He’d started out in Ireland in the ‘70s, reporting on court cases and political campaigns and the Troubles. His early reporting life was a round of pubs, agricultural fairs, party political rallies, traffic accidents, the Galway Races, and ribbon-cutting ceremonies, with time out for the odd bomb blast. All the while, like many another journeyman journalist who’d dabbled in art and literature and the like, as he had over his four undergraduate years at Upper Killoyle College, Tom nursed loftier ambitions, relating to literature or art or art history or all three, and indeed flung himself into one or two historical novels, to widespread lack of interest, including his own.
Then in ’71 some local lads desirous of impressing the hard men up North raided the Killoyle Art Museum and stole two Paul McGuigan erotic prints for ransom to buy bullets from Gaddhafi. Tom acquired an instant reputation among his peers as an art expert merely by virtue of knowing who Paul McGuigan was, let alone having a vague idea of the artist’s worth on the black market: “Zero. They’ll have to settle for a couple of water pistols for what those daubs fetch,” he opined. He also reckoned they’d confused the artist--a gas fella who ran a bar in Bundoran--with the great French portrayer of Tahitian womanhood. Tom was proven prescient when the etchings were returned three days later with a note reading, “We thought these were by that French fella who did the nudes but this shite’s worthless.”
“Any feckin’ art stories, give ‘em to Moylan,” said Flames Bulger, the features editor. “Moylan knows all about feckin’ art, doncha Moylan.”
But it was the ‘70s; disco, football, working-class rock, and TV ruled. The visual-arts beat was quite risible to Tom’s sport- and politics-obsessed colleagues. “Ah, look who’s here, it’s the artist, mine’s a pint of Van Dongen, maestro”; “Wait till I tell you: How d’you think I get about in my old Transit van with no petrol? ‘Coz Monet makes my Van Gogh! Get it?”
Still, Tom got to cover a Rouault exhibition in Cork, a Bonnard retrospective in Galway, a Henry Moore display of sheep droppings rendered in stone in a field near Athlone, and sundry other good and bad art spattered across the land of Erin.
Then in ‘73 a pair of field operatives in the Provisional IRA broke into a swish country house in Co. Kildare, beat up the resident Earl and Countess, stole a Vermeer, a Titian, a Watteau and a Yeats off the walls, and drove off in a Bedford lorry. Two days later, the Superintendent of the Co. Kildare Gardai Siochana and the editors of the Daily Posthorn and Irish Handstand received handwritten letters demanding a million punts in ransom to buy rocket launchers from Gaddhafi. The letters were signed Roisin Duggan and Errol Gallogly, a pair of well-known amorously linked but not overly clever Provos. They were soon tracked down through the franking stamps on the envelopes that clearly spelled out the town of provenance (Ballykilloran, Co. Westmeath), plus date. Greater Ballykilloran, pop. 750, was promptly cordoned off. The Bedford lorry was found parked outside a bungalow, through the front door of which Tom, representing the journalistic fraternity, crashed arm-in-arm with the guards. The lovers were in bed, the paintings stacked in the corner.
“Fuck me,” said Roisin Duggan, sitting up in bed. Her breasts were bare and to Tom's way of thinking quite perfect, if darkly aureoled.
“Feck me, I was just gonna,” said Gallogly, a scrawny specimen with facial hair typical of that long-ago epoch (sideburns, mustache). The paintings were returned, and the miscreant couple sent to Limerick Jail, from which they escaped in short order. Tom’s write-up of the whole business drove the Daily Posthorn’s circulation briefly up and earned him a pay rise of a few bob, an interview in Wallace’s Wallet, and a brief stirring of interest in one of his historical romances at a local publisher, but it soon all fizzled out. There were no more art heists. Nobody in Ireland really gave a toss about paintings, anyway, if the Rah weren’t involved.
“Couldn’t I do the film reviews, at least?” he asked Bulger.
“Nah, waste of time. We’ll just pick up the column in syndication.”
Tom soon parted company with the Posthorn and exchanged Killoyle and a life of low-key anxiety and relative ease for Dublin and the hard life of high-voltage anxiety and near-poverty in a dim and dusty bedsit off the Norrier while employed at shelving books at Wesson’s on O’Connell Street under the aegis of an elephantine sadist named Mc- (or Mac-) Mandible.
It wasn’t the first time, and it was far from the last, that he felt despair at the great and relentless mediocrity of the world.