Frontline: Looking back

Mary de Paor looks at the early years of Frontline and has a peep at the future in its new online incarnation.


This final print-issue of Frontline marks 25 years of publication—a total of 97 issues of the magazine! In the spring of 1989, as people entered the Brandon Hotel in Tralee for the AGM of NAMHI, two gentlemen were making a pitch for a new magazine called Frontline. Over the previous six months, John Saunders, Tony Darmody, Patrick McGinley, Chris Conliffe, Seamus Dunne, Patricia Walsh and Bob McCormack had worked with publisher Nick Maxwell of Wordwell to bring Frontline into being. They had determined that there was a need for an Irish magazine that would:
■ ‘meet the needs of frontline workers and parents;
■ report on major research areas which are of interest to staff and parents, in a readable, intelligent way;
■ report on “good practice” in service developments in such a way as to facilitate others implementing it in their own service setting;
■ describe the real situation, even if this entailed controversy;
■ adopt an independent advocacy role in relation to people with a mental handicap [sic] and their families. This would include material written or co-written by clients and material written for more able clients;
■ encourage acknowledgement of the limitations and problems of new developments or approaches, as well as describing the successes.’

It is a little ironic to read the ‘market penetration’ hopes held by that first editorial team: ‘Most staff do not read. A proportion of parents are reading avidly, seeking practical help in working with their child. The total market is about 30,000 families and 5000 staff and … agencies … might be willing to circulate a flyer to members of their parents and friends association…. Libraries and consultation waiting rooms are another potential market, including libraries outside Ireland.’ Frontline did become established in a vital, if modest, niche in the Irish learning disability community, and it has managed to continue in that role for a quarter of a century—but its market penetration never developed beyond a few hundred subscribers, made up of service organisations, individual professionals and families.

The content of Frontline has always been overseen by a voluntary editorial board, members who are, like the readers, professionals, frontline workers and parents. Some have been able to give their time to the magazine for two or three years; others have stayed involved for over twenty. Seven editors have successively taken on the responsibility of getting 32 pages ready for the designer and printer four times each year. (Doing the sums, one can see that there were only three glitches in meeting those deadlines during the 25 years.)

For all of its first two decades, Frontline was published by Nick Maxwell and Wordwell. Nick worked patiently with successive editors, demanding 32 readable pages, maybe a little controversy occasionally, and more pictures please. He and his staff always managed to slot us in between the production deadlines of his higher-profile magazines and book publishing. He was never forthcoming with detailed accounts, but we all knew there was loss, rather than profit, in the ledger. Finally, in 2009, he suggested we should take control of our own affairs, and the members of the editorial board established a not-for-profit company, ‘Frontline Magazine Limited’.

Fortunately, we were able to call on the design services of Niamh Power for a further three years, and she led us to our current designer Niall Ó Laoghaire—who is now helping to bring the magazine into the new era.
After 25 years, Frontline will now adapt to the all-embracing world of the internet at our fingertips and social media giving instant communication and feedback. Those of us who still prefer paper-page reading to screen-scrolling will understandably regret the loss of the print magazine—and we apologise for that. But production/printing costs for small-run magazines have become prohibitive. However, Frontline will be able to engage much more fully with our Irish (and international) intellectual disability community in an online format.

I’m still pretty much a twentieth century person—fifteen years into this scary century, I’ve only had my smarter-than-me Samsung mini mobile phone for a few months. New editorial board members will be able to bring about the changes necessary for an up-to-date and more interactive magazine—I, and I hope all our readers, wish them every blessing in the work.

(If you can offer your skills to Frontline, please, please contact our editor Stephen Kealy.)