The Washington Post and the Roscommon connection

The county of Roscommon has always enjoyed strong literary traditions. Whether that is Oliver Goldsmith, Oscar Wilde, whose father was a Rector in Castlerea or Ireland’s first President, Douglas Hyde, the county is rich in literary and journalistic traditions.

Members of the ‘fourth estate’ that have hailed from Roscommon include the likes of Donal Keenan, John Waters and the late Des Rushe. Today, it’s another man, Peter Finn who grew up in Roscommon town, who is currently making a name for himself.

Peter Finn is the Security correspondent with the Washington Post newspaper, one of the most acclaimed newspapers in the world. He grew up in Roscommon having lived for the earlier part of his life in Elphin.

Now living just outside Washington, Peter, a father of four, is one of the paper’s key newsroom figures in a publication celebrated in the recent Academy Award winning film ‘The Post’ starring Mark Ruffalo and Michael Keaton.

Peter grew up in Roscommon town attending Roscommon CBS before studying History and Politics in University College Dublin before travelling to the USA. After ‘cutting his teeth’ in local journalism, Peter developed an unrivalled reputation to now command one of the most important and influential journalist positions in the world today.

“The (Washington) Post has a long and distinguished history in the modern era. It was a fairly mediocre newspaper when it was acquired by Eugene Meyer in 1933. Meyer and his daughter Katherine Graham, and her husband, Phil Graham, built the paper into a powerhouse.

“The standout moments in the paper’s rise were the publications of the Pentagon Papers, the secret history of the Vietnam war, which was recently dramatized in the movie, The Post, followed by the Watergate coverage.

“For the next three decades, the Post stood for tough-minded, accountability journalism. But by 2013, the paper was struggling financially, as was much of the print media, because of losses in print circulation and advertising.

“The paper was bought by Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon. Since then, he has invested heavily in new staff and the paper’s digital operations, leading to a return to profitability and 1.5 million digital subscribers.

Peter and his family moved to Roscommon when he was about to turn six in May 1968 and had been living in Elphin. His father, Bill Finn, a Garda sergeant, was transferred to the station in Roscommon.

“My Dad died several years ago in Dublin where he had moved after retirement and my Mam, Pat, died in 1995 — much too young, after a second battle with cancer. Some in town might remember that she had opened a restaurant called “Caprice,” which thrived for a few years on Abbey Street.

“I owe my parents a tremendous amount for fostering a sense of confidence in a very insecure kid. They had adopted me — a fairly radical act in 1962 — and always supported my early and very inchoate desire to explore the world.

“I have two younger brothers, Greg, who now lives in Dublin, and works for Bank of Ireland and Bill, who has the wanderlust like me, and now lives and works as a North America manager for an Irish company in the Kansas City, Missouri-area.

“I did my Leaving Cert in Roscommon in 1979 then took a year off to live in Paris before attending UCD, where I studied History and Politics, earning a B.A. and then an M.A. in politics. From when I was about 14, I worked in the bar at the Abbey Hotel and continued to work summers there in the early part of college.

“My strongest memories of Roscommon are of the friends I still have, especially Jeremy Crean and Ronan Farrell; playing football in the yard at CBS; going to the library every Saturday; trying to get people out of the Abbey after closing time.

“I also remember getting my hair cut by Paddy Joe Burke; girlfriends (I won’t embarrass them!); watching Roscommon play at Hyde Park. There are a thousand memories, including the one that Ronan never lets me forget – buying a pair of Bay City Roller pants in what must have been 1975.

“I wrote my first article for the then Roscommon Champion when Donal Keenan was the editor. It was on the possibility of Vietnamese refugees being resettled in Roscommon and whether the town was prepared.

“Later I wrote a piece for Hot Press on Ian Paisley when I was in UCD – went to the Martyrs Memorial Church to hear him speak after the Anglo-Irish agreement in 1985. But, to be honest, although I was very interested in a career in journalism, I didn’t do much writing until I left for the United States in 1986.

“In fact, I applied and was turned down for the journalism school at what was then the NIHE in Glasnevin. I reapplied and got accepted the following year but by then Brian Farrell, the RTE broadcaster, who was supervising my thesis at UCD, had suggested I apply to Columbia University’s School of Journalism and I was accepted. I decided to go to New York.

“After graduating from Columbia in 1987, I freelanced for a year or more in New York, writing for the Observer News Service in London as well as New York Newsday and the Irish Voice. But it was tough scrap to earn enough every week so I eventually took a job as a suburban correspondent in south New Jersey for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

“I spent a couple of years there covering local government schools, crime and writing features and learned the basics of journalism in a newspaper that was an enterprising and fun place to work. But it wasn’t a staff position and I moved to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Texas), which was edited by an Inquirer alumnus, to cover social issues.

“Texas was and is a wonderful state for news, and I did my first real investigative reporting there. My New England wife still thinks of Texas as a foreign country, but we had a great time there. I met my wife, Nora FitzGerald, who is now an editor and writer for the World Bank, focused on climate change and Africa, at Columbia University. We’ve been married now for 30 years.

“Once I had decided I was staying in the U.S. it was always my ambition to work for The Washington Post. Like many others I was drawn by the romance of the Watergate coverage, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and Ben Bradlee.

When I first applied from Texas, I was told to do some more investigative and high-impact work and try again in a year, which I did. In the interim, I had won the AP Managing Editors award for investigative reporting for exposing the infection of patients with Hepatitis C at a health clinic.

“I was hired onto the Metro staff of The Post to cover part of Northern Virginia. I did that for three years and then was assigned overseas, as the Eastern Europe correspondent based in Warsaw. I spent ten years as a foreign correspondent for the paper based in Berlin and Moscow after Warsaw.

“In Berlin I was focused on al-Qaeda and terrorism and I covered the Kosovo, Iraq and Russia-Georgia wars. I reported from nearly 60 different countries and was twice in that period a Pulitzer Prize finalist as part of Post teams for international reporting.

“I returned to Washington in 2008 as a national security correspondent, covering the Pentagon as well as U.S. detention operations at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba” says Peter of his extensive journalistic travels.

Five years ago, in 2013, Peter became the National Security Editor at The Post, overseeing two deputy editors and a team of 18 reporters who cover the U.S. military, the Intelligence Community, the State Department and foreign policy, the Department of Homeland Security, the Justice Department and FBI, counterterrorism, weapons proliferation, and the Russia investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller.

“I’m very proud to have been a part of two Pulitzers since I’ve been editor — for Public Service for the Edward Snowden revelations and for National Reporting for coverage of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections and the subsequent fallout.

As to the future, perhaps the literary world awaits as in 2014, Peter co-authored a book called “The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book,” which was a finalist for both the National Book Critics Circle Award for non-fiction and the Pushkin Prize in London for best book on Russia.

“I have another book coming out in autumn next year called ‘A Guest of the Reich’, about the first American woman in uniform captured on the Western Front and her experiences as a female POW before her escape from Nazi Germany in March 1945.

“I would like to keep writing books. Not sure if I would go back to reporting at The Post, but I wouldn’t rule it out. For now, I’m very happy in my current position, which is very much at the center of the news.
Reporting for a paper like the Washington Post can have its lighter moments. In 2016, head of the CIA, John Brennan travelled to Roscommon to trace his ancestral roots in his native Kilteevan. Peter, being the ever-vigilant reporter got wind of the visit and managed to acquire a photo of Mr. Brennan visiting the aforementioned Paddy Joe Burke’s Barbers.

“We didn’t publish it but it was fun moment. Aidan Farrell (of Farrell’s Jewelers) sent a picture of John (Brennan) getting his haircut at Paddy Joe’s to his brother Ronan who in turn, sent it to me. I gave it to one of our reporters who sent it to Brennan’s aide with the message: ‘We have people everywhere!”

Despite being ‘a son’ of Roscommon, commitments and family have prevented Peter from returning to Roscommon in recent years, though he plans to visit either in late 2019 or early in 2020. He has however visited Dublin to visit his brother and friends in recent years.

Peter resides just outside Washington in Northern Virginia with his wife Nora. The couple has four children, only one of whom is still at home. The eldest Rachel is 24 years old, twin boys Liam and David are 22 while the youngest, Ria, is 14 and in high school and has ambitions of becoming a ballet dancer!

As to downtime, Peter professes his interests are simple, admitting to being an avid Manchester United fan and a regular watcher of the Premier League: “I like nothing better than when the whole family is home for the holidays and we all have a long dinner together. I still like to travel when I can. And I’m a pretty voracious reader.

“Politics has always been a rough sport in the United States but the partisan rancor seems to have become much more poisonous under President Trump – as it has in different ways in many parts of the world.

“The immediate effect of the recent midterms is divided government, which may or may not affect Trump’s approach to governance as he will have to work with the Democrats, who now control the House of Representatives, if he wants to get things done. The 2018 results are also worrying for Trump for 2020, but nothing, at this point, is predictable.

As for the challenges for the Irish diaspora in Washington and the US in general, Peter feels the Irish community may be affected, like other migrant communities: if people are undocumented then the broad crackdown will affect all communities, but perhaps none so harshly as those working here”, says the Roscommon native.

“For the print media in general, the challenges in today’s world are many, not least from social media and people’s changing news habits. The challenge of 24 hour rolling news is also a fight for the printed word, which Peter concedes are pressing issues.

“The challenge for much of the press is finding an economically viable model. The Post has found it as a national online news organization but the struggle to survive for smaller and regional papers in the U.S. remains intense.

“We are still seeing cutbacks across the country, which has major implications for coverage of local and state news. As to President Trump’s attacks, our best response is to continue to do our jobs and produce factually unassailable journalism.”