Belfast Telegraph veteran Betty Rainsford blazed a trail for women in journalism
A trailblazing Belfast journalist who wrote about everything from politics to theatre and fashion — and who once landed an exclusive interview with Irish playwright Samuel Beckett — has died at the age of 99.
Betty Rainsford (nee Lowry), who has been credited with helping to pave the way for other female journalists in Northern Ireland, was the women’s editor of the Belfast Telegraph for 20 years.
A hugely respected drama critic whose reviews could make or break a play, Betty died on Christmas Eve at the Bangor Fold sheltered housing facility where she’d lived for a number of years.
Former Belfast Telegraph editor Roy Lilley led the tributes to her. On the retired journalists’ site, Copyboys, Mr Lilley described Betty as a “talented lady” adding: “It was a privilege to know her and have her as a friend and colleague.”
Betty had joined the Belfast Telegraph as a reporter in 1956 and covered a varied mix of stories including politics and several of her analytical pieces are still widely quoted on the internet and in books.
Reflecting on her early career, Betty described by friends as “an old school reporter”, recalled how journalism was very much a man’s world in the ’50s.
She said that when she was interviewed for a job on the Belfast Telegraph, the then editor Jack Sayers told her that she “would have to do all kinds of reporting, but you’ll not be sent to the courts or any all-male gatherings”.
She added: “He expressed disapproval of another paper that sent a woman reporter to meetings of the Belfast Rotary Club.”
Betty said that many of her markings were unexciting but she revelled in getting stories from VIPs who opened art exhibitions or fundraising functions, and often used the platforms to criticise the government of the time or addressed other controversial issues.
Betty, who was married to decorated serviceman Lt Col (Ret) Bathoe Rainsford, became women’s editor of the Belfast Telegraph in 1961, a role which she said she enjoyed because it gave her so much freedom.
But she added: “There was always the impression the women’s pages were a kind of second-class journalism. I used to get angry when I’d thought up and produced a good feature only to have it pinched for the main features page.”
Betty was also an assiduous writer on drama and reviewed hundreds of plays, encouraging amateur societies as well as professional companies.
Before joining the Belfast Telegraph, Betty worked for the Committee for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA), the forerunner to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.
She used the contacts she had established with CEMA to develop her reporting on the arts in the newspaper.
She was an influential supporter in print of important figures like Brian Friel and Seamus Heaney at the start of their careers.
This writer worked alongside Betty for several years in the 1970s and once heard her talk in passing about interviewing reclusive Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, who wasn’t exactly known for his affection towards newspapers or their employees.
I marvelled at her scoop and wondered how on earth she’d persuaded Beckett to see her, and I assumed that weeks or months of phone calls and letters had been involved in preparing the way.
But Betty, who retired from the Belfast Telegraph around 1981, replied: “I was in Paris and found out where he lived. So I knocked on his door thinking the worst that could happen would be for him to turn me away — but he agreed to speak to me.”
In September 2011 former colleagues organised a 90th birthday party for her in Belfast.
Three editors — Roy Lilley, Ed Curran and Martin Lindsay — were among the guests, along with the late sports editor Malcolm Brodie and ex-colleagues from the paper’s features department, John Caruth and William Graham.
Journalist Suzanne Lowry (no relation), who was among a number of young writers whom Betty took under her wing, flew in from her home in France to join the celebrations.
Betty’s death has come only weeks after the passing of her Belfast Telegraph features department colleague Billy Simpson.
Betty’s funeral will take place on Thursday at St Columbanus Parish Church, Ballyholme, at noon.