A brand new day and a grand old tiff

Mayor Jane Byrne got her Irish dander up in 1979 after the visiting Princess Margaret made a reference to Irish ‘pigs’

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White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki holds in a press briefing at the White House on Wednesday.

Alex Wong, Getty

Welcome to America’s new front porch.

It’s known as the place to filter the national truth.

And its occupants are the White House press corps, a gaggle of the nation’s top-notch journalists and/or media “rip readers,” reporters who often let others do the heavy lifting.

At 10:48 Wednesday morning, President Joseph R. Biden was sworn in as the nation’s 46th president.

By mid-afternoon, the nation’s new White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, approached the small theater in the White House’s West Wing — known as the Brady Press Briefing Room — and headed to the lectern to introduce herself. 

Within minutes, a press corps exhausted from President Donald Trump’s media cyclone of  fibs and distortion tossed Psaki her first question.

Was she planning to tell the truth?

Smiling, Psaki pledged to bring “the importance of truth and transparency” back to the White House newsroom.

Well, the truth meter is now on the clock.

It’s a good bet Biden’s “truth” has to be a quantum leap from the consequences of Trump’s corrupt tongue.

But being a press secretary for a top politician can be a landmine — a quagmire, a cesspool of gossip, a suckhole of intrigue and chicanery.

It’s also a warehouse of information; a window seat to governmental wheelers dealing; a window to the world in real time; a trip to a jury room before a decision is made. 

I should know.

I was one.

Although my short tenure as Mayor Jane Byrne’s press secretary in 1979 was an undistinguished eyeblink — and a return to a new salary at my newspaper was a godsend — it was also an exit from the daily parade of gossipy office snitchers hoping to catch the mayor’s ear and terrific sources later. 

But as a press secretary, the unexpected tipple between the very Irish Byrne and the very English Princess Margaret became the stuff of newsy legends.

Here’s the skinny.

Britain’s Princess Margaret blew into town on Oct. 11, 1979, on a charity tour to five U.S. cities. 

Stunningly unprepared, Margaret chatted with the press and asked legendary Chicago Sun-Times gossip columnist Irv Kupcinet:

“Is Richard Daley still mayor of Chicago?”

Princess Margaret, who was known to triple tipple and talk, was only accompanied by a social secretary. 

Shortly thereafter, Princess Margaret was feted at a private event also attended by Byrne.


Princess Margaret



A subsequent item in Kup’s column lit a torch worldwide; lit up the Irish Republican Army; and wet the whistle of the Chicago press, which descended on City Hall.

Did Princess Margaret, whose beloved relative Lord Mountbatten had been blown to bits by the Irish Republican army a few months earlier, actually call the Irish “pigs” in a lugubrious moment at the party?


Mayor Jane Byrne

Sun Times files


Thumping with Irish political power, the city was aghast.

Byrne, who spent a lot of time in office putting out the city’s brush fires, knew how to gather tinder and make headlines. After all, her husband, Jay McMullen, had been a City Hall newspaper reporter.

So when Byrne, the queen of the abrupt, new hallway press conferences, bubbled into City Hall early one morning in October of 1979, there was no way to take the bullets out of her gun.

Byrne unloaded.

“Irish pigs?” Byrne queried, delighting in every bit of the drama. “Irish pigs?

“Well ... I think it might have been “jigs… Irish jigs. Not pigs,” Byrne chuckled with a wink to her Irish eye. 

The press went wild.

Suffice it to say, Byrne, who was seated at Princess Margaret’s table, left the party shortly after the comment was made. 

Later, it was disclosed the actual quote  was: “The Irish, they’re pigs,” and Kup, who knew the Chicago elite, had more than enough sources to verify the item ... although it was later disclosed Byrne’s husband had been the source.

Byrne eventually confirmed Princess Margaret had made the remark, but that she was referring to only Irish terrorists as pigs. 

Ironically, Byrne, who had been sent months earlier to attend Mountbatten’s funeral in London as a representative of President Jimmy Carter, was no dummy. 

The funeral was followed by a rushed trip to Ireland to find her “relatives” (Wink. Wink.) and talk with the Taoiseach (prime minister) of Ireland in an attempt to mollify her Irish constituents. (I think I got fired three times on the visit. But that’s another story.)

The lesson was a dramatic one: Princess Margaret traveled to Chicago with a ton of trunks loaded with bling and designer duds, but minus a press secretary to handle the worldwide furor she ignited.

So, Good Luck, Jen Psaki. 

May you never have an inkwell muddied by lies, a pencil without a dependable eraser, and a good head’s up from your boss.

Sneedlings . . .

Saturday’s birthdays: Mariska Hargitay, 57; Draya Michele, 36; and Nancy Gattuso, ageless and priceless. . . . Sunday’s birthdays: Luis Suarez, 34; Justin Baldoni, 37; and Neil Diamond, 80. 

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