DESMOND FISHER (11)

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My father Desmond Fisher edited the Catholic Herald in London’s Fleet Street in the mid-1960s at the time of Vatican II, which he reported on. I wrote the following obituary which is included in the latest edition of the new Catholic Herald magazine. My thanks to the current Editor Luke Coppen for suggesting a few changes at the start. I am glad to say that the rift between my father and the paper was put aside in recent times and that he was encouraged by Luke to contribute once again to this publication.

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The Editor who brought Vatican II to Britain
It took half a century for a pope to address the need for reform of the Roman Curia. It was to have been tackled at the time of Vatican II, when many other changes were made in the Catholic Church. Days before my father Desmond Fisher died on December 30, I read him Pope Francis’s address to the Curia, outlining 15 ailments they suffered, including “spiritual Alzheimer’s”, which the Pontiff wanted to be cured. It was, my father said, the best news he had heard in 50 years. He was deeply involved with the progressive movement at Vatican II, where he made many friends, including Belgian Cardinal Leo Suenens and theologian Karl Rahner.

My father grew up in Ireland at a time when Catholic lay people were deferential to the clergy and especially the hierarchy. All that changed – or was supposed to – when Pope John XXIII summoned the Second Vatican Council to begin a reform of the Church. My father travelled to Rome before the opening and covered the later three sessions. He had been appointed editor of the Catholic Herald in 1962, in succession to Count Michael de la Bédoyère. Joining the Catholic Herald meant exchanging one Fleet Street office – that of the Irish Press, where he had been London editor since 1954 – for another.

In his first editorial he wrote that, as a lay-owned and independent paper, the Catholic Herald had “a freedom which is journalistically necessary if it is to carry out what it conceives to be its function and which relieves the hierarchy and the clergy generally of any responsibility for opinions expressed in these columns”. He built a team of new journalists around him, including John Horgan (later  Press Ombudsman in Ireland) and future Tablet editor John Wilkins. He has left behind a large archive of articles spanning 70 years. He considered that some of his best writing was published in the Catholic Herald and elsewhere in 1962-65.

“Early in the Council,” he recalled, “some 15 English-speaking journalists … organised an informal group, mainly for friendship but also to pool information and ideas… Our group frequently dined together, occasionally inviting bishops (among them Cardinal Suenens) … to join us to explain Council issues and interpret what was going on.” Cardinal Franz König of Vienna wrote to my father that he had learned “more of what is going on at the Council from your superb reports” than he heard “while on the spot”.

My father reckoned he was probably the first working journalist to be admitted to St Peter’s during a Council meeting, carrying a one-day pass for a Protestant observer and dressed in a dark grey suit, white shirt and black pullover. His good knowledge of Latin (from secondary school and his short time as an Augustinian novice) came in extremely useful on that occasion. He remembered two English bishops inviting him for a coffee in Rome. When Bishop Farren of Derry, his former headmaster at St Columb’s College, entered, he was invited to join them but refused, saying he would have nothing to do with him. My father noted that this animosity was shared by some of the English and Scottish bishops because of his reportage on the Council. Archbishop McQuaid of Dublin thought his articles were “very objectionable”.

Halfway during the fourth session, in 1965, my father was criticised by Cardinal Heenan because of a Catholic Herald  headline (not written by him): “Bishops clash at Council.” The cardinal claimed  the Catholic bishops did not “clash” since the Holy Spirit guided their deliberations. His Eminence was very annoyed and contacted the main owner of the paper, a conservative in his religious views. My father was recalled from Rome on the grounds that the bulk of the Council’s work had been done. It was, he said, one of the bitterest blows of his life and led to his resignation as editor “without regret” in May 1966.

Archbishop Hurley of Durban expressed “terrible dismay at the bitter news” of my father’s departure. “You did a wonderful job on the Catholic Herald,” he wrote, “and produced perhaps the best reporting of the Council that appeared in an English-language newspaper.” Trevor Beeson, a Canon of Westminster Abbey, wrote in his 1972 book An Eye for an Ear: “Almost certainly the most able journalist in the religious field in the past two decades, Fisher was deeply influenced by the spirit of Vatican II and, not surprisingly, this found expression in the pages of his paper. But Fisher was too far ahead of those holding the reins of power in English Catholicism. He urged reforms, which they were not ready to accept or implement.”

During a year as a freelance, one of my father’s tasks was to handle the copious media enquiries he received regarding Charles Davis. In December 1966 Fr Davis, then the best-known Catholic theologian in Britain, announced he was leaving the Church. Our phone at the house in Wimbledon, where he stayed for a short while, never stopped ringing for three days, with enquiries from local, national and international media.

It was then that my father wrote The Church in Transition, published in 1967 by Geoffrey Chapman, a friend and neighbour. When he wrote it, he predicted it would take 100 or 200 years to decide whether Vatican II was a failure. By 2010, his view was that the Church, at least in Europe, would not get anything like that length of time for reflection and it seemed more likely the future structure of Christianity would be determined in Africa or Latin America. He wrote that verdict three years before an Argentine Jesuit was elected to the See of St Peter.

In his final years, when his mobility was limited, a correspondence by email with Dom Mark Hederman, the Abbot of Glenstal, as well as renewed contact with Fr Enda McDonagh, a well-known liberal, and the inauguration of the new priests’ conference in Ireland gave my father some hope that the spirit of Vatican II had not died. His final project, at the age of 94, was to finish a book on the Stabat Mater, including his own translation of the original Latin poem. He was still working on it on his laptop when he became ill. The work is due to be published later this year.

Michael Fisher  

DESMOND FISHER (10)

tablet30016_123747704330865_2770159_nJOHN WILKINS OBITUARY OF DESMOND FISHER JANUARY 10 2015

The former editor of The Tablet, John Wilkins, cut his teeth as a Catholic journalist with contributions to the Catholic Herald under Desmond Fisher, who has died in Dublin at the age of 94. Fisher was the Herald’s editor from 1962-1966, the years of the Second Vatican Council, in succession to the great Michael de la Bédoyère.

For Fisher the Council came as a liberation. He once sent Wilkins a postcard from Rome of St Peter’s with its famous dome. On the back he had written: “This is what needs the lid taken off it.” He could not have foreseen that Pope Francis would oblige.

He stood four square with the progressives, and he went at it full tilt. Another journalist indebted to Fisher is Senator John Horgan. Fisher gave him his first job. It was “fun” at the Herald, says Horgan. “Everyone did everything – writing leaders, articles, reports, taking photographs.”

Inevitably, however, the authorities took fright, and Fisher resigned. His reputation remained high, especially in the US, and from 1966 to 1974 he was a regular contributor to the Church Times. Back in Ireland, he filled senior posts with newspapers and with Ireland’s national broadcaster RTE.

Right up to a year or two ago he was still writing. His last work was an examination of the translations of the Stabat Mater, together with one of his own. In the hospice as he succumbed to cancer, ever the perfectionist, he was still putting the final touches to his text.

(John Wilkins is a former Editor of The Tablet)

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DESMOND FISHER (9)

Desmond Fisher  Photo:  © Michael Fisher

Desmond Fisher Photo: © Michael Fisher

Irish Times Obituary Saturday 10th January 2015 p.12

Lifelong journalist known for integrity and encouragement to colleagues

Desmond Fisher  Born: September 9th 1920  Died: December 30th 2014

Desmond Fisher, who has died aged 94, was a journalist whose working life in Ireland and abroad was marked by a consistently high dedication to professional standards in a career that spanned almost seven decades.

Born in Derry in 1920, he got his first job — after a brief detour into a seminary — with the Nationalist and Leinster Times in Carlow, to which he had been recruited by its legendary editor Liam Begin.

Bergin’s talent-spotting was later to include such figures as Jim Downey, Olivia O’Leary, Michael Finlan, Des Cahill and Micheline McCormack — among many others who went on to higher things.

In 1948 Fisher joined the Irish Press and worked there (and, from 1949, on the Sunday Press) until 1952, when he was (also) recruited to the Irish News Agency.

Just a year later , he was appointed by Jim McGuinness, then editor of the Irish Press, as London editor of the Irish Press group, and he served there until 1962. From this base he covered a wide range of foreign assignments, including Ireland’s UN involvement in what was then the Belgian Congo, and the initial application by Seán Lemass’s government to join the European Economic Community in 1961.

On that occasion Lemass gave Fisher a personal interview in which he predicted that membership of the community would probably mean that Ireland would have to give up neutrality and legalise contraception and divorce and that some of the more positive aspects of Irish culture would be lost as a result of growing prosperity.

Tempestuous

In 1962 he accepted an invitation to edit the Catholic Herald in London. It was a tempestuous time, not only for Catholicism generally, but for English Catholicism in particular. Fisher was unaware at the time of his appointment that his predecessor, Michael de la Bédoyère, had been squeezed out of the paper because of his openness to change.

He was to discover in time that the wheels of change in British Catholicism still moved extremely slowly. His evident sympathy for the aggiornamento launched by Pope John XXIII was not widely shared within either the British or Irish hierarchies, and his friendship with the controversial British theologian Charles Davis (who stayed in his house in Wimbledon while the storm about his departure from the priesthood raged) helped to bring matters to a head.

In 1964 he resigned “over policy differences with the Board”, as he later, rather temperately, expressed it.

For the following four years he worked only as a freelance in both print and broadcast journalism: he had been the Irish correspondent for the British economic publication The Statist for many years, and also developed strong relationships with newspapers like the National Catholic Reporter in the USA, the Anglican Church Times in Britain, and later, The Economist.

Eventually, however, he was headhunted by Jim McGuinness, now RTÉ head of news, to be his deputy, and he returned to Dublin to take up that post in 1968.

“He was to discover in time that the wheels of change in British Catholicism still moved extremely slowly” 

It was a torrid time at RTÉ, not least because of the escalating Northern crisis. In October 1973 he was appointed head of current affairs at the station. This forced marriage of news and current affairs had been decided on by the RTÉ Authority at least in part because of criticism by the government of the independently-minded programming emanating from the latter department.

Doomed fusion

The unwilling — and under-financed fusion of journalists and producers from different trade unions was probably doomed from the start. Fisher later became involved in a three-cornered political fracas involving the producer Eoghan Harris, RTÉ itself, and the then minister for posts and telegraphs, Conor Cruise O’Brien, centring on a programme about Northern Ireland.

Subsequently, after the authority had rejected his request for an appropriate role, budget and staff for the current affairs grouping, he resigned from these responsibilities in 1975 and the grouping was disbanded. He later served as director of TV development and chaired the RTÉ2 planning group, as well as launching the Irish Broadcasting Review, which ran from 1978 until shortly before his retirement from RTÉ in 1983.

After an interval of 36 years, he returned to the Nationalist and Leinster Times in Carlow as editor and managing director, following Liam Bergin’s retirement. He retired from this position in 1989, but continued to write for a wide range of publications — including on occasion The Irish Times — until shortly before his death. His final work — an annotated translation of the Stabat Mater — is due for publication this year.  DSC_0941 (800x421)

Independent spirit

Des Fisher was never — nor would he have wanted to be considered — a celebrity journalist. But his career was marked by a deep Catholicism, independence of spirit, intellectual integrity, an insistence on accuracy and fairness, and by his practical encouragement and training of many younger journalists.

These attributes marked him out as a substantial practitioner of his chosen profession in a period when journalism itself was undergoing seismic changes.

He is survived by his wife, Peggy (nee Smyth), and their children, Michael, Carolyn, Hugh and John.

  

DESMOND FISHER (8)

DSC_0907 (2) (612x800)CATHOLIC HERALD:  January 9 2015      Home News  p.8 Revered ex-Catholic Herald editor is mourned

Herald editor who reported on Vatican II dies aged 94

THE FORMER Catholic Herald editor Desmond Fisher has died aged 94.

In a career spanning 70 years, Mr Fisher worked at the Irish Times, RTÉ news, the Economist and the Irish Press in London. His last column for the Irish Times appeared on September 30.

As editor of the Herald from 1962 to 1966 he covered the Second Vatican Council. His reporting of the Council sessions was regarded as so incisive that Cardinal Franz König of Vienna said he learned more from reading Mr Fisher’s reports than from being there.

Arthur Jones, who worked for Mr Fisher at the Herald, wrote on the American National Catholic Reporter that with Mr Fisher’s death “the legion of writers who covered the Second Vatican Council has thinned practically to vanishing point”.

Mr Fisher, who was born in Derry in 1920 and grew up in Dublin, died on December 30, surrounded by his family, leaving behind his wife Peggy, daughter Carolyn, sons Michael, Hugh and John and four grandchildren. His funeral was held in Dublin on January 2. Mr Fisher married Peggy in 1948, and they celebrated their 65th anniversary last year. (2013)  DSC_0909 (2) (794x800)

DESMOND FISHER (7)

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Lives Remembered: The Irish News Saturday 10th January
Desmond Fisher 1920-2014

My father was one of two Derrymen heading RTÉ News on the day of the banned Civil Rights march in the city on October 5 1968. The other was his former Irish Press boss Jim McGuinness, who had been instrumental in bringing him back to Dublin in 1967. That was eighteen months after my father’s resignation on a matter of principle as Editor of the Catholic Herald over his coverage of Vatican II. His articles from Rome, although acclaimed internationally, were regarded as too progressive by members of the English and Irish hierarchy, including Bishop Farren of Derry, his former headmaster at St Columb’s College.

Jim McGuinness, according to my father, “made the cogent argument that posterity would never forgive RTÉ if it failed to cover, as well as the BBC did, the historic developments in the North, which we claimed to be part of our own country”. Thus it was that news cameraman Gay O’Brien obtained remarkable footage of the Derry demonstration including protestors being hit with batons by the RUC.  The film was offered by RTÉ to other television stations via the Eurovision news exchange. Those scenes put the North’s problems on the international agenda.

In August 1969 my father was the senior RTÉ executive on duty when Taoiseach Jack Lynch arrived to address the nation, following the outbreak of serious rioting in Derry. He arranged for the annotated script to be typed out. For the record Mr Lynch said: “It is clear…that the Irish Government can no longer stand by and see innocent people injured and perhaps worse” (not using the word ‘idly’). Many years later my father recalled how Mr Lynch had privately asked him what he thought would happen if he ordered the (Irish) army to go into the North, as some had advised. Des told Lynch he thought the army would get some 20 miles across the border into Derry or Co. Down before suffering heavy casualties in a fight with the British. Mr Lynch told him he had come to the same conclusion.

My father’s parents lived in West End Park, Derry, and moved to Dublin with their three children when he was 11. He won an all-Ireland scholarship for Good Counsel College in New Ross. He took the education, but decided the Augustinian priesthood was “not for me”. He began and ended his active career with the Carlow Nationalist. His knowledge of Irish, Greek and Latin was exceptional. At 94, he had just completed a book, typed by himself, containing a new translation of the Stabat Mater.

DESMOND FISHER who died in Dublin on December 30 is survived by his wife Peggy and four children: Michael, Carolyn, Hugh and John.

DESMOND FISHER (6)

Desmond Fisher  Photo:  © Michael Fisher

Desmond Fisher Photo: © Michael Fisher

Desmond Fisher 1920-2014

An appreciation (in The Irish Catholicic-logo

Michael Fisher

It was, my father said, the best news he heard in 50 years. Days before his death, I read him Pope Francis’ address to the Curia, outlining 15 diseases they suffered. He had a progressive view of the Catholic Church, inspired by the time he reported from Rome on Vatican II, where he made many friends including Belgian Cardinal Leo Suenens and theologian Fr Karl Rahner.

The Vatican II version of the Church, he pointed out, is a “communion” of members sharing a common task, rather than a pyramid structure. As Editor of The Catholic Herald, his authoritative coverage of Pope John XXIII’s initiative for change was widely praised in the English-speaking Catholic world. However, it annoyed Archbishop John Charles McQuaid of Dublin who found his articles “very objectionable”.

The conservative English hierarchy, led by Cardinal John Heenan, complained to the newspaper’s directors, who recalled him to London. His archive notes describe this as one of the bitterest blows of his life. It was, he said, a consolation that history seemed to have supported his version of Vatican II rather than the Cardinal’s.

He resigned from the paper and freelanced for a year. One of his tasks was to handle the copious media enquiries he received regarding Charles Davis. In December 1966 Fr Davis, then the best-known Catholic theologian in Britain, announced he was leaving the Church.

My father was proud of his roots in Derry, where he was born in 1920. His parents (a mixed marriage) moved to Dublin and aged 11, he won an all-Ireland scholarship for secondary schooling at Good Counsel College in New Ross, run by the Augustinians. He took the education, but decided the priesthood was “not for me”.

Translation

His knowledge of Irish, Greek and Latin was exceptional, and at 94 he had just completed a book, typed by himself on his laptop, containing a new translation of the Stabat Mater. It is due to be published by Gracewing later this month. With a BA from UCD, his first job, at age 25, was assistant to the editor of The Nationalist and Leinster Times, Liam Bergin, who became a lifelong friend. In 2011 he stepped down as Vice-Chairman of the same paper.

My first memories of my father are from the time he was London Editor of the Irish Press in Fleet Street. He acted as the Group’s Diplomatic Correspondent, and in 1960 spent three months covering the UN when Frank Aiken chaired the General Assembly. The same year he reported from the Congo on Irish soldiers on UN duty being held prisoner in Jadotville.

Desmond Fisher returned to Ireland in 1967 as RTÉ’s Deputy Head of News, joining fellow Derryman Jim McGuinness.

He later became Head of Current Affairs in RTÉ and after a second resignation on a point of principle was appointed Director of Broadcasting Development. He became involved in the birth of Raidió na Gaeltachta and later RTÉ2.

On retirement from RTÉ in 1983 he returned to Carlow as Editor and Managing Editor of The Nationalist until 1989. He was author of The Church in Transition, a book on the Vatican Council, Broadcasting in Ireland, The Right to Communicate and several pamphlets.

Michael Fisher is a journalist.

DESMOND FISHER (5)

Desmond Fisher

Desmond Fisher

The Editor of The Irish Catholic Michael Kelly, who was in contact with my father in recent years, has written the following summary of his life. It was only since 2011 that my father started to read the paper when he became ‘reconciled’ with the parish of Mount Merrion and a new Parish Priest, thanks to a Eucharistic Minister who brought him a copy every week. Ironically, the paper used to be owned by the Catholic Herald group, with whom my father had parted company ‘without regret’ in May 1966, having had ‘policy differences’ with the Board of Directors relating to his progressive coverage of the Vatican Council.

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Death of Vatican II and RTE journalist Desmond Fisher

The death of journalist Desmond Fisher on December 30 at the age of 94 can truly be described as the end of an era. For decades, Mr Fisher was a prominent journalist who travelled extensively. He made a remarkable contribution to religious affairs, particularly during the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) where he reported from Rome for a time. In retirement, he was an occasional contributor to The Irish Catholic.

His reporting was acknowledged as incisive, with Vienna’s Cardinal Franz König reportedly saying that he learned “more of what is going on at the council from your superb reports” than he heard “while on the spot”.

Mr Fisher, as editor of The Catholic Herald, was in Rome in 1962 before the council opened. He also wrote for the Irish Press, giving Irish Catholics an insight into the momentous event that was Vatican II.

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According to Arthur Jones, who worked closely with Mr Fisher, when the latter resigned in 1966, an anonymous article in Herder Correspondence described the backdrop.

“Many bishops in England and Scotland, plus Dublin’s overbearing Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, had strongly opposed Fisher’s interpretation of council events – McQuaid called it ‘very objectionable.’

“When Fisher resigned, dozens of other bishop-attendees wrote to say quite the opposite,” according to Mr Jones.

He was born in Derry in 1920 and his first foray in to journalism was at the age of 25.

Mr Fisher and his wife, Margaret (Peggy), wed in 1948 and marked their 65th wedding anniversary in 2013. (66th in 2014)

For four years, Mr Fisher was with the Irish Press, and in 1954 became its London editor and daily columnist. He became the Press political correspondent and travelled widely in the early 1960s.

In 1962, he wrote in The Catholic Herald that a lay-owned and independent Catholic paper had “a freedom that is journalistically necessary if it is to carry out what it conceives to be its function and which relieves the hierarchy and the clergy generally of any responsibility for opinions expressed in its columns”.

It is a sentiment very close to the heart of The Irish Catholic.

He began working for RTÉ in 1967 and was, for 14 years, Ireland correspondent for The Economist.

Desmond Fisher died peacefully in Blackrock Hospice after a short illness. He is survived by his wife Peggy, daughter Carolyn, sons Michael, Hugh and John, daughters-in-law Evelyn, Ruth and Carmel, grandchildren Sarah, Clare, Sam and Lucy, sister Deirdre, sisters-in-law Nuala Fisher and Sr Nora Smyth, nephews, nieces and a wide circle of friends.

Anima eius et animae omnium fidelium defunctorum per Dei misericordiam requiescant in pace.