Alumni Corner - Pat Leahy

Image Credit: Pat Leahy via X

Pat Leahy, part of the team that started it all reminisces on what it meant to create The University Observer thirty years ago and why student journalism continues to matter.

Arsing around in the summer term of 1994, looking for something to do that would delay our entry into the real world, Dara O Briain and I came up with what we immediately knew was an ingenious wheeze: we would start a new college newspaper and run it for the following year.

Both of us had helped out on the students’ union paper the previous year, but we had something very different in mind: a regular, quality newspaper for all the college community, independent of the Union and free to be critical of it. To their eternal credit, and I am sure more than occasional regret, the Union’s leadership agreed to our proposals.

We wanted the paper to be a sort of mini-broadsheet for the UCD community, of interest to staff and postgrads as well as the undergraduates. In design, tone and editorial mix, we modelled ourselves consciously on The Irish Times and the London Independent; in mid-summer a pal brought back a copy of the Cambridge University student paper, Varsity – it was newsy, serious, clever and looked beautiful. This, we knew, was exactly what we wanted to do. It was kept in the office as a sort of holy scripture. We didn’t know anything about how to put together the pages of a newspaper on a desktop publisher, but we did have a designer who did and kindly helped us realise our vision. 

We engaged in a series of negotiations with the Union to get their agreement on a name. I knew that my favourite title – ‘The Bold Collegian’ – probably wouldn’t fly, but was damned if I was going to accept one of the union suggestions – ‘The Belfield Bugle’. We ran a feint on the ‘University Chronicle’ for about a week and then Dara floated The University Observer as a compromise.

From the word go, we got stories – good stories. They just seemed to come through the door, and were frequently picked up by national papers. We were lucky, I suppose. But we worked like dogs, too.

A bunch of journalistic galacticos came on board. Roddy O’Sullivan (now a duty editor with The Irish Times) was our Chief Reporter. Declan Walsh (nowadays bureau chief in East Africa for The New York Times) was our picture editor; Gillian Ni Cheallaigh was a brilliant Features editor, tackling meaty stories on inequality and sexism; Shane Hegarty wrote about music and culture; Dave Kelly of the Irish Independent – after his name was repeatedly accidentally omitted from stories, he became “No-Byline Dave” – was our Sports editor. 

There were all sorts of screw-ups. We spelt a word wrong in a front page headline. We had to junk an entire issue when we spotted a libel in a story on an inside page after the paper came back from the printers. The reporter – he is now a senior producer in RTÉ – told his mother who offered to come in with her scissors and cut out the piece from every single paper (we had a print run of 3,500). We reprinted with a gap where the story had been with the words “article removed for legal reasons”. Everyone wanted to know what it was. “Too big”, we said. 

We had a ball, learned lots and did, I think, UCD and our fellow students some service. The idea that the campus needs a good quality newspaper, dedicated to telling the UCD community what is going on in their university, keeping a beady eye on the centres of power in the college – that seems to have survived. I am, if I’m honest, very proud of it. But I can’t quite believe it’s thirty years ago. Beware, reader: it will all happen a lot quicker than you think.