Belfast Telegraph

Obituary: Neil Johnston - Acclaimed former Belfast Telegraph arts writer

By Eddie McIlwaine

Neil Johnston, a prolific reporter and feature writer on the staff of the Belfast Telegraph for more than 40 years, has died. He was 68.

Tributes flowed into the BT office today from former colleagues of a journalist who had a unique talent not just for the newspaper business, but for songwriting and guitar playing.

Ironically, his passing comes just as the 50th anniversary of the Belfast Festival at Queen’s, which he had covered season after season until his retirement four years ago, is about to be celebrated in November, and the Ballyshannon Folk Festival, which he never missed until this year, has just ended in Donegal.

Neil is survived by his wife Myrtle, to whom he was married for 42 years, his daughter Catherine, who works in fashion design in London, and his solicitor son Conor, who lives in Cambridge.

He was described by retired Tele columnist Billy Simpson, who sat beside him in the BT editorial department, as: “A fine reporter during the years of the Troubles, a good musician and a wonderful drinking companion.”

Former BT editor Martin Lindsay said: “I knew Neil all our working lives and he was one of the finest writers I encountered.

“Apart from that, he was devoted to traditional music and was widely read. He could turn his pen to any form of journalism.”

John Caruth, a former features editor of the BT, added: “Neil, apart from his work at Festival, wrote a knowledgeable folk column which was read not just by the public but by the artists themselves, especially the members of the group Three Men And A Dog.”

Former colleague Billy Graham declared: “When you were in Neil’s company you were sure to be in for an entertaining time.

“He was one of the first writers to cover the Belfast Festival in detail and set a standard few can match to this day. Johnston was his own man and a lovely guy.”

He grew up in Omagh and was a cub reporter on the Tyrone Constitution before he moved to Belfast and the News Letter, and then the Belfast Telegraph.

He had an abiding love for his home town and after the horror of the Omagh bombing he wrote the emotive poem Dark Shadows Linger which reads:

I lay my wreath where my heart lies

On Drumragh’s gentle waters

And floated down through Omagh town

Past the scene of slaughter.

I’ll walk its winding banks again

And pledge a vow on leaving

As long as I have breath and soul

So long will I be grieving.

Neil and I were workmates for many years on the staff of the BT and I had a great respect for his talent and laidback style.

He was never short of a telling phrase.

His funeral will be from St John’s Parish Church on Malone Road, Belfast, later in the week.

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