Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Farewell to the Connacht Tribune

Writing my last ever article for the Galway City Tribune

When I was growing up in Galway in the 1970s and ‘80s, I never actually thought I would live as an adult in my home town. Most of us bypassed Dublin and gravitated towards the bright lights of London, where the delights of a big city, well-paid work, Liverpool FC games, and countless gigs provided a massive attraction during my summer holidays from NUI Galway.

 At one stage, I must have had 20 friends in the British capital and it offered a ‘freedom’ which was unavailable at home.

But when the opportunity presented itself to work full-time for my local newspaper, I jumped at it. Good jobs were hard to come by in the West of Ireland in the early 1990s and I was in dreamland at times, writing my own weekly music column, covering a vibrant club scene and following the exploits of a myriad of decent Galway bands.

Music got me into journalism in the first place and my column coincided with the arrival of venues such as the Roisin Dubh and Monroe’s. I used to get in free to all the gigs when a notorious club called The Castle featured some of the best nights out in the land. And I could marvel at the brilliance of bands like Toasted Heretic, The Far Canals, and Inflatable Sideshow in the 1990s, while getting paid to down pints at their gigs and rage at the injustice of how they failed to conquer the world.

There were some crazy nights, such as when a delirious crowd carried dance DJ Carl Cox, like a triumphant boxer, onto the Castle stage. The fact that the venue was threatened with closure by the Gardai only added to the intense atmosphere in the club. There was a manic energy on the Galway music scene, despite of or perhaps because of emigration and social deprivation, in those early years.

Clubs like Sex Kitchen, Wiped, and Feet First, influenced more by London and Cork than Dublin, were better than any you’d find in the capital.

And our generation of clubbers, with our free outdoor ‘raves’, were partially responsible for the drafting of the draconian Public Order Act in 1994 which still prompts concerns over civil liberties to this day.

The maddest day I ever had at work in the 1990s came when I was sent out to interview a priest in the wilds of Connemara but, thanks to a wayward hitch-hiker, ended up in a ‘shebeen’ frequented by poitin drinkers who hadn’t a word of English between them. I returned to the city with a couple of bottles and a much different story than my editor envisaged. But that’s another story ... 

In sport, I was a young freelancer in the press box when Galway United won the FAI Cup for the first and only time. The modesty of the likes of the late Tommy Keane and Eamon Deacy, the city’s two most gifted players in history, was a wonderful reflection of the part of the city which spawned them. 

Unlike, say, Corkonians, people from ‘The West’ tend not to blow their own trumpets ... even when they should at times.

I will never forget how accommodating Westside native David Forde was after he finally became Republic of Ireland goalkeeper at 33 years of age. Despite all his commitments with national and international media, the Millwall and former Galway United goalkeeper always went out of his way to do interviews with his home town 'paper.

Sometimes my friends thought I had the best job in the world. I was in the dressing-room when the Galway footballers won the Sam Maguire Cup for the first time in 32 years in 1998. Those were the days before Croke Park was taken over by over-eager security men in suits. It seemed totally natural to down about six pints of beer in a Salthill pub before covering an emotional homecoming for our Tuesday paper, The Sentinel, at 4am.

As for the hurlers, the frustrations in covering them just summed up the disappointments of a quarter of a century for followers of the Tribesmen. There were mighty days to report on against Kilkenny in 2001, 2005, and 2012, and yet an entire generation or two of gifted players never reached the promised land. It was sad to see fantastic hurlers, the likes of Eugene Cloonan, Joe Rabbitte, and Ollie Canning end their careers without winning an elusive All-Ireland medal.

Boxers were the most welcoming of all the sports people I came across. I was lucky enough to be the first journalist to interview Francie Barrett in his caravan at the Hillside encampment, a year before he became the first Traveller to represent Ireland at the Olympic Games. Boxers were always dignified, always thrilled by any coverage the Tribune gave them, and represented their impoverished communities with pride.

There were poignant days in the job, too. I will never forget the hospitality and sheer dignity of the parents of Siobhan Hynes and Kieran Cunningham, both senselessly murdered, when they welcomed me into their homes. These quiet, rural families were hurtled so cruelly into extraordinary grief and pain – and yet they had such quiet determination to tell their children’s stories, to make sure their short lives were remembered in the right way by their local 'paper.

As a reporter, it is sometimes amazing to get the chance to sit down and talk to people who just want to share their stories after experiencing unthinkable tragedy in their lives.

In recent years, I got to interview some extraordinary people, including my own school friend Liam Cullinane who has battled meningitis, with both bravery and determination, for over 20 years. Then there was Mark Logan, a man I knew through the city’s music scene who saved countless lives through his work in suicide prevention.

Mark and I joked for about five years about doing a long interview, but kept putting it off. Then, after we finally did sit down for a chat, Mark tragically died of a heart attack just two weeks later. The man was a legend and his funeral was one of the most memorable I ever attended. He was great fun, but dedicated his life to helping people in distress.

People like Liam and Mark may never make national or international headlines, but they inspire the communities around them with their extraordinary, understated lives.

Then  there was Declan Higgins, current President of the NUI Galway Students’ Union, who has had the courage to talk about depression and suicide with the kind of raw honesty which would have been alien to my generation two decades ago.

Or Galway-based cameraman Richie O'Donnell, whose documentary 'The Pipe' showed how ordinary people can have their lives turned upside down by big business and faceless bureaucrats. The 'Shell to Sea' controversy in North Mayo and the use of Shannon by US military aircraft are two of the great scandals of our time in so-called neutral Ireland.

In recent years, I’ve been inspired by the Palestinian activists in Galway, including 64-year old Tommy Donnellan who was shot by Israeli soldiers in the West Bank last year. Tommy, armed with a camera, is determined that the truth will come out. He shows no fear and jokes that he’s too old to be considered a threat by the Israeli authorities. His photos and videos give voices to the voiceless in the West Bank and Gaza, who feel they have been forgotten by the outside world.

Interviewing someone like Tommy or Richie showed me that Galway people do tend to keep a keen interest in the big, bad world, and that there are people out there giving voices to those who feel they have been denigrated or ignored.

Since I came back from a gap year in 2010, I've been fascinated by the turf-cutters' cause. They feel that faceless bureaucrats have imposed restrictions upon them, on their own land, which is an emotive issue for Irish people no matter what the environmental concerns. It's been heartening to see an outsider, Luke 'Ming' Flanagan, go from being a subject of ridicule by Fianna Fail gombeens in Galway to an elected MEP in the European Parliament.

Like Ming, it still annoys me that a person in possession of €10 worth of cannabis can end up before the District Court and in the local paper, with all the more serious issues going on. To me, drug use is a health rather than criminal issue. The fear of having your name appear in the paper for such a minor offence can cripple people and damage lives.

But, in many ways, Ireland has moved on. Homosexuality was illegal when I started working with the Tribune, for example, whereas nowadays we're likely to use a full page of photos from the Pride festival. And people have, rightly, become far more questioning of the Catholic Church because of all the abuse scandals which were unearthed by the local and national media.

The start of my career with the Tribune conicided with the 'Bishop Casey Scandal' and long gone are the days when the Bishop of Galway could urge his congregation to whip their daughters if they happen to be out late on a Saturday night.

There is a palpable anger in the West of Ireland that so many ordinary people have been forced to pay for the crimes of an elite few, through water, property, and USC taxes. Friends living overseas have told me that they get a better feeling of what Ireland is like since the crisis from the Connacht and City Tribune than they do from the national media.

Suicide is a theme which seems to have popped up far too frequently over the past couple of years and yet it’s been inspirational to meet the people who do Trojan work with the likes of Pieta House and Console.
In Ballinasloe, it was moving to see an entire community fight so hard to oppose cuts to mental health services – there has been palpable anger in local communities as politicians have continued to ‘slash and burn’ in recent years.

Yes, local journalism has allowed me to meet hundreds of people and shown me the dignity and pride of ordinary West of Ireland people who may never have wanted the limelight in the first place.

Provincial newspapers play a huge role in Irish life but, for me, the time has come to move on. With the industry going through a crisis, I decided to take a voluntary redundancy package this week. While my immediate future is uncertain, it’s been a privilege to meet so many wonderful people and attempt to tell their stories over the past two decades.