For better or worse, journalist Kevin Myers has carved out an undisputed position as one of the most outspoken commentators in the modern Irish media. Ever so slightly petrified, Leanne Waters sits down to talk to the UCD graduate
As I’m walking through the dimly lit café-bar, carrying two overpriced cups of coffee, it occurs to me that my left hand is shaking slightly and spilling hot liquid onto my fingertips; I’m nervous. Why this is so, I’m not entirely sure. After all, it appears that the anticipated fire-breathing creature I’m interviewing has retreated for the time being, and instead I’m sitting opposite a grey-haired man with a shrewd eye and somewhat cavalier smile. Kevin Myers is not what I expected.
Contentious and controversial in his writings, the Irish Independent columnist remains one of the most talked-about journalists in Ireland today. He sits now with a disarming level of composure and patience.
Originally from Leicester in England, Myers turned his attentions to UCD in the late sixties after receiving, as he himself describes, “terrible A levels.” With three years of study under his belt, he graduated with a degree in History in 1969 before pursuing what was to become a tempestuous and widely criticised career in journalism. Apparently never one to shy from his past, Myers talks me through his years spent in UCD during the radical sixties.
“People’s conduct changed greatly. Sex became a kind of normal thing. We assumed that sex was what people did – and we did. But that wasn’t the norm for most people, so it was an exciting time. The music was good. If you listen to the music of that time, it was post-Sergeant Pepper, the Beatles’ White Album. We had lots of fevered conversations through the night, talking until dawn. It’s very innocent and naïve in one sense. But we also smoked dope. It was hard to get, but we did smoke dope.
“It was a political time in the way that students aren’t political anymore. We talked politics all the time. We talked bullshit the whole time, but we were trying our best to learn. What we did was, and I know this now: we learned from one another. We bounced ideas off one another, we got angry together, we agreed together and we disagreed. It was extraordinarily good, extraordinarily informative. And UCD was an exciting place in Dublin, which was a beautiful city.”
At the beginning of the seventies, Myers moved to Belfast, a move that was to change the course of his life and career forever. A novice who “couldn’t write journalism”, he became aware of a vacancy for a reporter in RTÉ’s Belfast newsroom.
Unexpectedly getting the job, Myers entered into Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles. It was to become the most definitive period of his career and introduced the youthful 23-year-old into a world of failed politics and chaotic violence.
The man across from me, now gradually starting to appear more and more aged, describes to me how Northern Ireland was, in many ways, exactly what he wanted it to be.
“I was young and I was full of hormones and I wanted to see what violence was like – and I saw what violence was like. I saw a good number of killings. I wanted to see gun battles, and I got gun battles. I can’t tell you, I found it all heart-wrenching… I found some of it heart-wrenching, but I found a lot of it very exciting. Anyone who’s been in a gun battle will tell you it’s very exciting – provided you survive.”
Though taken aback by this statement, I’m intrigued by its honesty and feel compelled to delve further into the discussion. What I get is an equivocal intermingling of diplomacy and anti-Republicanism. “It was a terrible society”, he explains. “The sense of discrimination and bigotry was extraordinary. It was a sort of apartheid regime. It could have been changed by peaceful methods. Republicans didn’t want peaceful methods and they didn’t want reform; they wanted war. They got the war, and we got twenty-six years of idiocy, twenty-six years of tragedy.”
Outspoken and notably defiant in his opinions, Kevin Myers has earned himself the title of one of the most controversial writers today. His works are so far penetrating that he is known to have received hate mail, and even death threats. Public perception of Myers is forever in a state of turmoil, and at a major junction in his career – after the publication of his infamous ‘Mothers of Bastards’ article in The Irish Times – Myers claimed that he had to be given “round-the-clock Garda protection.”
The article in question, published in February of 2005, caused a frenzy in the media – starting with Vincent Browne’s show on RTÉ and carrying over to radio shows the next morning. From Pat Kenny, to News at One, to Joe Duffy, the hype lasted for days and Myers was attacked by columnists all over the country. The article itself argued how youths were apparently devoting their efforts into “becoming professional unmarried mothers, living off the State until the grave takes over.” It later went on to flirt with the damned term itself: “And how many girls – and we’re largely talking about teenagers here – consciously embark upon a career of mothering bastards because it seems a good way of getting money and accommodation from the State? Ah. You didn’t like the term bastard? No, I didn’t think you would.”
Aware that he had little or no friends in the media at the time, Myers talks me through the ‘Bastards’ scandal and his own regrets of the ordeal. “I certainly would not have done the ‘mothers of bastards’ article. As you will discover, journalists play with words and I was playing with words that particular day and I wanted an acronym for the single mother living on the state. I had all sorts of things and I came up with the term ‘mob’, so I used it – catastrophically, as you know. It wasn’t a particularly good article. It was a bad article.”
Though Myers defends the opinion found beneath the so-assaulted term, he maintains a strong level of regret. It can be argued that many at the time were upset not by the opinion itself, but by its somewhat insensitive execution. Putting this argument forward to Myers himself, he responds,“I think the execution of me was what they had in mind! That’s what it was. Somebody had said, ‘Listen, they were waiting in the long grass for you.’ They were all there – the feminists, the equality merchants, the republicans – they were there. They tore me apart.”
However, by this stage in his long-standing journalistic endeavours, Myers was not a stranger to widely ill-favoured sentiments. In 2003, the George W. Bush administration embarked on a campaign against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq and invaded the country in March of that year. With critics and anti-war activists rampant at the time, Myers shocked the nation by showing support for the move. His regrets for the support he portrayed are all too evident. On this delicate matter, he articulates his logic at the time.
“Knowing what I do of war, my enthusiasm is inexcusable, but I did enthusiastically back the Americans in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and I know why I did that: because people who are being anti-American, I detest so many of them. Because that’s what they do; they’re anti-American. They’re going to oppose America no matter what they do… they take a reflex anti-American position and I took the reflex position opposite theirs, which is really stupid. Don’t allow yourself to be drawn into a position merely because of the opinions of others, just to set yourself up against them. That’s just stupid. And I was stupid.”
Myers’ obvious remorse is difficult to ignore. Though he naturally argues for the necessity of an armed force to take down a murderous regime like that of Hussein, he reflects on his self-confessed deplorable enthusiasm. “I just have to look at my own position there, and I was wrong – not just wrong in supporting the war, but wrong in the way I supported the war… I’m ashamed of myself.”
Despite Kevin Myers’ somewhat fierce public persona, the man now glancing at his empty coffee cup seems altogether human. His unvarnished honesty in discussing his life and career serves only to prove his unyielding advocacy in the upholding of truth. Indeed, Myers remarks that what he deems most worthy in any journalist is “the attempt to be honest the whole time, which sounds awfully pious… We’re human beings and we have a duty to tell the truth. That’s all it comes down to at every level. As historians and journalists, we tell the fucking truth.”
Fierce as he is regularly perceived, Myers concludes by offering somewhat of a defence in terms of his work. “I try to tell the truth, however uncomfortable it is. And it is very uncomfortable… One of my many failings is that I am seduced by words… I know I have hurt people by using words [and] I hate that. I don’t like hurting people.”
Walking away from the interview, I can’t help but feel that a certain level of ignorance has been lost. When reality falls victim to myth, truth becomes distorted and our limited vision allows us to see simply what we want. I glance back at a shrewd-looking grey-haired man driving away, and realise that love him or loath him, Kevin Myers will be watching the door for a long time to come.