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Eyewitness to history Eddie McIlwaine signs off from Ulster Log column in Belfast Telegraph

From watching a judge put on a black cap to deliver a death sentence to close friendships with showbiz greats...

One of the Belfast Telegraph’s longest serving and finest journalists tells Ivan Little about his amazing career — and why he has finally decided to bow out from his weekly musings

It read like something Donald Trump would have dismissed as fake news. For the note saying that Belfast journalist Eddie McIlwaine was retiring seemed just about as plausible as Gerry Adams finding his IRA membership card or Jim Allister signing up for Irish language classes.

And even though Eddie, the 81-year-old elder statesman of Belfast's newspaper industry confirmed his departure, there were still mutterings of incredulity from doubting Thomases.

And that was because just like the Giant's Causeway it seemed that Eddie McIlwaine has always been there and like the Ulster rain he never stops.

Eddie is proud of his longevity, proud to joke that he's old news in the news game, the most seasoned scribbler in town.

And that's true. For no one currently working in Belfast journalism has been doing it longer - or better - than evergreen and versatile Eddie who has always been able to turn his keypad to anything.

While Eddie will continue to be an occasional contributor to this newspaper's pages, this Saturday he will write his last column for the Belfast Telegraph, a paper which has always been close to his heart and sometimes not for the most obvious of reasons.

During the war the paper's executives, wary of a German bomb attack on their headquarters, stored newsprint in an outbuilding at Carnmoney Presbyterian Church where Eddie's father John was caretaker.

And as a thank you a youthful Eddie would be taken to the paper's Royal Avenue editorial department where his dreams of becoming a reporter only intensified.

"I don't know why but writing always appealed to me. English was the only thing that I was any good at in Ballyclare High School," says Eddie, who as a child would let his fertile imagination run wild to fuel stories including one about meeting Adolf Hitler who was taking refuge on Carnmoney Hill, a yarn inspired by nothing more than the sighting of a man with a moustache.

The all too real tragedy of the Princess Victoria ferry which sank off Larne in 1953 with the loss of 133 lives touched Eddie and he made up his mind that he was going to be a journalist.

In 1955, Eddie got a job as a trainee reporter in Larne on the East Antrim Times where his colleagues included Roy Lilley and Robin Walsh who went on to become influential editors with the Belfast Telegraph and BBC respectively.

Back in Belfast after two years in Larne, Eddie's most memorable story was about Robert McGladdery, who was hanged in 1961 for the murder in Newry of Pearl Gamble.

Eddie says: "I'm probably the last surviving journalist to have seen a judge putting on a black cap to deliver a death sentence.

"And I still remember the Rev William Vance coming out of Crumlin Road jail to say McGladdery had confessed the night before he was hung.

"I had interviewed McGladdery once before his arrest and I brought a copy of the Telegraph to him on every day of his trial so he could read about himself."

Eddie was promoted to deputy news editor in the Telegraph but he was happier writing stories rather than despatching others to cover them.

So it was almost inevitable that he would return to the front line as a reporter, this time with the Daily Mirror in Belfast in 1965.

Not long afterwards, the Troubles kicked off and demanded a new style of journalist who could cope with the never slackening pace of breaking news on their doorsteps.

Eddie recalls: " I was really uptight about the Troubles. And all of a sudden I found myself working as a war correspondent. It was an awful time."

One of Eddie's closest brushes with the Troubles was one that he never reported. He says: "I had taken the dog for a walk but stopped off in a club one Sunday morning at Glengormley when a gang of IRA men burst in. They were looking for someone and left without finding him. But looking at all those guns in my face was a terrifying experience.

"Bizarrely one of the gunmen patted my dog on the head before moving on!"

That aside, Eddie established good working relationships with the main players in the Troubles and in politics. He says :"I got on particularly well with Bernadette Devlin and the Rev Ian Paisley. And I was lucky enough to get the scoop from Paisley that he was going to stand in an election against Captain Terence O'Neill."

Eddie spent 14 years in the Mirror's Belfast bureau at a time when most of the English dailies had reporters here to cover the murders and maimings.

But many of the reporters had troubles of their own - in pint tumblers and spirits glasses. Eddie succumbed too and the drink impacted heavily on his personal a nd professional life to such an extent that he was close to a breakdown.

However, he beat his demons and after a chance encounter on the street with his erstwhile colleague Roy Lilley, Eddie was offered a lifeline to revive his career in the Belfast Telegraph in 1975.

He says: "I worked on the weekly papers and on the sports desk and news before I was asked to edit the diary column, the Ulster Log. It was my dream job because it appealed to my sense of whimsy and suited my style of writing."

Eddie, it was said, could make a story out of something - and just as easily - out of nothing. But he also found another role as a showbusiness writer.

His close friendship with promoter Jim Aiken helped Eddie to break a huge number of exclusives about musical stars visiting Northern Ireland and he was also first in the queue for the big interviews.

Aiken flew Eddie around the world to preview superstar gigs and in print Eddie delighted in name-dropping and describing household names as his friends.

One of Eddie's favourite entertainers was, and still is, Cliff Richard and he has interviewed on him on a number of occasions. Eddie says: "He is a really genuine person. And I have a lot of time for him.

"I was also a massive fan of our own Ruby Murray and I remember bringing the Southampton football manager Lawrie McMenemy to meet her when his team were in town."

But another famous football figure is at the top of Eddie's list of heroes of all time in any sphere of activity. He says: "Meeting Sir Stanley Matthews during a visit to Belfast was the highlight. I told the great man I once bunked off extra lessons on a Saturday to watch the famous Matthews FA Cup final in 1953 on television.

"I was nearly expelled from school for mitching off."

George Best was another idol, but Eddie says: "Tragically George had something of a death wish about him.

"I tried to talk to him about the drink but you can't really lecture anyone about the booze when you've had the problem yourself."

Eddie has met a galaxy of stars but one of his most unusual 'encounters' of sorts was with a former American President.

"I was having breakfast in Lisburn with the evangelist Billy Graham when he was told that there was a call for him from President Richard Nixon.

"Graham later told me Nixon rang him regularly so that they could pray together."

Eddie even managed to upstage royalty in his time. Prince Charles had gone to the opening of the Waterfront Hall in Belfast in May 1997 amid a huge security operation.

During the concert headlined by Dame Tiri de Kanawa observers became aware that something was wrong in the section of the venue where Charles was sitting.

But it wasn't a security problem at all - it was Eddie McIwaine who caused the stir. He'd been seated near the Prince and had to summon medical attention after he came close to passing out because of the heat!

Aiken's death in February 2007 deeply upset Eddie who had written the promoter's obituary beside him.

Eddie, who had briefly 'retired' once before, thought about quitting the profession he loved completely but last year vowed to keep writing his weekly Ulster Log column on Saturdays until he was 90.

So why is he falling off the Log now when he has been entertaining readers of the Belfast Telegraph with his idiosyncratic diary column for so long, with his tickling of funny bones and pulling of heartstrings and rekindling memories of people and places from the past.

Eddie says he is quitting because he doesn't want the column to go downhill. He adds: "I saw my Kris Kristofferson the country singer on television recently and it was clear the years hadn't been kind to him.

"I said that I didn't want to end up like that. So that's one of reasons why I'm packing it in."

Eddie, however, acknowledges that it will be difficult for him to stop writing. "I am always seeing stories all around me," he says.

Eddie is looking forward to spending more quality time with Irene, his wife of 40 years, and their two children, Edward and Zara.

He says :"I fell in love with Irene the first time I was introduced to her by a mutual friend and I resolved there and then that I was going to marry her.

"With my track record Irene was taking a chance by becoming my wife. But in many ways she was the one who saved my life."

Belfast Telegraph

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