Irish Voice columnist John Spain died last week at the age of 75. He has written a weekly column for the Irish Voice, sister publication of IrishCentral, since the newspaper’s first issue in 1987.
The Irish Voice has lost a foothold, the one and only John Spain, our Ireland-based columnist since the first issue of The Voice in December 1987. John, 75, died in a Dublin hospital on October 27 after a courageous battle against cancer. The Voice won’t be the same without it, as many of our readers will surely agree.
I loved John, both professionally and personally. The first time I met him in Dublin, a few years ago, he looked a lot different than the little photo we used for his column header. I asked if he wanted to provide an update, but the answer was emphatically no.
” I do not do it ! There are too many Irish Americans who can’t stand what I write and I don’t need any of them to recognize me, ”he replied.
He wasn’t wrong. John wrote regularly on The Troubles in the North and, to put it mildly, was a staunch opponent of the IRA’s armed “Brits Out” campaign. We received a lot of letters criticizing him as a British West, a false Irishman and much worse.
But John never cared and always wrote down what he had in mind. He was appalled by the violence on all sides and did not think that a united Ireland was worth the carnage. He also believed that those Irish Americans who supported the ‘Ra with money or deeds were misinformed of the reality on the ground.
So imagine his joy when one day in 1993 I called him to tell him he had a new colleague at Voice – none other than Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams, who started writing a weekly column for us this year. it was the first time that Gerry’s voice was presented to an American audience, totally unfiltered.
Frankly, John agreed with our new recruit. He never believed in censorship, although he repeatedly told me to “feel free to cut” anything I might find inflammatory or unfit for printing in his column.
Other than moving a few commas here and there, I never edited or changed John’s words once. And over the years, he laughed when I joked with him about being mean to his colleague Gerry, whom he at least somewhat respected as the peace process took hold in the North and the The IRA’s armed campaign was coming to an end (although JS never believed the IRA was really gone, as he often wrote.)
John had a decades-long and meaningful media career in Dublin, first with the Irish Press and then the Irish Independent where he wore many hats, including that of a book publisher. He didn’t hesitate to take a few photos on the Indo’s photo desk, put them in an envelope and mail them to me for use in the Voice.
It was the time, in the early 1990s, when the Internet was unknown and fax machines were all the rage. But the photos didn’t play well on faxes, so when John’s envelopes arrived, it was like Christmas Day.
A new photo of Mary Robinson! Albert Reynolds! Jack Charlton! A farm scene somewhere in the middle of Ireland! We were thrilled.
The beauty of John’s writing for The Voice was his uncanny ability to examine complex subjects of Irish life – tax codes, the Celtic Tiger Bust, the Anglo-Irish Accord, Brexit, social issues, and more. – and explain them in a clear and easy-to-understand way. Tongue. With a healthy dose of his opinion, of course.
I think his readers would agree with me that John knew a lot about a lot of things. And his page has been a great source of education and enlightenment for all of us.
John loved his media life, but he loved his family a lot more. He has three grown children, Lily and twins Jack and Harry, and his wife is Carolyn Donnelly, designer and creative director of the massive Dunnes stores in Ireland who runs her own fashion and housewares lines. John loved to talk about Carolyn and all of her successes, and travel with her to Italy or other places where she would go looking for new materials with her design team, or seek creative inspiration.
I was in Limerick four years ago, in a huge Dunnes on the outskirts of the city center, and Carolyn’s face was all over the place promoting her Eclectic and The Edit lines. John was a proud husband when I told him that, although he wasn’t surprised. “It’s like that with all Dunnes. She’s amazing, ”he said.
I think John was just as exceptional. Every Monday morning, he would be one of the early risers to email his copy before the deadline. I always looked forward to reading it, especially during the weeks when there wasn’t much going on in the news and I would be hard pressed to find a good story on the front page. I thought John would bail me out with a news or opinion column, and he always did.
However, he didn’t want to hang around writing for us forever. In fact, on more than one occasion I had to talk him out of retiring and then got to the point where I didn’t even listen when he said he might like to finish.
The first time he wanted to quit was when The Voice celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2012. I asked JS to write a think tank for this special issue. He was happy to do it, and then he informed me that he thought the column would be a good way to end his career in voice.
“Twenty-five is a nice round number,” I always remember him telling me.
This is not what I wanted to hear in the midst of our celebrations. “The number is going to get rounder and rounder, much rounder … you’re not going anywhere,” I protested.
John honestly thought he had more to say, that our readers were fed up with him, and that “someone younger” might have more to contribute.
Youngsters cannot replace Tom Brady, and so can JS. His columns were required reading, and when he missed a few weeks due to vacation, readers wanted to know when he was coming back.
JS took a few weeks off in 2015 when he was first diagnosed with bowel cancer. He was fortunate enough to be detected early thanks to a national screening program in Ireland. He made a good recovery and even wrote a column, one of his most memorable, about his experiences and his gratitude for catching cancer early on.
And her health was good for a long time, until it wasn’t. In February, he wrote to me that he needed intensive cancer treatment and that he should probably quit the Chronicle.
It was a lump in my throat reading those words, but better months were to come. JS responded well to the treatment and it was not too stressful for his body.
“The column is actually a big diversion for me! So I will continue, ”he said.
That’s exactly what he did, until September 30. The subject line of the email was specific: “Spain Final Column 2,000 words”.
It was a shock to the system to read these words that I knew I couldn’t reverse. It took me a few days to realize that John’s health was deteriorating and that the Irish Voice was losing one of its superstars.
Since news of John’s death last week became public, we have received so many kind emails offering condolences and words of praise. My Friday inbox had a lovely message from Liam Neeson, a regular reader of The Voice who is a huge fan of John.
“Very saddened to learn of the death of Mr. Spain. As an avid reader of Niall O’Dowd’s weekly Irish Voice here in the United States, John Spain’s column has never been more than a food for thought. A much needed voice, especially in these politically and economically tumultuous times in which we now live. Rest in eternal peace, ”he wrote.
I asked Liam if I could share his words for this piece, and he said yes. I had known for some time that John was one of his must-haves. In fact, I used this knowledge as a tool when JS was in retreat mode. “You can’t go! You will miss Liam Neeson more than I do! I would say.
John stayed with us. For nearly 34 glorious years. There were no ups and downs – it was all with John.
I am very grateful to him, for his knowledge, his wisdom, his friendship. To be a true blue Irish voice.
* This column first appeared in the November 3 edition of the weekly Irish Voice, sister publication of IrishCentral.
* You can read John Spain’s reviews for Irish Voice and IrishCentral here.