About a zillion decades ago, back in the days before finding yourself was actually called finding yourself, I found myself in Westport attending a Finding Yourself Course run by Anco. It was actually some form of computerised bookkeeping, but in those days it was the closest to anything technology-based that Anco were likely to offer. I had digs in Mrs Sheridan’s in Altamont Street and every morning and evening, fortified by breakfast cooked by Mary Calvey, I would traipse the walk between there and the Westport Ryan Hotel.
It was my first time away from the metropolis of Ballinrobe, and it felt fierce exotic to be getting some sort of pittance to be somewhere for a set period of time, otherwise known as work. Back then, a job within a 100-mile radius of home seemed impossible.
That journey every morning brought me past the offices of The Mayo News on Mill Street, I think. And I’d look in the window and wish that some day I’d fulfil my ultimate dream and have a career writing in there.
This week The Mayo News is grieving.
And so am I.
Myself and many of my colleagues in the paper business in the region are shocked by the sudden passing this week of its managing editor Neill O’Neill. Perhaps I was one of the few in the country who hadn’t seen him in The Local Eye TV series, in which his personality did so much to remind people of the importance of the local paper in the local community, showing the growing challenges for the industry in this modern age. Consequently, when I did eventually get to meet him and spend time with him, I didn’t have any preconceived notion of what he would be like, so when we were thrown together to spend a few days and nights together in Edinburgh last year, we instantly clicked.
Perhaps it was his innate Mayo soundness, his Covey-ness, his possession of the curiosity that one needs to be in the news business, but he was also tremendous company, possessing the great blend of politeness, humour, divilment, humility, practicality, and cycnicism that we scribblers have to own in varying quantities depending on the day of the week.
He spoke of the great pride that he had in his publication, a justified pride in an industry that we all knows brings pressures on those who live within its rules. He lived and breathed local news, sharing my creed that everything was an opportunity for a story; believing that, like air, a cloud of stories surrounds us and it is up to us to capture that cloud and convert it into words and pictures for the enjoyment of others. His laptop was a constant. The stopping of the presses on one edition, the starting whistle on the next one; his world built around, firstly his partner and family, and secondly ensuring if something happened in Mayo, it would have to be on his pages.
In the intervening two years, we’d call each other many times to share some ditty or another; and he never failed to make me laugh.
This week, he made me cry.
While nothing in this business should surprise or shock us anymore, his passing has been a bolt from the blue. His paper will miss him greatly, his community will miss him greatly. I’ll miss him not being at the end of a phone line sharing some gem or another.
To his partner Emma, his parents Colm and Mary, his brothers Conor and Finbarr, his sisters Aoife and Orla, there is nothing I can say that will lessen the horrific grief you feel right now, but what I can do is thank you for sharing him with us, because there is no doubt that he made Westport and Mayo a better place.
The great sorrow is in the wondering what he would have gone on to do.
Farewell, pal, farewell.