A Profession, a Trade and a Disease.

THERE has long been debate in academic circles about whether journalism is a trade or a profession. My heroes Hugh McIlvanney and James Cameron argued it is an ‘honourable trade’. But while researching a master’s thesis on the Irish newspaper industry I discovered the view that it is actually a disease.

I was afflicted by this medical condition at an early age. My father taught me to read and write before I reached primary school where I found the stories of Dick and Dora to be top heavy with pets but lacking in drama. Every week dad brought me home a copy of the educational comic Tell Me Why which was filled with true stories from around the world. It gave me a wondrous hunger for words. We would go to the library together where a universe of fiction opened up. I was spellbound by Scott and Stevenson and still awake at night dreaming that I have been on the run through the heather with the dashing Jacobite Alan Breck Stewart. I remember a holiday in Scotland in 1972 where I purchased a copy of Lord of the Rings in a bookshop in Ayr and for the next decade I plundered the realms of fantasy and horror, Lewis, Lovecraft and King. Later I discovered science fiction and gorged on Sagan, Bradbury and Dick.

I dreamed of being a great writer and still do. I read Stephen King’s Danse Macabre and discovered that the only successful writer is one who gets paid, no matter how badly.

I gave away most of my fiction because I ran out of space to store books but still have a schoolboy copy of the one I most enjoyed. Modern Irish Short Stories contained the work of O’Faolain, Joyce, Plunkett, Stephens, O’Connor and Macken. It opened up the world on my doorstep, ordinary characters and places I could associate with, dialogue and dramas that I recognised. I even remember a hearty chuckle at a wonderful line in The Eagles and the Trumpets. The country lads are on a night out in Dublin when one leans over the O’Connell Street bridge and remarks: “I’m so hungry, I could eat a farmer’s arse.”

By the time I’d left school, I’d also read Shakespeare, Lawrence, Chaucer, Hardy, Forster and Beckett and acquired two O Levels and an A Level in English. Mercifully I was turned down for a job in a bank and retired from training to be a merchant navy officer after jobs dried-up at sea because of the first Gulf War. A family friend got me a trainee’s job on a local newspaper where I was paid £22 a week to write but was expected to know everything about Irish history and politics. As the Troubles grew bloodier I realised I was in the middle of history and better find out a bit more about these subjects. As a part-time student at Queen’s I picked up modules in Irish history, politics and Gaelic studies and an honours degree. I finished off formal study at the Institute of Irish Studies where I read many of the Irish literary classics from Maria Edgeworth to Molly Keane. My thesis, however, examined what I knew best – the politics of the Irish newspaper industry and how it has shaped our society.

If I think about what motivates me to write fiction I cannot escape the conclusion that I am in the death throes of my childhood disease. It is a natural extension of the thirst for strange facts and eccentric people, a desire to tell the truth to power, inform and entertain with well chosen words. A tabloid colleague of mine believed: “Words are like bullets. Only use them when you have to.”

During 43 years as a reporter and editor I encountered many situations, people and dramas that did not make it to the newspaper page. They were either too personal, too dangerous to print or simply could not be crafted in less than 500 words and a smart headline. We old hacks have a saying: ‘You couldn’t make it up.’ By this we mean that the truth is often stranger than fiction. But for the storyteller with my background, good fiction can allow us to see a greater truth, a truth that mere reportage cannot illuminate.

I had entered semi-retirement before I put my mind to the serious business of writing fiction and the floodgates seemed to open. Much came flooding back and I still find great pleasure in the business of creating and building characters and situations that reveal what it was like to live in the Ireland of my times. There was so much more than bombs, bullets and bloodshed. There was humour, humanity and hope to be found if you were courageous enough to look for it.

In retirement I hope to finish a novel which explores the Ireland of my parent’s generation. I hope it will be a lasting legacy for my grandson Jamie who has inherited a bad case of my disease. This project is both a challenge and a calling for it brings me full circle to a wondrous hunger and a farmer’s arse.


Maurice Neill


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