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Eamonn Mallie: 'When I got the news that my mum had died at the age of 59 it was just shocking'

Distinguished career: journalist Eamonn Mallie
Distinguished career: journalist Eamonn Mallie
Straight talking: Eamonn interviewing Jamie Dornan
Ministerial meeting: Eamonn with Ian Paisley in 2008
Rachel Dean

By Rachel Dean

In this week's interview Rachel Dean talks to award-winning journalist and broadcaster Eamonn Mallie (69), whose new UTV series begins next week. He lives in south Belfast with his wife Detta and they have three children, Ciara (41), Laura-Kate (39) and Michael (36).

Q Tell us about your childhood

A We had the humblest of upbringings. There were six of us - by the time my mum Eileen was 23 she had six children. I have three brothers, Michael, Anthony and Peadar, and two sisters, Goretti and Carmel.

We lived on very modest farms on the side of a hill in south Armagh in the town land of Legmoylin.

That immediate area is in fact at the heart of the recent collection of poems which I published called Under The Tilley Lamp. The reason I called the collection this was because we had no electricity when we were growing up and I studied under a Tilley lamp. The last line of one of the poems is "without that old Tilley lamp, where would I have got not just my light but my enlightenment?" That was the simplicity of life then.

It was so basic that my mum, a homemaker, forced us to eat a bowl of porridge each morning.

Her contention was that, if you eat hot porridge, it'll warm up the inside of your stomach. That being said, it didn't put me off porridge.

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In fact, it's one of my favourite dishes in the world. I could have it for breakfast, lunch and supper. My mum's big thing was education. When we were very young, she bought the Oxford Dictionary and Encyclopedia and she paid it off monthly.

When we were kids, she used to say, "Read. I don't care if it's The Beano or The Dandy. Just read". She was unbelievable in encouraging us to read. That old dictionary became the most thumbed book I've ever had - it's virtually in tatters now. That old book enriched my life so much.

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Journalist Eamonn Mallie pictured in 1982

My dad Michael originally worked on the family farm and then he ended up working as brick layer.

During my summer holidays I'd work on the building sites too, carrying bricks up ladders and that sort of thing.

That experience determined for me that I was not going to spend my days as a labourer. It was a very tough lesson, but it was rewarding in itself because it gave me an insight into how hard people have to work on building sites.

My dad had to work very hard and work wasn't always that plenty for him. My dad spent much of our formative years in England trying to scrape a living.

In fact, in my forthcoming UTV series 'Eamonn Mallie: Face to Face with...' I interviewed Bill Wolsey, one of the biggest property owners in Belfast, and for 11 years or maybe more of Bill's life, his dad worked in England as well. We were not unique. There was no work here in that era and fathers were left with no choice but to go to England.

My poor mum had to rear six of us for many, many years on her own. Life was tough, but there was something romantic and beautiful about it. We didn't complain, we got on with it.

We lived on the river bank. Once I came home from school, off I went with the dogs, chasing rabbits, hares, pheasants, foxes or I sat along the river bank.

It anchored my relationship with nature. I love the countryside. It was an idyllic childhood.

Q What are you most proud of?

A My family and our children. They've never let us down. They have very solid values and a good work ethic.

They have a conscience - they're aware of shortcomings, poverty and mental health issues. I think they are very mindful of other people, their difficulties and their wellbeing. Those are the attributes which I hope Detta and I have imparted to them, and everything we see to date would suggest that the message got home.

We had a very simple approach to life as parents which was to keep talking and keep involving the children in whatever was going on. We've got five grandchildren now too - Kate (11), Anna (9), Rory (6), Eve (5) and Riain (2).

The great gift my parents imparted to my siblings and me was togetherness. Every Christmas, around December 12, we sit down as a family in the Canal Court in Newry with all our extended family too. Our circle still hasn't been broken.

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We're all now older than my mum when she died. She died at 59, on her birthday. There's six of us and we're all older than 59 now. The highlight of my year is sitting down with my brothers and sisters and our extended family for dinner in Newry. It's that one gift that my parents imparted to us and it was the family value of being together.

That is more important to me than anything.

Q The one regret you wish you could amend?

A Not spending more time at home with my parents when I grew older. I became a wanderer and I was always away. I started leaving home when I was around seven or eight. I first went to a Gaeltacht in Omeath.

I heard an old man using a few words of Irish and that inspired my interest as a little fella. My mum and dad sent me to this summer school to learn Irish and I've been in love with the language ever since. I don't even know if I knew if I was Catholic or Protestant, Irish or British.

I didn't know what I was at that age, but the language inspired me.

Q Any phobias?

A No, not really. I don't particularly like bad language and I hate smoking, but I'm not afraid of anything.

Q The temptation you cannot resist?

A I can't resist getting to know what a word means. I have to know what every word I hear means. I get frustrated if I can't understand something that I read.

Q Your number one prized possession?

A My memory - it's my greatest gift. And I was very lucky to be gifted with the capacity to cross reference.

If there's an afterlife - and I hope there is - the one thing that I would like to still have access to is Google, so I can check lines of poetry and specific quotes and that sort of thing.

I think if I had access to that, having lived the life that I've lived, I would be happy. I could continue indulging myself in literature, reading and learning stuff online in the afterlife.

I'm under a lot of pressure at home and everywhere I go because I spend a lot of time using the WiFi and reading online.

On Twitter, I punctuate exactly as I would have traditionally as a journalist. I don't violate, I follow all the rules and I don't use short spellings.

I have just interviewed Professor Mary Aiken for my series and she's the world's leading expert in cyber bullying and cybercrime.

Every mother and father in the country will be interested in hearing what she has to say. She goes into great detail about the potential dangers attached to smartphones and tablets.

She said that there could be a greater hell awaiting a child upstairs in their room on their phone than a child would ever experience in the local park.

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Ministerial meeting: Eamonn with Ian Paisley in 2008

Q The book that's most impacted your life?

A L'Etranger, or The Stranger, by French author Albert Camus. It's had the greatest impact on me out of all the books I've ever read.

Q If you had the power or authority, what would you do?

A I would give iPads to those who live in residential homes across Northern Ireland and I would send in students to educate those people on how to use the iPads.

Over the years I've visited some of these homes and seen people who are reservoirs of immense resources and knowledge with huge experience of life. Their minds are not being challenged.

They're not exercising their minds. And when I think of all that knowledge lying dormant there, some way or another, they could be sharing and exchanging that information online. I love older people and I think we tend to underestimate them.

For most of my life, the people I gravitated towards were older people because they had found out who they were, they weren't showing off and they didn't have to play games.

Q What makes your blood boil every time without fail?

A I do not like coarseness and vulgarity in politics.

You must make your case in a reasoned and balanced way - there is no argument that can't be pushed with dignity.

It's when people use insults and vulgarity, I do not like it. I do not like people playing the person rather than the subject.

Q Who has most influenced you in life?

A The person who first convinced me of the worldliness of Europe, poet John Hewitt. Coupled with my love for languages, French, Spanish and all the rest, is the whole idea of being European. I nearly go as far as saying that I'm European firstly and everything else afterwards.

I love Europe and I really regret that we're leaving politically due to Brexit.

In fact, I love when I'm in Dublin and someone rings me from here and they ask me "Where are you?" and I say, "I'm in Europe."

Q Your top three dinner party guests, dead or alive, and why?

A While my inclinations are towards the left wing, for so long I ideally would have wanted my dinner party guests to be Michael Portillo and Boris Johnson, but I have to say that Boris has increasingly disappointed me.

I have always found Michael Portillo to be refreshingly prized in his way of thinking and he would be a welcomed presence.

I don't think anyone could regret the presence of Bill Clinton at the dinner table. I don't know him very well, but I've encountered him a number of times and I think he's an absolute power brain.

And Archbishop Runcie, who radiated the greatest degree of religiosity I've ever come across.

Genuine religiosity - and I also interviewed Mother Theresa one time.

Q The best piece of advice you ever received?

A Always try to remember who you are.

Q The unlikely interest or hobby that you love?

A I love art. I love trying to write creatively. When I spot or hear something, I love trying to find a poetic or lyrical way of describing it. It's a different style of writing than journalism.

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Straight talking: Eamonn interviewing Jamie Dornan

Q The poem that touches your heart?

A The first poem I ever learned was Where Go The Boats? by Robert Louis Stevenson. I love the simplicity of that little poem. I love Patrick Kavanagh's On Raglan Road too.

Q The happiest moment of your life?

A The births of my children, of course. What could emulate that?

Also, my son being on the Schools' Cup winning team in 2001 at Methodist College. The fact that he was on that team was a remarkable and joyous moment for us as family.

Q And the saddest?

A When I got the news that my mum had died it was just shocking. My phone rang at 3.35 and I was incredulous.

I couldn't believe that it had happened.

I spoke with her every morning on the phone and I still miss the musicality of her voice.

She wasn't a woman of pretentiousness or anything else. The only thing she ever wanted was a little extra money to give away to somebody else. That's all that ever mattered - to give to somebody else.

Q The one event that made a difference in your life?

A Meeting a lady called Detta. We met at a function in Dublin in 1971 and we got married on January 3, 1976.

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Eamonn with Charlie Lawson

Q What's the ambition that keeps driving you onwards?

A Knowledge.

Q What's the philosophy you live by?

A The crystallisation of this philosophy came late to me - give and don't care.

Q How do you want to be remembered?

A As unpredictable.

The third series of Eamonn Mallie: Face to Face with... commences on Tuesday, January 14 at 10.45pm on UTV. Eamonn's first guest is Father Brian D'Arcy

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