The first major story that newspaper legend Jim McDowell was involved in was about a young rugby player who jumped into the Lagan to save a drowning boy during a Somme Parade in the sixties.
The first major story that newspaper legend Jim McDowell was involved in was about a young rugby player who jumped into the Lagan to save a drowning boy during a Somme Parade in the 1960s.
The rugby player in question was Jim McDowell himself and after being the subject of a News Letter story it was a short time later that he joined the paper as a cub reporter.
As a young boy Jim fell in love with newsprint. “My dad was a greyhound man and every morning he brought the four big papers in – Northern Whig, News Letter, Irish News and Belfast Telegraph – to look at the dogs coverage,” he said.
“I fell in love with newsprint. Asides from the stories I just love the feel of a paper – the scent of the ink, the ink coming off on your fingers.”
He recalled the lifesaving act which helped him get his break in journalism: “I was over watching the Battle of the Somme parade on July 1 on the Queen’s Bridge. A wee lad fell off the parapet into the river.
He said that he was 18, played rugby for Ulster schools, and just “did what any other fit fella would do – I went in and got him out”.
“I didn’t think it was a big deal, but the next day Cowan Watson, who was the editor of the News Letter in those days – a brilliant man – sent the late Neil Johnston, who was a reporter, to interview me.”
What happened next was a fateful coincidence. Jim explained: “Cowan Watson was an old Ulster Rugby supporter. He went to the Ulster schools matches as well. When he saw my picture in the paper, he recognised me from Ulster schools and he sent for me.
“He asked me what I wanted to do, maybe he already had an idea. I told him I wanted to be a reporter. As it were there were two apprenticeships going in News Letter. Myself and Gary Gillespie got them.
“I started in 1969, the same year as the Troubles started and some people blame me for starting them.”
He recalled the days before smartphones and laptops became a reporter’s best friend: “In those days we were out on the streets at six o’clock every morning reporting on riots and shootings and bombings.
“You had to phone back in to copy takers from a pay phone or you were rapping people’s doors and asking if you could use their phone.
“I remember many a night running into the old News Letter press hall in Talbot Street when the presses were still running and trying to get a story in. You could feel this rolling thunder under your feet. That was real romance for me.”
He added: “I remember fondly those old days with the News Letter – the almighty rows and the making up afterwards with pints of stout down at the old Duke of York. The peace process was invented in the newsroom of the News Letter when (journalist) Bud Bossence was having a row with (former editor) Ken Withers. The whole building shook.”
The intro to Jim’s new book about his life entitled ‘The Good Fight: From Bullets To Bylines’ deals with one of many atrocities he covered.
On January 17, 1992, a van carrying workers who had been repairing an army base in Omagh was blown up the PIRA at Teebane. Eight Protestant workmen were killed and the other six were injured.
A rugby fan, he tells how he gave up his tickets to an Ireland vs Wales Five Nations game after Teebane. He said: “After what I’d seen in the aftermath – good men going about their work being blown up by b******s who went and had a pint afterwards – I was so sickened I gave my tickets away to two Welsh supporters who were over in Dublin.”
He added: “Another major incident I covered for the Ulster Press Agency was the Kennedy Way bin-yard shooting [by the UDA in 1993 in Belfast]. I ran into a house after I found out what had happened.
“I rapped the door and asked the woman if I could use her phone and gave her a fiver. While I was making a call to a paper across the water, the door knocked. It was a senior trade union official. I knew him and he knew me. We both asked each other what we were doing at this house.
“I explained to him that I was filing copy about what had happened at the binyard and he told me that the woman whose phone I was using, her husband was one of the men shot dead.
“Now that hurts, it doesn’t matter how hardened a hack you are. It was a completely random choice of house, but those are things that hit home exactly the heartache of the Troubles, and being a reporter at that time.”
Another chapter in book deals with the murder of one of his Sunday World reporters, Martin O’Hagan.
There are lighter stories from his rugby day as captain of Ulster schools – including the time a boxer’s mummified arm ended up under his seat on the team bus which was stopped by the Garda on the way back from Limerick.
•‘The Good Fight: From Bullets to Bylines – 45 Years Face-to-Face with Terror,’ by Jim McDowell is published by Gill Books
Jim said: “The publishers of this book told me, ‘McDowell, give us your life story’ and I said, ‘Catch yourself on, I’m from a 14-shillings-a-week house down at the Gasworks at Donegall Pass, with an outside toilet – a memoir is much too posh for me.’”