When I began working for the Belfast Telegraph on 1 September 1964, some 56 years ago, I had no idea of the adventure that lay ahead of me.
As a recent History honours graduate from Queen’s University and as a former editor of the student newspaper Gown, I had already fulfilled my ambition of becoming a professional journalist - just by being appointed to join the Telegraph newsroom.
However I had no idea then of how this distinguished and historic newspaper was filling such an important place at the heart of Northern Ireland society, or its enviable reputation for bridge-building in a divided community, or the fact that it was selling some 200,000 copies a day and went into almost every home in the province - Protestant and Catholic, nationalist and unionist.
It is only now when I look back that I realise that I had been given the rare privilege of working with a talented group of dedicated journalists and for a newspaper which was a major force in the land, not only in relative peacetime but also in the torrent of murder and mayhem that lay ahead, and which we euphemistically called the Troubles.
My early years were spent learning my craft the hard way, with an awesome and martinet editor called John E Sayers. John gave the paper its distinctive bridge-building ethos and who is still remembered today with great respect by those journalists to whom he taught the importance of fairness, objectivity and accuracy.
I also worked with some first-rate journalists who helped to smooth my rough edges, as one of the few early entrants to journalism with a university degree, but with no training in a regional newspaper. However, they warmly accepted me as one of themselves once I had passed their many stern tests as a young reporter and writer, though their banter was not for the faint-hearted.
Prior to 1968-69 when the Troubles began to loom, my reporting was in the courts and covering typical regional journalistic stories, though my first big adventure was being sent to then West Berlin to report on the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, who were stationed there. I will not forget the day they kitted me out in an officer’s uniform and took me with them in a jeep on patrol past the Russian guards and into the Eastern sector, or the days when we drove past Spandau Prison where Rudolf Hess was still incarcerated, and they were checking on him.
On the afternoon following the Birmingham bombs I arrived hot-foot from London where I had been on other business and, when I took a taxi, the driver said: “With your accent, son, don’t speak to anyone in Birmingham today"
The Troubles hit the province and the Telegraph like a tornado. By 1968 I had been promoted to leader-writer and the paper’s sole feature writer, and I had access to the top table where the editorial team including Jack Sayers, Martin Wallace, Roy Lilley, Barry White and myself, and many other colleagues, were working hard to support the liberal Unionist leader Captain Terence O’Neill to prevent the Province descending into a deep pit of violence and counter-violence.
Sadly we failed, O’Neill failed, liberal unionism failed and predictably we spent the next few decades in the most awful violence imaginable. As a feature writer and reporter I was dispatched by various editors including the avuncular and shrewd Eugene Wason and the politically astute Roy Lilley to cover some of the worst of the violence. They included the aftermath of Bloody Sunday in Londonderry in 1972 when the British paratroopers killed 13 unarmed civilians on a civil rights march - one died later - and the Birmingham pub bombings in 1974 which killed 21 innocent civilians on a night out.
Both atrocities had an unexpected link in my reporting. On the morning after the Derry killings I was taken down to the Bogside along with a Scots reporter, by the wife of a local GP. As we approached a group of Bogside people she said to the other journalist, “Don’t open your mouth down here. Some of the Paratroopers had Scottish accents.”
On the afternoon following the Birmingham bombs I arrived hot-foot from London where I had been on other business and, when I took a taxi, the driver said: “With your accent, son, don’t speak to anyone in Birmingham today.” That was the curious symmetry of violence.
Belfast Telegraph at 150: Images and front pages through the decades Close
Belfast Telegraph: newsboys. Nine-year-old Emmanuel McGee does his own advertising as he sells the Tele on Royal Avenue
The first edition of the Belfast Evening Telegraph on September 1, 1870.
The Clash, Photograph 1977 Adrian boot taken in Belfast city centre on display at the Art of Selling songs exhibition at the Ulster Museum. Pic by Peter Morrison
Presseye Northern Ireland - Van Morrison Concert - Cyprus Avenue - 31st August 2015
Photograph by Declan Roughan - Presseye
Van Morrison on stage at the Cyprus Avenue concert.
Van Morrison celebrated his 70th birthday with two concerts on Cyprus Avenue, the area of Belfast where he spend much of his early years. Heavy rain did not dampen spirits of the large crowd.
New Zealand v Ireland - Rugby World Cup 2019: Quarter Final...CHOFU, JAPAN - OCTOBER 19: Rory Best of Ireland shows appreciation to the fans following defeat in the Rugby World Cup 2019 Quarter Final match between New Zealand and Ireland at the Tokyo Stadium on October 19, 2019 in Chofu, Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)...S
Queen Elizabeth II's Historic Visit To Ireland - Day One...DUBLIN, IRELAND - MAY 17: Queen Elizabeth II lays a wreath at Dublin Memorial Garden on May 17, 2011 in Dublin, Ireland. The Duke and Queen's visit is the first by a monarch since 1911. An unprecedented security operation is taking place with much of the centre of Dublin turning into a car free zone. Republican dissident groups have made it clear they are intent on disrupting proceedings. (Photo by Pool/Getty Images)...I
Bill Clinton. US President's visit to N.I. 1995. President Clinton visits Violet Clarke's fruit shop on the Shankill Road, Belfast. 1/12/1995 THE PRESIDENT CLINTON MAKES HIS SELECTION.
The Bloody Sunday report.
Roy Lilley. Former Belfast Telegraph Editor
Checking the new colour Belfast Telegraph. May 1985
PACEMAKER BELFAST AUGUST 1988
GEORGE BEST TESTIMONIAL AT WINDSOR PARK, BELFAST.
Barry McGuigan:Boxing. 19/11/1985.
LONDON - JUNE 8 : Barry McGuigan of Northern Ireland celebrates after beating WBA Champion Eusebio Pedroza of Panama at Loftus Road Stadium,London on the 8th of June 1985. Barry McGuigan won by a points decision after 15 rounds to become the new WBA Champion of the world.
An injured man is led away following the Abercorn Bar Bomb in March 1972.
Ireland Saturday Night. Ibrox fire 1971
PACEMAKER, BELFAST, 1993: Joey Dunlop takes a tea break at the Carrowdore 100 in County Down, Northern Ireland.
PICTURE BY STEPHEN DAVISON
Joey Dunlop funeral July 2000
Thousands of fans attended motorbike ace Joey Dunlop's funeral today at Garryduff, Ballymoney.
Belfast Telegraph. Page One. 20/6/2011 "A champion, a great...and he's ours"
Rory McIlroy. Golf. US Open. Trophy.
Belfast Telegraph: Page One/ IRELAND SATUIRDAY NIGHT/ISN/LOYALISTS' DAY OF DEFIANCE AT BELFAST CITY HALL. 22/11/1985
Belfast Telegraph. Page One. 7/4/2011. "Carried on a sea of unity"
Ronan Kerr. Funeral. Murdered. PSNI officer.
Belfast Telegraph. Page One. Final 1/1/2010.
Death of Cardinal Cathal Daly
Belfast Telegraph. Old Pictures. One of the making-up 'Stones'. it is here that the type is assembelled into page form.
FOOTBALL: GEORGE BEST.
Football legend George Best, during the Northern Ireland v England match in October 1966.
10th anniversary of The Good Friday Agreement...File photo dated 10/04/98 of former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair (Left) and Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern signing The Northern Ireland Peace Agreement 10 years ago. PRESS ASSOCIATION photo. Issue date: Thursday April 10, 2008. The Good Friday Agreement set Northern Ireland on a path to reconciliation and peace 10 years ago, Senator Edward Kennedy said today. As politicians who negotiated the accord, including Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, gathered in Belfast to mark its 10th anniversary, the veteran Massachusetts senator paid tribute in Washington to the people of Northern Ireland and their leaders. "The people of Northern Ireland and the courageous leaders of the political parties in Northern Ireland, Ireland, and Great Britain, all deserve special recognition on this day for their deep and unwavering commitment to peace. See PA Story ULSTER Agreement. Photo Credit should read: Dan Chung/PA Wire
Motorcars:De Lorean/last minute preparations by employees before its trial on the track. 21/2/1980.
Newsroom following a bomb... Telegraph office.
Tuesday 30th June 2015
After 25 years as Northern Editor of the Sunday World Jim McDowell steps down from the position.
Jim McDowell pictured in the Sunday World office off Royal Avenue.
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland 29th January 2014 - Picture by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers pictured with Editor Mike Gilson at the offices of the Belfast Telegraph in Royal Avenue, Belfast during her vista this afternoon.
PACEMAKER BELFAST 24/11/2006
Renegade Loyalist Michael Stone is tackled by security officers as he enters Stormont this morning. Stone entered the building claiming that he had a blast bomb, and shouting anti Sinn Fein propaganda. He has been arrested by police.
PHOTO ARTHUR ALLISON/PACEMAKER
Crowds in Belfast line the streets as soldiers returning from the Great War march past Belfast City Hall.
Martin McGuinness's Funeral Takes Place In Derry...LONDONDERRY, NORTHERN IRELAND - MARCH 23: The funeral cortege passes through the streets of Derry on March 23, 2017 in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. The funeral is held for Northern Ireland's former Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness who died on Monday 20th March 2017. He was once chief of staff of the IRA but later became Sinn Fein's chief negotiator in the talks that led to the Good Friday agreement bringing peace to Northern Ireland. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)...I
Barry McGuigan:Boxing, against Eusebro Pedroza at QPR football grounds. 8/6/1985.
Belfast Telegraph. Old Pictures. One of the bill printing machines.
Alex Higgins. Snooker Legend. Exhibition match at Waterfront. (19/06/1997)
PACEMAKER BELFAST MICHAEL STONE
MILLTOWN CEMETRY 1988
Alex Higgins. Snooker Legend.
Northern Ireland's First Minister Ian Paisley and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness smile after being sworn in as ministers of the Northern Ireland Assembly, at Stormont Parliamentary Building, Belfast, Northern Ireland, Tuesday May 8, 2007. The unopposed election of Democratic Unionist Party chief Paisley and Irish Republican Army veteran McGuinness to lead a new 12-member administration heralded an astonishing new era for Northern Ireland following decades of bloodshed and political stalemate that left 3,700 dead. (AP Photo/Paul Faith, Pool)
PRINCESS OF WALES: DIANA'S VISIT TO ULSTER 21/10/1985 / LOVELY TO SEE YOU, DIANATHE PRINCESS OF WALES SHAKES HANDS WITH WELL- WISHERS OUTSIDE THE UNIVERSITY OF ULSTER, AT YORK STREET,BELFAST, TODAY.......
Bishop Edward Daly - Bloody Sunday
Martin McGuinness funeral...Former US President Bill Clinton touches the coffin during the funeral of Northern Ireland's former deputy first minister and ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness at St Columba's Church Long Tower, in Londonderry. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday March 23, 2017. See PA story FUNERAL McGuinness. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire...A
Belfast Telegraph: Explosion. Building. 15/9/1976. No stopping the 'Tele' from hitting the streets, despite having been rocked by an explosion. Here newsboy Joe Officer makes his way through the rubble to sell Belfast Telegraph's.
Hank the dog...Hank the dog visits the Belfast Telegraph office on August 5th 2016 as one of the final guests to visit the office on Royal Avenue in Belfast to thank staff for assisting in his saviour
( Photo by Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph )
The Duke and Duchess of Gloucester inspecting air raid damage at Percy Street, Belfast. 21/4/1941
Life on the wing: Pilots of No.19 and No.616 Squadrons pose by a Spitfire. Sitting on the wing (left to right) are Brian Lane, 'Grumpy' Unwin and Francis Brinsden - with Flash the Alsatian and Rangy the Spaniel. In front, are Bernard Jennings, Colin MacFie, Howard Burton and the American volunteer Philip Leckrone. Three of the men - Lane, Burton and Leckrone - did not survive the war. MacFie went on to fly with Bader's Tangmere Wing until he was shot down in combat and captured in July 1941
The Queen. NI visit 1953. Queen Elizabeth's first visit to Northern Ireland. (July 1953)
Flashback to 1963, when Belfast Ropeworks made this 19-inch circumference rope for the re-rigging of HMS Victory at Portsmouth. Pictured is Jim Thompson, a bogey-boy at the Belfast Ropework Co.Ltd. 26/9/1963
Strikes/Protests:Loyalist, Anti Anglo Irish Agreement protest meeting at Belfast City Hall. 'Ulster Says No'. 23/11/1985
Belfast. Streets. City Centre. Donegall Square.
MOTORCYCLING: JOEY DUNLOP. Joey Dunlop motorbike ace during a competition.
WORLD WAR II: BELFAST AIR RAIDS. HUGHENDEN AVENUE.15/16 April 1941. Hughenden Avenue (Cavehill Road). AR 96.
WORLD WAR II: BELFAST AIR RAIDS.HIGH STREET.
4/5 May 1941. High Street after being blitzed. AR 76.
Belfast Telegraph:Building/Royal Avenue. 1986
The Queen. NI visit 1953. Ballycarry children celebrate the Queen's Coronation.
MARY PETERS:MUNICH OLYMPICS 1972.
Mary Peters:Athletics, with Olympic Gold medal she won in Munich. In Belfast City Centre.
Ulster Rugby - European Cup win 1999
Belfast Telegraph:Building/Royal Avenue.
King George V, at Belfast City Hall accompanied by Queen Mary to the opening of the first Ulster Parliament. 22/6/1921.
WORLD WAR II: BELFAST AIR RAIDS. SUNNINGDALE PARK.
4/5 May 1941. Furniture removed from houses. AR 154.
Belfast Telegraph: newsboys. Nine-year-old Emmanuel McGee does his own advertising as he sells the Tele on Royal Avenue
One of my most difficult assignments personally was driving to my home village of Bessbrook one winter morning in 1976 after 10 Protestant workmen had been lined up and murdered by republican gunmen at Kingsmills, not far away. Alan Black, the sole survivor, was distantly connected to me through family, and Walter Chapman who was mown down in a hail of bullets with his brother Reggie, had been a friend in my primary school days. I will never forget the dark chill of death that hung over my native village where I had been so carefree as a boy.
Meanwhile I continued with the leader-writing team in trying to create a political path out of the morass, and we had some memorable Telegraph lunches off-the-record with such major figures as Garret FitzGerald, Cardinal Tomas O’Fiaich, Bishop Edward Daly from Derry, and Northern Ireland Secretaries of State including Jim Prior and Douglas Hurd, both Westminster political heavyweights. The presence of all these leading figures, one at a time, reflected the high reputation of the Telegraph as a balanced paper of record and opinion-forming.
The then editor Roy Lilley had a deliberate policy of sending me out to write about stories and situations to help lighten the mood of our readers in those dark days. I still recall my report on ladies ‘professional wrestling bouts in a hotel on the Antrim Coast road, and also reporting on a new restaurant serving Vietnamese food in violence-torn Crossmaglen, while British Army helicopters chugged overhead carrying food and other supplies from their Bessbrook base to their beleaguered colleagues deep in South Armagh. That gave all of us much food for thought, and my story was picked up later and re-cycled by BBC Radio 4 and the Daily Telegraph.
I was fortunate enough to attend the visit of Pope John Paul II to Knock in 1979 where the charismatic, and energised Pontiff won us all over, and indeed everybody during his historic Irish visit - all but the Reverend Ian Paisley, who continued to fulminate loudly against him
However behind these regular forays into darkest Ulster to find some lighter news, the reality of those years was a daily challenge to produce a good newspaper in the midst of a virtual civil war with all its dreadful pain and savagery as well as great courage, and inspiring kindness often in the darkest of situations and most unexpected of places.
Though the Telegraph concentrated on regional news, and there was always much to report, it also sent its writers to cover big international stories. I was fortunate enough to attend the visit of Pope John Paul II to Knock in 1979 where the charismatic, and energised Pontiff won us all over, and indeed everybody during his historic Irish visit - all but the Reverend Ian Paisley, who continued to fulminate loudly against him.
I was also sent to Rome to report on the funeral of John Paul II in 2005,and for me it had come full circle, from the visit to Knock in his early Papacy to his slow sad demise in the Vatican. In the end it really is a small world, and in the vast concourse of mourners in Vatican Square at the funeral I literally bumped into a photographer covering the event for the Belfast News Letter. More recently,in August 2018, I reported from Phoenix Park in Dublin on the visit of Pope Francis to Ireland-again memorable, but much more low-key than the heady excitement of Pope John Paul II in Ireland so long ago.
The wedding of Prince Charles to Diana in St Paul’s Cathedral in July 1981 was a global event, and I was privileged to be sent to cover it by the Telegraph. The only other reporter present from this island, to my knowledge, was Maeve Binchy from the Irish Times, and we had grandstand seats in the vast church, much better than those marked for Nancy Reagan and other international luminaries.
My abiding memory of the wedding, apart from the beautiful liturgy and music, and the sermon by Archbishop Robert Runcie whom I knew well, was the fact that the gorgeous soprano Dame Kiri te Kanawa- a friend of Prince Charles - trod painfully on my foot as she negotiated her path through the crowded press area on her way up to the television gantry to sing Mozart live to a worldwide audience.
Many of the major changes in the last 50 years and more have been technological. When I started we used typewriters, and we sent our stories to the sub-editors via scurrying copy boys
The visit of President Ronald Reagan to Ireland in 1984 was another major event, and I reported this also for the Telegraph. I was fortunate enough to be quite close to the President physically during his visit to Ballyporeen, and his enormous charm was evident to everyone, even if he seemed a little hard of hearing, and slow on the uptake. None of us realized, until later, that Reagan - one of the greatest US Presidents of modern times - may have been suffering from the early stages of the dementia which so overshadowed his later life.
Many of the major changes in the last 50 years and more have been technological. When I started we used typewriters, and we sent our stories to the sub-editors via scurrying copy boys. Now we use laptops to place our copy onto the specific newspaper page electronically, and I still marvel that having written a story or column for the Telegraph from my home in Belfast or elsewhere, I can look it up later on my mobile phone from anywhere in the world.
The world itself is now a global village, but the essence of journalism has not changed. There are still wars and rumours of wars, joy and sadness, personal triumphs and tragedies, love and hate, kindness and brutality and all the elements of noble yet fractured humanity which provide a constant stream of information for the media. It has been my privilege to have worked for over a half-century for a paper like the Belfast Telegraph, and I have no doubt that it will still continue to inform and entertain all its readers with its customary insight, flair and balance in the years ahead.
Some 150 years on, the future beckons urgently and the challenges are even greater in a world of 24/7 news and social media. Whatever happens, and in whatever form, the Belfast Telegraph will always be there at the heart of the community which it so faithfully serves, and has done so in its long life of reporting, reflecting, encouraging and entertaining its readers. The ‘Tele’ is and always has been part of the very DNA of this part of the world and its wider community. Long may that continue.