The man behind the grid revealed
“There’s a Ned O’Hara here to see ya,” one of the ads team announced in the post-deadline-day monotone commonly heard in the Celt’s corridors on a war-weary Wednesday. Ned could be anyone. Had the huge friendly figure - standing at least six-four in flip-flops - announced his arrival in reverse at the Celt’s reception there’s more chance that he’d have been welcomed as one of the hundred or so vital cogs who keep this paper’s wheels in motion each week.
Ned O’Hara - AKA Arahoden - is the brains behind the crossword which teases, confounds, frustrates and delights a good portion of the Celt’s readers each week. He’s easily responsible for the most post pumping through the letterbox each week.
The ads team-member is surprised to learn that Ned’s our crossword compiler. The geometric simplicity; black islands, intersected by white-lanes, where junctions are marked out with digits all speak of maths and machines. Many probably assume it’s generated via some elaborate logarithm. Unless you attempt Arahoden’s pesky clues, you won’t appreciate the grey-matter hard at work beneath the stark black and white grid. Ned’s responsible for the anagram you can’t quite unravel, the mysterious Breffni landmark tickling the back of your memory bank and possibly for more sleepless nights amongst Cavan people than the recession.
More surprising than Ned exists, is that his Cavan-centric crossword is compiled from the tail-end of the M3 in Castleknock. However Ned’s encyclopaedic-knowledge of all things Breffni has been built up from his rearing in Granard, and his 13 years living in Cavan Town and working in the local An Post sorting office. A job opportunity in the GPO arose in 1984 and delivered him to Dublin, where he’s been living since.
Ned’s grasp of Cavan is further enhanced by his Wednesday morning ritual of research. At 8.10am he buys the Celt from his local newsagent; then he devours it.
“I’m not sure if everybody in Cavan reads the Celt as assiduously as I do – I read all of the local notices and stuff like that – just to see if there’s anything happening.”
To compile the crossword, Ned fills out the answers on the grid first, and insists on keeping as many clues as possible relevant to Cavan, and if he can make them timely, well, all the better. This week of course is the Life of Reilly, so opening his laptop, Ned walks us through his database of Cavan words, and opens the subsection of Reillys and O’Reillys, which he modestly claims he doesn’t have “that many”. There’s more than enough.
“Big Tom O’Reilly was the footballer,” says Ned embarking on his litany with the gusto of horse race commentator, “Brendan Reilly was the television man - he was from Granard more than Cavan - Clodagh O’Reilly, is she a referee or a Gaelic footballer? I’ll have to look her up. Colm O’Reilly is the Bishop Ardagh and Clonmacnoise, Damien O’Reilly presents the radio programme, Danny O’Reilly sings with the Corronas - Mary Black’s son, Emily O’Reilly…” and so it goes on with politicians, Celt editors, bit part comic actors, 18th Century patriots… and on… “Paddy O’Reilly, Radar O’Reilly – you wouldn’t remember that, he was from M*A*S*H* it was a programme; Ryan O’Reilly was a football player, who went to Stoke or somewhere…”
You get the point, Ned’s passion is matched by his fastidious approach.
He opens another Cavan subsection naming rivers and bridges – and the Celt is perturbed to find that there’s one called Cromwell’s Bridge amongst them.
“It’s in Kingscourt in Dun A Rí forest park,” Ned confirms without a second’s pause.
“Some of the places I know myself and some I’ve learned,” he explains.
Kingscourt would be one he had to learn. His time with An Post gave him a terrific knowledge of townlands in most of the county but Kingscourt and Bailieborough came under Kells’ remit.
“If we’re doing nothing now,” says Ned who took early retirement, “we would just drive down to Bailieborough for our lunch. We were in a lovely little restaurant in Cootehill a couple of weeks ago.”
Anyway, his ever expanding armoury of Cavan words helps him to fill in a sizeable chunk of the grid with local relevance; a click of the auto-fill button finishes off the vacant slots in the grid. Or so it should. Sometimes there are no words in the English language that will fit around the words he’s already placed, so he has to either figure out alternative words or phrases to fit – maybe proper nouns, which wouldn’t be in a dictionary, or rework his grid. Filling the grid is the toughest part.
Ned is also mindful of the words conjured up by the auto-fill function. For instance, when he’s showing the Celt his grid for today, he removes a few of his answers, clicks autofill and a words is spewed up, which he finds disagreeable.
“Sputum”, wonders the Celt aloud.
“Sputum is when you throw up from your chest,” he explains.
“Sometimes the words are just not suitable, like swear words or words with innuendos can be misread.”
Almost like a water diviner Ned seems to be led in certain directions by the grid.
“When you start off with an empty grid it brings you places,” he enthuses. “It just depends – I don’t know if it happens subconsciously, but if you start a grid with Cootehill, the whole crossword that week seems to generate from that side of the county. Whereas if you start off in Blacklion you end up finishing off on that side as well.”
He is conscious that he is “making it for people in Kingscourt and Blacklion as well as you’re making it for people in Cavan Town”.
When it comes to making up the clues, there’s no auto-fill option, but that would defeat the purpose anyway - it’s entirely up to Ned.
Clues he’s particularly proud of?
“‘Complete school in Cootehill’ was a good one – comprehensive.
“‘A word for the first town on the Shannon’ is an anagram of Dowra.
“Sometimes they come to you, sometimes they don’t it’s like anything. If I don’t have it done by Wednesday lunchtime it bugs me.”
His hero of crossword compilers was the late Derek Crozier who was The Irish Times’ compiler for over 60 years.
Was he sad when he passed away in 2010?
“I was, but I wasn’t too bad because I knew he couldn’t go on forever and I was pleased that it was another two years after he died when he ran out of crosswords.”
He’s not as fond of Crozier’s replacement.
“You have to be fair to a crossword solver. What annoys me about the Irish Times crossword at the moment is that sometimes I think it’s unfair, it’s just not fair.”
Have you ever been unfair?
“I probably have,” he accepts with a smile. “The thing I actually find most difficult is to know if they are hard or easy. Because I’m making them - to me they’re easy. And sometimes I’m look at it the following week and think – how would anyone get that out?”
I tell Ned of an especially devilish clue that recently stumped my fiancée, even though she was reared beside the place referred to in the clue.
“That’s possible, and then if it’s unfair and I would feel aggrieved for that person, because I feel aggrieved myself when I think someone is being unfair,” he says with a laugh that doesn’t sound too aggrieved. “I think you have to have a fair chance of solving it, that’s why if it is difficult I would always try to fit in an anagram or a translation.”
Ned’s love for crosswords has been a lifelong one, as he recalls completing the Dandy’s grid as a child. By the time he had moved to Cavan his daily habit saw him attempt the crosswords in both the Times and the Indo daily. However an increased workload called a temporary halt to his pasttime when he moved to Dublin. A module in a Master’s Degree he did in the late 1990s urged the participants to develop something for their lives outside of work for their own well-being.
“It was with an eye to that, that I started to do the crosswords – because you can do crosswords till you’re 170 if you live till 170.”
He agrees with the idea that crosswords offer a good work out for our brains.
“People are interested in different things so it doesn’t necessarily follow that if you want to keep your brain alive that you need a crossword, but I do think that it’s important that you keep it exercised in some way.”
What keeps Ned exercised is deciphering the mysterious person behind the grid in the crosswords he attempts. The personality behind the impersonal grid is much of the charm of crosswords.
“I think you have to get into the setter’s mind - that was maybe the attraction of Crozier, that you knew how he was thinking, and I’m still struggling with the new fella.”
When we’re struggling with this week’s Arahoden crossword on page 43, at least you’ll know Ned feels our pain.