A newspaper sub-editor’s job when wording a by-line is to catch the eye and encourage the reader to read on. The ultimate purpose of editors is to increase readership and so maintain or increase profit. You would think it unlikely, therefore, that a sub-editor would write a by-line that insults a large number of the paper’s readers.

    Recently I found seriously offensive the following heading that appeared in my morning newspaper, and I have no doubt that many people saw it the same way. It read: ‘Two elderly nuns rescued after losing their way in Wicklow.’

    Now it was perfectly fair and reasonable for the paper to publish an article reporting that two nuns had been lost while walking in the Wicklow hills, and that they were rescued safe and well at one o’clock in the morning. It was also fair and reasonable to report that they had with them a mobile ‘phone.

    Having worked closely with one Order of nuns in the past, the first thing I did was to scan the article quickly to see if, by chance I knew the two. But no, the nuns were a step ahead. The article said that having brought out Gardai from Roundwood and the Glen of Imaal Mountain Rescue team, they were so ‘mortified and sorry,’ they were the very words used, ‘mortified and sorry,’ that they had brought so many people out, they would not give their names.

    Can’t you imagine their embarrassment when they were found; but also their relief, their gratitude, their abject apology; not knowing whether to laugh or cry, and probably alternating between both. On the other hand can’t you imagine the Guards and the mountain rescue team simply relieved at finding them safe and well.

     I wondered whether in the dark when the rescuers found them they made the deduction that they were nuns or did the two declare themselves. On reading on I discovered that one of the sisters wore shorts. I have no doubt there was great talk coming down the mountain:

     ‘We’re very sorry to give you all this trouble.’

     ‘Sure isn’t that what we’re here for. All that matters is that we found you safe and well.’

    The article didn’t say how well the sisters’ mobile phone worked or whether the battery lasted or if they were able to get in touch with their convent. Can’t you imagine the corporate prayers of the community ascending, when the two were long overdue, or even if the convent knew they were alive and well but stranded on a mountain?

    Can’t you imagine the two when they got down from the mountain declining food? ‘Haven’t we been trouble enough,’ and wanting to get home as quickly as possible and the rescuers trying to insist that at least they have a cup of tea.

    Can’t you picture when they arrived back at the convent; the relief of the sisters to find the two none the worse for their experience, and not able to do enough for them. A hot meal and then into the chapel to give thanks. And after the initial relief, some dissenting voices to the celebration:    ‘Wouldn’t you think they’d have more sense. Those two, they’d need a minder going out in the garden.’ Then everybody off to bed exhausted. Can’t you hear the craic the next time the two declared their intention of going out for a walk?

    At this point no doubt you’re wondering what, in the name of goodness, could have been offensive to me and to a large number of the paper’s readers in the by-line: ‘Two elderly nuns rescued after losing their way in Wicklow.’ The offence was not that a national newspaper exposed two anonymous nuns to public embarrassment. The offence of the by-line was immediately evident on reading the first sentence of the article itself. It said: ‘Two Sisters in their early 60’s were rescued early on Thursday …..’ At age 65, I found it offensive, and I am certain many other readers did, that the sub-editor referred to the nuns ‘in their early 60’s’ as elderly, which according to my dictionary means ‘bordering on old age!’ What a cheek!