Updated: 28/10/16 : 06:03:47
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Sligo's famed media boss honed it in High Street

By Eugene McGloin

HIGH STREET in Sligo town is a cradle of longevity and, well, of lesser longevity.

It's a great place to be a friar or a local politician; each tends to be there/here for the long haul.

Ask the Dominicans, the Flanagans and don't forget Declan Bree and the legend that was Michael Nevin. 

It used to be a great street for pubs and shops, too, but those numbers have telescoped in recent times.

High Street has a thing, though, about newspapers; it doesn't detain them too long.

In the past century we had the Conservative ''Sligo Times'' and the excellent ''Sligo Journal'' succumbed inside a decade in the late 1970s, early 1980s.

Famous Questions

But Sligo's most famous Irish newspaper man learned some of his skills in the street.

'Bertie' (RM) Smylie was the son of Bob Smylie, boss man at that short-lived ''Sligo Times.''

Two of the most famous questions ever posed in Irish journalism fell to the same 'Bertie' Smylie. More anon.

Both are recalled in the 1991 biography by Tony Gray, titled: ''Mr Smylie, Sir.''

Everybody was called 'Sir' in the last century and earlier; it wasn't just inside the stuffy cloisters of ''The Irish Times,'' where Smyllie rose to be a legendary editor.

Around Sligo, his father Bob Smyllie was remembered for pouring whiskey into his Guinness, plural.

Maybe no surprise that Bertie Smyllie, back in Sligo after World War One, found the family newspaper had bitten the dust.

Bohemian Spirit

Bertie got on his bike, literally. Landing a job in ''The Irish Times'' in Dublin he cycled to work.

Trademarks were his typewriter slung across the front of the bike....and a bottle of whiskey sticking out the side pocket on the way to work.

Hardly surprising that the Sligo man spent a lot of his life in and out of hospital.

He died in September 1954, aged just fifty nine, a bohemian spirit almost all of his days.

In 30 years he had risen from rookie to become editor of ''The Irish Times". 

His finishing salary was just 1,200 in that far-off era of pounds, shillings, pence and even farthing coins.

Precise Words

Those two famous questions he got to ask included phoning Ireland's Nobel Prize for Literature winner in 1923, WB Yeats, to get his reaction.

His editor warned Smyllie: ''Be very careful to get the poet's precise words.''

Yeats reply, Smyllie told his future biographer years laters, was: ''And tell me, Bertie, how much is it worth?''

But not to disappoint his editor, 'Bertie' Smyllie discarded that Yeatsian answer and, said his biographer, ''composed a far more lofty and dignified response.''

Model School

The next most famous question posed by the Sligo journalist never needed any embellishment and has lived long beyond Yeats reply, too.

It was a job interview and the Sligo bossman was listening as applicant Bruce Williamson recited his qualifications.

Smyllie interrupted: ''Tell me, Mr Williamson sir, how would you define a bollocks?''

Williamson became a senior staffman in ''The Irish Times'' from 1946 to his death in April 1991.

He could never recall his answer but remained convinced it was his 'calm, unruffled acceptance of this outrageous question that secured the job for him.' Indeed.

When not commissioning 'special reports' Smyllie's other trademarks included lots of such irreverence, a real Sligo feel to it. 

Not just Yeats got rewritten; his biographer recalled a Beethoven tune which later was an EU anthem got the bawdy once-over from Smyllie's ''rich baritone.''

No EU anthem in the public domain ever had a chorus of ''The chambermaid was pregnant, for the forty second time.'' 

'Bertie' (RM) Smyllie certainly had not learned that verse, either, in his years at the Model School or Sligo Grammar School.

Tony Gray's biography of the legendary Sligo newspaper man who honed his skills in High Street could (should) be read in one night. Recommended.