Back to the Future for Mullooly
RTÉ journalist Ciaran Mullooly has written a fascinating new book reflecting on his career and rural Ireland. He spoke to PAUL FITZPATRICK about his experiences working in the Cavan Leader a quarter of a century ago and how he feels rural Ireland can be saved...
For those involved, it probably doesn’t feel like 25 years since the Cavan Leader was in its pomp. Back then, 21 Farnham St was where it was at it, a young, hungry news and sales team taking on the established powerhouse that was The Anglo-Celt.
In the middle of it all was a callow young journalist from Lanesboro, Co Longford, called Ciaran Mullooly who would go on to make his name as one of the top broadcast journalists in the country with RTÉ.
And the experiences and contacts amassed during his time in Cavan have proved invaluable in Mullooly’s rise up the ranks.
The story of how the Cavan Leader was born, in the midst of a recession, is fascinating.
“Eugene McGee gave me a job as a student who wasn’t enjoying Mechanical and Plastic Engineering in Athlone IT. I went in to the Longford Leader on a very low wage doing proofing and the odd bit of writing here and there,” Mullooly, who documents it all – and much more – in his new book 'Back To The Future’, told The Anglo-Celt this week.
“But the timing was good because McGee was taking over as the Cavan senior football manager and, as a good businessman, he was also angling the paper to increase sales. The Leader was always bought in Mullahoran, Arva in places like that, anyway, but he was looking to increase that.”
So, at 20 years of age, Ciaran was thrown in at the deep end, despatched into uncharted territory to conquer Cavan with a new brand to rival the Celt.
“I was sent on missions to places like Cornafean, Ballyjamesduff, Ballinagh... Into the unknown! They were great times, we’d do one day a week in these towns.
“How would we get the stories? Well, the bould Eddie Brady, for example, was our Ballinagh correspondent, he would write something in the notes and you might spot it, about Gavin the Cooper doing a new job or whatever it was and you’d go up and do the story.
“Back then McGee would put one or two extra pages into the Leader from Cavan, he did that for a while and got a good reaction and that’s how it became more serious. That and the football, him coming centre stage as Cavan manager.
“It was a big decision to take to start a new paper. It was a Cavan edition and initially it would have had 50pc, 60pc Cavan content, that was one of the things that held back the paper. We eventually tried to buy the paper off McGee in the end and keep it all in Cavan because Cavan people didn’t want to see Longford pages.
“We got it to a point where we had a compact edition with maybe 40 pages and 30 of them were Cavan content.”
Soon, Mullooly was on the ground and getting things set up. He helped put together a vibrant team.
“Aidan Watters was our first employee from Cavan, the great Superstars and Cavan GAA man. Damien O’Reilly from Mullahoran, the county footballer, came in on accounts and circulation. Then we had people like Kevin Carney on the writing front, Phelim Cox – the legendary pirate radio DJ – into advertising and Ann O’Donoghue. Hugh Lynch worked there as well and it turned out to be a brilliant training ground for journalists.
“I am proud of everything I did in the Cavan Leader, absolutely I have no regrets. We cut our teeth with good stories, features and profiles, stuff that The Celt wasn’t doing. The Celt was covering a lot of meetings and courts.
“I was a great friend of Anslem Lovett’s, we sat side by side in court all the time. But it was the old-style paper, what was on in court and local authority meetings, compared to the great paper that it is today. We (in the Leader) tried to go with features, profiles, opinion pieces...
“We had great times, I enjoyed every day of it. And we had a good crew. Gerard Ryle, who was a Kerryman, went on to become one of the top investigative reporters in Australia. The great Sean McMahon came in as a local notes correspondent and went on to enjoy a long career and is still going strong. He used to collect papers and bring them off to Belturbet with him.
“Ian McCabe and a fella called Pat Cummins were there as photographers as well. They were exceptional as well, Paul Healy, who is editor of the Roscommon People and has published five books, was another.
“We had loads of problems with technical issues and we became known as a paper that made typographical errors but that was probably mainly because we were under-staffed, you know.”
Some of the staff got together and sought to take charge but when McGee rebuffed that approach and another job offer came Mullooly’s way, he took it up. And the rest is history.
“I genuinely wanted to buy out McGee and I reminded him about it recently. He didn’t want to sell it, we asked him twice and he wouldn’t do it and in the end I got an offer to go to Shannonside radio doing current affairs, I took it because local radio was the new thing at the time.
“I enjoyed the buzz, the adrenaline flow on radio and TV is what keeps me going. The fact that you can go live and can bring the news to people immediately. I miss the ability to write a column, to sit down and write 1,000 words and bring people depth and that’s one of the reasons why the book has been written,” said Ciaran, who scratched the writing itch by penning a column in the Roscommon People for 17 years.
“It’s something I miss today. Even when I worked on Ear To The Ground, you had six, seven, eight minutes to tell a story. The lack of depth can be a little frustrating. For example, on Monday of this week I was in Ballinacargy (to cover a murder story) and I had to keep my story to 60 seconds.”
The book consists of 23 essays on “rural life, recession and renewal over 30 years of journalism”. Rural Ireland, and the beat he covers as Midlands Correspondent with RTÉ, is a subject close to Mullooly’s heart.
“They are people, and this is genuine, who have a complete lack of arrogance as compared to other parts of the country. We’re a modest sort of a tribe in this region. Under-stated – we don’t go boasting about our achievements. When success comes our way, we celebrate it with great pride but we’re modest people and hard-working,” he said.
Somewhere along the line, though, something has gone wrong in rural Ireland. He sees it every day, all over the island.
“I’d never claim to be in the same category as John Healy with his famous book from the 1960s, 'Nobody Shouted Stop’, but I’d certainly be saying it’s time to sit up and smell the coffee. There won’t be jobs in rural Ireland unless we do something about it.
“I drive 100, 200 miles a day through towns that are derelict, all they’re missing is the tumbleweed. There’s property for sale, hotels closed down, pubs closed during the day and it’s soul-destroying. And unless there’s a focus – not political but in the communities themselves – on being more inventive and more creative in terms of tourism and enterprise, these towns are going to be left that way.
“There’s a big issue with Bord na Mona, for example. These communities are facing a rude awakening. A lot of people relied on the bog for summer employments but the changes coming down the line are phenomenal and the number of jobs will be a fraction of what is there at the minute. They’re going to remain ghost towns.”
Solution 'in people’s hands’
The solution? Look after ourselves, he says.
“It’s in people’s hands, I refer to Bord na Mona villages and towns in the book as being spoiled, they had good pay packets for decades and as a result we never got the finger out. There was never a restaurant in my home town, we didn’t need it. We didn’t have an enterprise centre. There was no such thing as an entrepreneur. That’s going to have to change, dramatically.”
Lest we forget, the now-defunct Cavan Leader gave Mullooly more than just a start in journalism – he also met his wife, Angela, through the paper.
“My best momento of the good days!” he laughs.
“Angela worked in reception. She’s from Mullahoran Upper, a daughter of Jimmy Joe and Wendy O’Reilly. We were just back two weeks ago because they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.
“Mullahoran is a good example of what I mean, it’s a fine parish, good pride in the place, people are making businesses work in the middle of the country. That’s the sort of thing I’m talking about.
“People need to get up and help themselves.”