Nuala Considine (Excalibur) – Big Dave's Crossword Blog
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Nuala Considine (Excalibur)

Updated 30th July 2018

Chris Lancaster posted the following tribute on Facebook:

“Sadly, Nuala Considine passed away earlier this week, aged 90.

“Nuala had her first crossword published in the Irish Times in 1946, and carried on compiling until the time of her death, so was a professional compiler for 72 years.

“She compiled for many national newspapers, and had her first puzzle published in the Telegraph in 1986. Since then she has had many crosswords published in the Telegraph, including 830 Sunday Telegraph cryptics. More recently she has appeared as Excalibur in the Telegraph Toughie series, to which she has contributed well over 100 puzzles, with a small number still to be published. She was known for her quirky and amusing clues which often made me laugh out loud when solving her puzzles.

“Nuala had an incredibly interesting life. There will be an obituary in the Telegraph, as well as a news article about her life and career. She was a really lovely person, a wonderful compiler, and all of us at the Telegraph will miss her.”

She put the ‘sword’ in Telegraph crossword for three decades (9)

NUALA CONSIDINE, one of The Telegraph’s longest-serving crossword compilers, has died at the age of 90.

She had her first crossword published in The Irish Times at the age of 18 and went on to compile hundreds more for numerous publications.

Known for her witty clues, she compiled crosswords for The Sunday Telegraph and The Daily Telegraph for more than 30 years. Her last three puzzles will be published posthumously over the coming months.

Using the name Excalibur, Considine set 830 Sunday Telegraph “Cryptic” puzzles between 1992 and 2009 and 110 “Toughies”, after their launch in 2008. She also compiled the Daily Mail’s Saturday Giant Crossword for 30 years and at the time of her death had a further 18 ready for publication. After her early submissions as a teenager, Considine joined Morley Adams, now part of the Press Association, in 1955. The company specialised in supplying crosswords to the national press, but it also employed her on several journalistic assignments.

Crosswords became her forte and soon she was supplying them to publications across Fleet Street. “It was very hard work,” she later said. “Sometimes a 15-by-15 cryptic crossword had to be compiled within an hour – and there was no electronic help.”

Chris Lancaster, The Telegraph’s puzzles editor, said: “Nuala was renowned for her humorous and quirky puzzles, which often included jokes and puns that regularly made one laugh out loud while solving.”

Considine was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer last month and died in her sleep on Tuesday. Her funeral will be held at Deansgrange Cemetery, Dublin, with a memorial service planned in London.

Nuala’s typical teasers

Nuala Considine has died, aged 90

1. Why did the Japanese go to the bar? (Give up?) (7) [forsake – for sake]

2. Silly thinking cats are dangerous (4-7) [bird-brained]

3. Cheep alarm clock? (4,6) [dawn chorus]

4. Ram home (5-3) [sheep-pen]

Nuala Considine, crossword compiler – obituary

Nuala Considine had a 72-year career compiling crosswords

Nuala Considine, who has died aged 90, had perhaps the longest career of any crossword compiler; her first puzzle was published at the age of 18, and she was still working prolifically until shortly before she died.

She was a long-standing Telegraph compiler, having set around 1,000 cryptic crosswords over a 31-year period. Starting on December 5 1986, she set alternate Mondays until 1992, when Val Gilbert, the crossword editor, asked her to take over on The Sunday Telegraph. She compiled the Sunday cryptic for 17 years – a total of 830 puzzles – before passing the baton to Brian Greer in 2009. When the Telegraph Toughie was launched in 2008, Nuala Considine assumed a new identity as “Excalibur”, with 110 Toughies published.

Her puzzles were known for their wit and brevity. Take this clue from her 100th Toughie: “Ram home (5-3)” – Answer: “Sheep-pen”. She would never allow an obscure answer to darken a puzzle’s door. She loved cryptic riddles and had no time for long bits-and-pieces clues. Toughie compilers have to send in explanations for the crossword editor. A typical Excalibur explanation would say: “Joke.”

As well as her work for the Telegraph, Nuala Considine produced a volume of puzzles that almost defies belief. For the Daily Express she set five puzzles a week for 10 years. For the Daily Mail she had set a giant crossword every Saturday for the past 25 years, also compiling the Friday crossword for the London Evening Standard. Further back in time, she set five crosswords every week for the Daily Sketch and was the crossword editor for another long-departed newspaper, the Sunday Correspondent.

Her crosswords were syndicated to local newspapers and “more magazines than I can possibly remember – She, Woman’s Realm, Amateur Gardening,” she recalled, adding: “I did a weekly puzzle for the New Scientist with scientific clues – that was difficult.”

Aisling Fionnuala Maire Considine was born on 10 October 1927 and grew up in London, Dublin and Rome. Her mother, Delia Murphy, was a popular Irish singer who recorded more than 100 ballads in the 1930s to 1950s, including “If I Were A Blackbird”. Nuala’s grandfather, John Murphy, had made money in the Klondike gold rush of the 1890s.

Nuala’s father, Dr Thomas J Kiernan, was an Irish diplomat. He was posted to London, where Nuala, her sisters Blon and Orla and brother Colm were born, and then in 1935 he became the head of Ireland’s Radio Eireann. During the Second World War, Dr Kiernan was Ireland’s Minister Plenipotentiary to the Vatican, later writing a biography of his friend Pope Pius XII. Nuala, then a teenager, went to a girls’ school in Rome; she went on to speak Italian, French and Spanish.

Nuala Considine in the 1940s, during her time with Aer Lingus

After the war, Nuala became a stewardess for Aer Lingus, where she met a pilot called Brian Considine, nearly eight years her senior. Brian, from Limerick, had served as a Hurricane pilot, being shot down and wounded during the Battle of Britain. Brian introduced Nuala to cryptic crosswords, and together they compiled a puzzle for fun which they sent to the Irish Times. To their amazement, it was published. “That was the first of many I set for them,” she said. Brian and Nuala were married in March 1948.

Back in London, Nuala’s puzzle-compiling led her to join a Fleet Street press agency, Morley Adams, in 1955. “At first I wrote pieces on all kinds of subjects,” she recalled. “I wrote a weekly horoscope, and film and theatre reviews. But I specialised in crosswords. Sometimes a cryptic had to be compiled within an hour – and there was no electronic help.”

In fact, Nuala would spurn electronic help throughout her career. Today, a computer program can set up a grid of answers at the press of a key, but Nuala continued to create her grids personally in pencil. She insisted that it helped her to avoid obscure answers – and if she ever got trapped in a corner where she might have to put in some little-known plant from Peru, she would tell herself: “Rub out, rub out, rub out!”

After Brian died in 1996, Nuala threw herself into a workload that might have overwhelmed someone half her age. Phil McNeill, the Telegraph’s crossword editor when Nuala was in her eighties, has recalled that: “Compiling is a solitary occupation, and she missed Brian terribly. She split her time between central London and San Diego, California, as they had done together, and when she was in London we would meet for afternoon tea. Nuala had done some photographic modelling in her youth, and she would arrive exuding old-style glamour, a tiny, slim figure who looked as if a puff of wind could blow her away. She had a wicked sense of humour and was fantastic company.”

Nuala gave up compiling when told she had a terminal illness six weeks before she died. Even then she admitted: “I’ve stopped work now, but you know, as I fall asleep I am still writing crossword clues in my head.”

Nuala Considine, born October 10 1927, died July 24 2018


9 comments on “Nuala Considine (Excalibur)

  1. Sorry to hear the news, she will be much missed. Condolences to those who knew her.

  2. So easy for us to assume that our setters go on for ever – sadly they are as fallible as the rest of us.
    I shall miss her puzzles, which I always looked forward to solving.

    Many condolences to her family and friends.

  3. My condolences to her loved ones but what an amazing life and legacy! People like her really do make the world go around and we are all the better for it.

  4. Follow the invisible man in the sportswear department? (5,4)

    That made me laugh years ago.

  5. One of her Toughies was the first puzzle I ever blogged on this site. An extremely interesting character – RIP and condolences to her family and friends.

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