Belfast Telegraph

Tele legend Eddie McIlwaine, a friend to the stars and to the readers, dies at age of 83

The Belfast Telegraph’s Eddie McIlwaine with his wife Irene
The Belfast Telegraph’s Eddie McIlwaine with his wife Irene
Eddie at work on his beloved typewriter
Eddie McIlwaine
Eddie at work in Belfast Telegraph in 1993
Eddie McIlwaine meets Hollywood star Peter Sellers
Cliff Richard and Eddie McIlwaine
Eddie McIlwaine meets Derry-born actress Roma Downey
From left: Eddie McIlwaine meets Rev Ian Paisley
Eddie and his wife
Eddie McIlwaine meets Larry Hagman, JR Ewing of Dallas fame
Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

Eddie McIlwaine, one of the last surviving giants of a golden era of Belfast journalism from the 1950s, and who made readers laugh and cry in equal measure in over 60 years in newspapers, died yesterday after losing a lengthy battle against cancer.

Eddie, who was 83, passed away at his home in Antrim in the early hours of the morning with the devoted family who were his rock by his bedside.

And his wife of 42 years Irene spoke yesterday of her undying love for the gifted self-proclaimed "hack", who for years suffered anguish at covering the Troubles in his beloved Northern Ireland before becoming an entertainment writer and columnist.

Through his work he met the biggest stars in the world, but wasn't fazed by any of them.

"All Eddie was interested in was getting the story. He didn't care about the big names," said Irene, who Eddie had confided in friends was the most important person in his life along with his son Edward and daughter Zara, who "idolised him".

"We had a good life," said Irene. "Ours is a real love story. We met in February 1977 and we married in August that year. We had been introduced by a mutual friend and Eddie later wrote a piece for the paper saying 1977 was his happiest year."

Eddie said it was love at first sight and that, with his difficult track record, Irene was taking a chance by becoming his wife. In many ways, he said, she was the one who saved his life.

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Irene added: "Eddie was a wonderful man and he was a great husband to me and fantastic father to the children."

Eddie, she said, had been in and out of hospital for some time.

"It hasn't been nice for him," said Irene. "It was difficult."

Despite his health problems, Eddie wrote his last ever story last year for the book Reporting The Troubles, compiled by me and journalist colleague Deric Henderson.

Ever the newsman, Eddie wasn't content to simply revisit a story from his past about a terrorist atrocity and leave it at that.

Instead, he followed up a policeman's murder at a Crusaders football game he was covering at Seaview in 1980 and he discovered that the victim's son was now a leading clergyman in Belfast, who gave him an interview.

It was one of the highlights of the book, but Eddie rang regularly to check that his contribution was good enough for inclusion.

That again was typical of the man who blew his own trumpet in print but modestly doubted his own abilities in private.

Evergreen Eddie, however, was peacock proud of the fact that he was for long the "oldest scribbler in town" and at one time said he wanted to keep writing until he was 90.

Eddie wasn't a one newspaper man, but his heart always belonged to the Belfast Telegraph, whose executives had allowed him to visit their building as a young boy. It was a thank you for his church caretaker father John storing newsprint for them during the war.

The Ballyclare High School pupil, who excelled at English, was hooked and in 1955 he got a job on the East Antrim Times in Larne along with other trainees including Roy Lilley, a future editor of the Belfast Telegraph, and Robin Walsh, who became a high powered executive at the BBC in London.

Yesterday Robin said: "Eddie was simply one of the greatest newspapermen of his day. His forte was 'human interest', unearthing facts about people no one knew existed; his every sentence willing you to read the next.

"The most complex of stories were made accessible by a writing style that was direct and distinctively all his own.

"His approach to local, regional or national journalism carried the same abounding enthusiasm that told of a deep love of his trade. I was lucky to have him as a friend."

After two years in Larne Eddie moved to Belfast, where he covered the trial of Robert McGladdery, who was hanged in 1961 for the murder of Pearl Gamble in Newry.

The sight of the judge putting on a black cap to deliver the death sentence deeply upset the youthful Eddie, who had interviewed McGladdery and brought him a copy of the Belfast Telegraph to the courthouse every day.

Working behind the scenes on his promotion as a deputy news editor in the Telegraph didn't sit easily with Eddie, whose natural habitat was the front line, and he jumped at the chance of a job with the Daily Mirror in 1965.

The Troubles erupted soon afterwards and though Eddie rose to the challenge, he didn't enjoy the role of reporting on horror after horror on his own doorstep.

Like so many Troubles reporters who struggled to cope, Eddie found himself immersed in the midst of dark days, which impacted on his personal and professional life.

But Eddie fought back and in the mid-1970s he convinced his former colleague Roy Lilley to bring him back into the Belfast Telegraph fold, working first on weekly papers and then on the sports desk in Royal Avenue.

However, Eddie was never happier than when he was appointed to write the Ulster Log diary column in the Telegraph.

The role was custom-made for Eddie, who could make a story out of nothing and frequently did. He could master a witty piece just as impressively as he had done with emotional Troubles stories in the past.

But Eddie was also tasked with coupling the Log job with breaking exclusive after exclusive about showbiz.

Eddie was a close friend and trusted confidant of the late promoter Jim Aiken, who flew him around the world to interview the megastars before they came to Belfast. Irene sometimes went with Eddie. She said: "The one that stands out for me was Pavarotti.

"I wasn't supposed to be in the room. But he gave Eddie a lovely interview and he later sent us a personal invite to go to the concert at Stormont."

Eddie, who had established strong personal relationships with the likes of Ian Paisley and Bernadette McAliskey, always said Cliff Richard was one of his favourite interviewees.

He also admired country star Garth Brooks and Neil Diamond, but he was also a fan of Belfast-born singer Ruby Murray.

Irene said she and Eddie spent their honeymoon in Oslo as members of the official party when Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams of the Peace People received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Eddie even managed to upstage royalty in his time, causing a stir in 1997 as he sat near Prince Charles at the opening of the Waterfront Hall in Belfast.

Eddie almost passed out because of the heat and the heir to the throne's doctor rushed to help him as security men moved in, fearing that the prince was in danger.

Irene recalls: "Typical Eddie the reporter. In the taxi home he asked me for a pen because he said he wanted to make notes so that he could write a story about the doctor!"

Eddie was rarely star-struck, but he came close when he came face-to-face with boyhood football hero Sir Stanley Matthews.

He tried to talk to George Best about his drinking but gave up, saying he thought the star had a death wish about him.

Eddie kept writing a column in the Belfast Telegraph until December 2017. He said his decision to quit was influenced by an old idol, country singer Kris Kristofferson. He saw him on television and realised that "the years hadn't been kind to him". Eddie didn't want to end up like him.

Eddie's funeral will take place on Saturday afternoon.

Over the last few years, he said he was going to write his memoir. Sadly I don't think he completed what will now remain one of the greatest stories never told.

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