Belfast Telegraph

Belfast Telegraph legend Eddie McIlwaine fondly remembered at service of thanksgiving

Former BBC NI controller Robin Walsh (left), former Belfast Telegraph editor Roy Lilley and entertainer John Linehan arrive for the service
Former BBC NI controller Robin Walsh (left), former Belfast Telegraph editor Roy Lilley and entertainer John Linehan arrive for the service
Ivan Little
Former MP Danny Kinahan
Ex-Belfast Telegraph colleagues Eddie Sterling (left) and Colin McMullan
Telegraph photographic staff members Peter Rainey (left) and Kevin Scott
Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

In the very same church where reporter Eddie McIlwaine got one of his last major 'scoops', newspaper journalists, broadcasters and entertainment figures gathered with his family to celebrate a life that almost ended shortly after it began.

For the 83-year-old reporter's minister revealed that unknown to most of his friends, Eddie McIlwaine wasn't expected to survive childbirth and he was only saved by a tiny drop of whiskey administered by his grandmother.

The Rev John McClure told the packed St Catherine's Church at Killead that Belfast Telegraph stalwart Eddie - whom he described as kind, courteous and generous - was born above his grandmother's shop at Carnmoney in March 1936.

"It was a difficult labour and the doctor who brought him downstairs wrapped in a blanket said Eddie wouldn't make it," added Mr McClure. "But granny Boyd took over, she worked with him and revived him with - wait till you hear this - a little bit of whiskey."

The minister said Eddie survived to become a gifted and caring journalist who enriched many people's lives through his work and whose legacy would endure.

But he said that before becoming a reporter Eddie resisted his parents' attempts to persuade him to follow a career as an electrician, insisting he wanted to work in newspapers.

Mr McClure said Eddie was a regular worshipper at St Catherine's near Belfast International Airport, but always sat at the back.

He used to say to the minister: "John, I know my place."

And it was at the tiny history-steeped church in March 2015 that Eddie got an exclusive story, as he was the only journalist allowed inside to report on what was otherwise a strictly private funeral of the former Ulster Unionist leader Jim Molyneaux.

Yesterday it was a very different picture at the 300-year-old church, which sits inside the grounds of the old RAF Aldergrove - now Aldergrove Flying Station - near Eddie's former home.

A large number of ex-colleagues were present to pay their respects to the self-styled 'oldest scribbler in town' who only stopped writing his Ulster Log column in the Telegraph in December 2017.

The paper's editor Gail Walker was joined at the funeral by a number of her predecessors, including Martin Lindsay and Roy Lilley, a former weekly newspaper colleague of Eddie McIlwaine the master of the hard news story who later became an unparalleled purveyor of often light-hearted human interest tales.

Broadcasters Ivan Martin and John Rosborough were among the congregation who were left smiling as speaker after speaker recounted witty anecdotes about Eddie.

Robin Walsh, a colleague of Eddie's in their formative years as cub reporters in Larne, delivered a moving and often humorous eulogy to his friend.

Robin, who went on to become one the most high-powered news executives in the BBC in London, said he learnt a lot about journalism from Eddie, who was senior to him in east Antrim.

But Robin also remembered how he became a victim of his "wicked sense of humour".

He edited one story about a prank slightly because he was in a church. It concerned how, on his first day, Eddie sent Robin to a shop for 'goodies' for the tea-break. They included chocolate bars and a new brand of biscuits he'd never heard of. In the shop the affronted assistant told Robin he might find what he was looking for in the chemist's next door. Robin was only 17 and unfamiliar with the word 'condoms'

But, referring to Eddie's kind-hearted nature, Robin said he started a tradition in Larne of journalists visiting an old people's home on Christmas Day bearing gifts.

Robin said that when Eddie moved to work in Belfast, first with the Telegraph and then with the Daily Mirror, he was recruited because his skills were second to none.

"He could sniff a story a mile off and write like a dream. He was equipped with all the tools of the trade. His shorthand was like the wind and his touch-typing was simply stunning," he added.

But he said the Troubles, which started several years after Eddie went to Belfast, took their toll as he watched "at close quarters the community he loved so much tearing itself apart".

"He found himself in a pretty dark place as he struggled to make sense of the senseless," he went on. "He was later to admit that he was on the verge of a breakdown."

But Robin said he found a new sense of professional fulfilment back in the Belfast Telegraph as he wrote the Ulster Log diary column and became the paper's showbiz correspondent.

He said Eddie's favourite comedian was Bob Hope, who had Thanks For The Memory as his theme tune.

His voice cracking with emotion, Robin ended his address: "Thanks for the memory Eddie." The audience responded with a round of applause.

The retired minister of Killead Presbyterian Church, the Rev Derek Weir, echoed Mr McClure's words that Eddie's faith had been central to his life.

He, like his Church of Ireland counterpart, said Eddie's wife Irene, daughter Zara and son Edward meant everything to him and gave him support and strength when he suffered ill-health.

Mr Weir, who knew Eddie for four decades, recalled how former journalistic colleagues had hailed him as one of the greatest newspaper men of his day, a writer who made readers laugh and cry for over 60 years.

He said he marvelled at "the amazing way Eddie had of picking up a story" and he was also stunned at his range of contacts in all walks of life. "Who did Eddie McIlwaine not know?" he asked, adding that the journalist persuaded the Eurovision winner Dana to take part for free in a gospel concert in the Killead church hall in February 1993.

Among the mourners from the entertainment world at the funeral were the man behind May McFettridge, John Linehan, promotions agent David Hull, and Jim Clarke, an associate of the late impresario Jim Aiken, who was a close friend of Eddie McIlwaine.

During the service, a tribute was repeated from Mr Aiken's son Peter, who'd said that Eddie McIlwaine's positive stories about Northern Ireland had helped keep music alive in the province at the height of the Troubles when visiting stars were reluctant to come.

Eddie was buried at a private family service in the Killead parish churchyard before the service of thanksgiving began.

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