Henry McDonald: 'There were scenes of utter devastation in Omagh after the bomb... the hospital was like Vietnam, all these helicopters landing on the grass'
Journalist and author Henry McDonald tells Leona O'Neill about being blown up, shot at, battling cancer... and exorcising some demons with his new novel
Journalist Henry McDonald's new novel Two Souls, a gripping tale of love, betrayal and choices in 1970s Belfast, has hit the shelves.
The former Ireland correspondent for The Guardian and The Observer says it is the most important book he has ever written - indeed he goes so far as to say it's an "exorcism of demons".
Here the father-of-three, who now lives in Hove in England, speaks about his life, a journey that has taken him from an eight-year-old who was blown across his living room after a car bomb, to a journalist covering the toughest of local stories and a 54-year-old cancer survivor.
Q Tell me about your childhood growing up in Belfast.
A I was born in the Markets in Belfast, right in the heart of the city. I was born in 1965, four years before the Troubles kicked off. My childhood was normal. My mum Florence was a dressmaker, my dad Tom was a labourer, my sister Cathy and I lived in a big Victorian house beside Mooney's Pub in Eliza Street. Before the Troubles started it was an idyllic place to live. There was a school around the corner and I remember going home at lunchtime and my mum was sending me up the stairs and Mrs Mooney - this very striking looking woman with black hair and big rosy cheeks - would have made sandwiches for the guys in the bar. I remember the salad sandwiches were delicious.
Q You did not escape the impact of the Troubles. What happened?
A Living beside a bar was a problem whenever the Troubles started, the bars were a target. I remember the barrels filled with concrete being put around the circumference of the pub to prevent car bombs being parked.
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Then in 1974, instead of putting the car bomb outside the pub, they put it outside our house and blew our house up.
Me and my dad were watching It's A Knock Out ironically. It was a Friday night in the summer. There was a light blue Cortina parked outside our door. I remember sitting on the arm of my dad's chair. I was about nine years old. And then there was an explosion and I felt this giant force like a visible hand pushing me across the room. And I saw the TV conking out and all the glass flying over us. We woke up covered in glass.
We weren't hurt, miraculously. The Army told my dad later that the bomb hadn't been properly put together, that the blast was vertical. Had it been horizontal the force of the blast would have killed us. But it was just one example of living there in that period.
The year after that my friends and I were out playing football in the street using the giant wooden door of the keg house as goals. One night a white Cortina kept driving past and on one drive past someone in it opened fire with a sub-machine-gun. The only people who were in the street were us, nine and 10-year-olds and one man who was going to the pub for a Friday night pint.
Our parents had taught us how to dive in the event of gunshots. So we all dived on our bellies and the bullets were whizzing over our heads. The pub-goer got hit in the leg.
The police and Army came and the white tape went up. But we just went back out and played football.
Q Who or what inspired your career in journalism?
A My cousin Jack Holland was a journalist in the late 1970s. He worked for BBC Spotlight and Hibernia Magazine. He would occasionally call in and it sounded to me like an exciting life.
My dad was a big avid reader and he used to get the Sunday Times and The Observer.
I spent my formative years, 1989 to 1991, in the Irish News. They were really tough days. You were talking a funeral, a murder, a shooting, a bombing a day. It was stimulating but tough mentally. You had to be thick-skinned and you learned a lot on foot, particularly from photographers like Brendan Murphy and Hugh Russell, who would have given me invaluable advice on how to talk to people, how to go into a house where an awful tragedy had happened only a couple of hours earlier.
Q You have covered many memorable stories. Which ones do you carry with you?
A The Shankill bomb was dreadful in 1993. I was working for the Evening Press in Dublin but I was in Belfast for a friend's birthday when that happened. I was still in Belfast a week later when my dad called and told me that there had been an awful incident in Greysteel. So I had to go up there.
The Irish News sent me to the end of the Gulf War in 1991, which was amazing. My time there also gave me an interest in the Middle East and I ended up writing a book about the Irish Army in Lebanon, my first one.
The story that I think had the most impact on me was the Omagh bomb. I remember sitting in my garden on a beautiful summer's day and getting a phone call to go there. It was profoundly shocking.
A couple of things stick in my mind. I remember getting to the town centre and the utter devastation that I was met with. I looked at the shop windows of a school uniform shop and there was blood all over the glass and the mannequins wearing the school uniforms were blown apart.
I remember there were Formica tables from a pub which they had used to put the dead and wounded on and there was congealed blood on them.
And I remember going into the mini-hospital and suddenly it was like Vietnam. There were all these helicopters landing back and forth on this apron of grass. Even the janitor had been called in over the weekend and he was mopping blood in the hallway. I felt dreadfully sorry for him.
The second hardest thing, after the day itself, was the next day going to the leisure centre. There were all these names posted on the wall. And I saw these poor people, maybe coming back from holidays and staring at names on the wall for their loved ones, wondering if they were on the death list. I remember thinking it was a leisure centre, a place were people come to relax and keep fit, and it was turned into a clearing house for the dead.
Q What was the best story you have ever written?
A It was about the cancer drug Velcade. I was working for The Observer. Someone had contacted from the cancer community. There was a drug that was developed in Belfast City Hospital, pioneered there, called Velcade. Forgive my medical ignorance, but it prolonged life.
Even though it was developed in Belfast, the only part of the UK where it was not available for free was Northern Ireland. Michael McGimpsey had just become Health Minister at the time. So I wrote about it and, to his credit, he saw the story and he ordered the health service locally, regardless of costs, to make this innovative drug available here, where it was developed.
So I always say to students when I am teaching journalism, if one person's life was prolonged or maybe even saved via that story, that to me is the most important story I've ever written.
Q You've written many stories, and indeed books on paramilitaries. Was that a dangerous occupation?
A I was very keen to talk to the paramilitaries, who were ignored.
One of the things myself and (fellow journalist) Jim Cusack did was regards the UDA and UVF, we felt that loyalists weren't being taken seriously enough.
But in 1992 they were outkilling republicans and it was very frightening. They couldn't be ignored. There had to be contextual and historical reasons why they were doing what they were doing.
I took a conscious decision that I wanted to talk to these people. And they were astonished that someone from the Irish News wanted to talk to them. But they were actually quite pleased. Obviously I found - and still find - violence abhorrent.
I was threatened many times by all sides over the years. And it's funny, some of the people who threatened you end up being friendly with you.
Q And you've faced another tough challenge: cancer.
A In April 2018 The Guardian summoned me and wanted to appoint me as a senior reporter in London and I thought "great". And I was walking up the stairs in The Guardian and I felt really unwell. My legs felt like lead and my heart was pumping like a steam train. And I managed to make it back from London to Belfast and the next day my sister, who in a way saved my life, took me to the doctor.
I was sent right to the Royal Victoria Hospital immediately and they did lots of tests, MRI scans, heart echoes and they came to the conclusion that I had a heart condition.
The left-hand side of my heart is too big and is pumping too much blood and I could have a stroke. So they put me on medication.
Then they came and said that tests had shown signs of anaemia and they wanted to endoscopy and got it done. The next day I was down in the special investigations unit and the young guy there told me I had stomach cancer, which was being hidden behind an ulcer.
I had absolutely no stomach cancer symptoms at all.
In November of 2017 I had buried a cousin of mine who had died of stomach cancer. And it scared the life out of me. But they reassured me that they had got it early. So my heart attack saved my life.
The tumour was about half the size of a thumb and they blasted me with chemotherapy during the Russian World Cup, so I joked with my sister that it was the Chemo World Cup.
The medics decided to take out 90% of my stomach. It was a major and brutally effective operation. I only have 10% of my stomach.
I have learned to adapt my diet. I have become Spanish in a sense, as I eat a lot of tapas-style food portions.
Ironically the day of my book launch is the day of my next check-up.
Q Your new book Two Souls is now on release. Is the story reflective of your own life?
A It's a book about love, betrayal, punk, rock 'n' roll, a teenage rampage and it's about choices. And sometimes making the wrong choices.
A lot of the stories that have been threads in my life have bled into the book.
Each of the characters are an amalgam of people I knew growing up, including an ex-girlfriend.
Some of the stories are verbatim, almost of the way I led my life, (but) not all of them. In fiction there is room for embellishment.
It covers love, the loss of love, the bitterness of that, making wrong choices - young men getting involved in violence in response to their life not working out.
It was extremely difficult for me to write. It took me 10 years to write and it has been through the editorial wringer several times.
It's a change of direction for me. This is a personal book but at the same time it is not autobiographical.
The main character is not me, he is who I could have become had I taken the wrong turn. He is my parallel alter-ego.
It is honestly the most important book I've ever written. It's an exorcism of past demons.
Two Souls by Henry McDonald is published by Merrion Press and is available in bookshops, online and from Merrionpress.ie