We were sorry to hear of the death of that great newspaperman Geoff Oakley who died on 21 September in his 93rd year. Geoff and his late wife Dorothy, who died in March 2020, had no immediate family but that is only in the narrow sense. Their children were the people of Offaly and both, in their respective occupations, provided care and nourishment on a 24 7 basis to all, but especially those who needed care and a kind word. Dorothy and Geoff married in 1972. They had met after a service in their local Church of Ireland and it was a case of love at first sight and lifelong companionship.
Geoff started in the local press about 1945 with the old Offaly Chronicle and when it was purchased by James I. Fanning in 1948 moved to the Midland Tribune. As such he was the last link with this newspaper that was started in Birr in 1845 and was owned by the Wright family from the 1870s. In 1978 Geoff became the editor of the new Tullamore Tribune and remained at the helm until Ger Scully took over in 1994. Geoff made a singular contribution to the saving of the hospital in Tullamore in the mid-1970s with the help of the Offaly Committee to save the Hospital. Week after week the articles poured out and the pressure that was piled on secured the hospital and paved the way for the new hospital from the late 1990s.
Geoff saw in groups such as Junior Chamber all that was good about civic life and reported its doings and that of so many other voluntary bodies. A lover of music he was a strong member of the Tullamore Gramophone Society and often gave the recital. He and Dorothy were keen travellers across the globe as backpackers. They were both pivotal members of OSPCA and many animals found good homes as a result of their work. This writer had the pleasure of meeting him in August in Shinrone. How well he was. Asking how everything was in Tullamore and about Birr Vintage Week which was then in progress.
He was greatly missed from the time of his retirement but up to recent years was a regular visitor with Dorothy to the Saturday market in Tullamore and to his beloved Offaly Historical Society and the Tullamore Gramophone Society How important it will be for us to get back from November to meetings and lectures offline so that we can again meet our members who have supported our causes over many years.
Geoff’s work as a newspaper man will stand to him well into the future. All the more so in this digital age when his articles can be so easily accessed. Those in the Tullamore Musical Society have reason to thank him for his fine published history and all his reviews of their annual show. Now Offaly History can get to do a short review of GVO, but it can only be paltry beside that of the quiet sincere man who made such a great impact in County Offaly and all of it was for good. Geoff was also a national figure in amateur musical circles as an adjudicator for AIMS and editor of the AIMS newsletter. His reviews of local plays were awaited with terror one expects. While never harsh he did not confuse journalism with parochialism.
Seamus Dooley has provided an appreciation which will also be published in Offaly Heritage 12 next year.
Geoff Oakley: An appreciation. By Seamus Dooley
Geoff Oakley was something of an enigma. In a distinguished career he was passionate about news: cultured, wise and opinionated his integrity and sense of honour defined Geoff in his public role as Editor of the Tullamore Tribune.
Yet Geoff was in many ways a shy man who shunned the limelight, seldom speaking in public or giving interviews to the national media on issues of local interest.
For many years Geoff was the Tullamore Tribune and his vision and commitment were key ingredients in the success of the paper. J. I. Fanning, proprietor and editor of the Midland Tribune was nominally editor when the sister newspaper was founded in 1978 but from the beginning Geoff was the guiding spirit – his formal appointment as editor merely confirmed his status.
From a dark pokey two desk newsroom. in Church Street Geoff churned out reams of copy on a noisy, battered manual typewriter which, like the office itself, had seen better days.
David Pate had never been in Tullamore before Fanning offered him the job of reporter on the fledgling title. A young Scot reared in Dublin and educated at TCD Dave was an unlikely recruit but Pate, who took early retirement as as a senior producer with CBC Nova Scotia last year, and Oakley made a formidable team. Mary T Bracken made up the office triumvirate for much of his rein.
When David moved to pursue a successful career in the national media I succeeded him in the Tribune having worked during breaks from college.
Geoff was a mentor to me and to many young journalists, insisting on the highest standards of accuracy.
He had flawless shorthand and placed a premium on attention to detail. His report on the inquest into the death of Fr Niall Molloy is an outstanding example of his reporting while his profile of Thomas MacDonagh in the Midland Tribune’s supplement to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising, “A noble life and a proud death” serves as a reminder of his elegant writing style.
A young journalism student on placement in Tullamore was once severely chided for failing to ask the name of a family dog who featured in a Richard May photograph which accompanied a well , written human interest story.
“Are you joking” he declared as Geoff instructed him to ring the family, “that’s just crazy”.
Geoff firmly but patiently explained that the dog was a family member and must be named.
Years later I met the now matured journalist in a Dublin pub. Then working in London he said the dog episode had taught him a valuable life lesson!
Social historians have reason to appreciate Geoff’s obsession with fully captioned pictures, something which sometimes challenged the patience of Richard May, Joe O’Sullivan and Mary Dunne but he always appreciated their professionalism.
As an editor Geoff showed leadership in challenging the consensus. He was a champion of constitutional politics and abhorred violence, often courageously challenging the IRA.
While supportive of the campaign to save the then Tullamore General hospital he incurred the wrath of some activists by his refusal to oppose every proposal for redevelopment of specialist facilities at regional level, preferring a more nuanced and strategic analysis.
His editorial stance on social issues, such as the divorce and 8th amendment referendums, was equally courageous while his absolute commitment to fairness meant that all sides were accorded coverage.
All who knew him, including his readers, knew of his love for and devotion to Dorothy.
Despite his natural reserve their holidays were the subject of endless quirky features, always written with style and humour.
Geoff and Dorothy made a wonderful couple and enriched the lives of so many, humans and animals through the OSPCA.
As an editor Geoff Oakley ‘s greatest contribution was to develop a paper which, despite limited resources, reflected the diversity of life in the community.
For him, local news mattered. It still does!