success but, as events unfolded, his chosen courses did
not always meet with the approval of the authorities, be they British or Irish.
At their hands he and his family suffered.
In broad outline, his newspaper, the "Vindicator", remained
nationalist and constitutionalist. It followed Redmond when Redmond pledged
Ireland to Belgium's cause at the outbreak of the First World War. Redmond and
his parliamentary party had won passage of legislation to establish Home Rule
for Ireland, and accepted its being placed in abeyance until the end of the war,
"a war to defend small nations". McAdam's two sons and a son-in-law answered the
call for recruits and served overseas, inducing a position which would be a
paradox anywhere but in Ireland.
With all the males of military age abroad, much of the work entailed in
running the Vindicator was done by his daughters, especially Eily, who later
surreptitiously produced a Republican broadsheet, An Dáil, during Pa's weekly
absences in Derry where he had established the "Derry Weekly News".
Suspected of connivance by the British military, and the target of anger from
Republicans for his adherence to Redmondite policy, the "Vindicator" came
under a cross-fire of raids and reprisals.
It might be claimed as a certificate of impartial candour, or a tribute to
his personal character, that his premises were raided, plant dismantled, and
files commandeered by three armies: the British, the Free State, and the I.R.A.
He himself was threatened, shot at, and driven to a midnight escape in the
fast-flowing Erne river at the rear of his printing works.
Unlike Oliver St. John Gogarty, who escaped his abductors by plunging into
the River Liffey and swimming to safety, a highly publicised deed of derring-do
during the Civil War that plagued the early years of independence, Pa did not
make an offering of swans to the god of Old Man Erne in thankfulness for his
good fortune. Had he done so, they might well have been swept over Assaroe
As a witness thirty years on, before the Circuit Court in Donegal Town, I
testified to the disappearance of one of the seized files, in a case concerning
Bundoran Urban Council by-laws. And I was there when some of the printer's type
thrown into the Erne by the British Army was recovered by my uncle John from the
dried-up river bed, in the 1950s.
McAdam remained to the end an indomitable cavalier, crusader, pioneer, an
adventurous individualist, and in many ways too big, too vivid, for the stage on
which he played his part in Donegal. It was no coincidence that Northcliffe,
precursor of the Murdochs, Blacks, and O'Reilly's of the present, should notice
him and offered him a good post paying more than he could hope to earn in
Ballyshannon. For those interested in minutiae, it may assist to know that
McAdam defied Bottomley to a libel action on Victory Bonds long before the
matter became a national sensation.
One family saying preserves something of the flavour of the man. According to
Pa, "There's more business done over one glass of whiskey than over a churn full
He demonstrated this in a practical way. When I occupied the editor's office
there was a wooden press set into an alcove behind my chair, and behind the
press there was a wooden panel. The panel concealed a sliding door. The door
opened into the snug of McCarvill's pub. Need I say more? When Pa wanted to
entertain a visitor, all he had to do was rap on the sliding door. McCarvill, by
the way, did not serve buttermilk.
This was Pa, Pa McAdam, the grandfather I never saw, never met, never heard,
the grandfather who somehow still projects a powerful image many decades after
his death which took place, fittingly, after a sudden heart attack in his own
editorial sanctum. As he lay on a couch in the office, he joked with the nurse
who had been hurriedly summoned to attend him: "Nurse, you needn't worry. You
won't have to close my eyes when I'm gone. I'll do it now." And he did. And, he
That last comma is deliberate. All his life he advised aspirants: "If you
want to write, read Ruskin." Ruskin was a master of punctuation, which he used
liberally. Even today the advice has pertinence.
A final pen picture of Pa, written by my eldest brother Charlie, will appear
later in this Home Page. Meanwhile, a studio photograph of Pa taken in Glasgow
shows him as a young man with the world still before him.
Click for larger image
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