Return of the anchorman

Gort man James Mahon has become on of the most recognisable Irish faces as a newscaster and reporter on local TV in the US. But after a few years of covering gun massacres, tornadoes and meth busts, he is coming home in the hope he’ll find a different Ireland. 

James covered many of the tragic aspects of American society incoudiong mass shootings and tornadoes.

James covered many of the tragic aspects of American society incoudiong mass shootings and tornadoes.

It’s been three and a half years since I left Galway. The winding streets, the salty winds and icy rain that blew life and excitement into your lungs were beginning to wane for a whole generation. I had spent three years at NUIG flitting between Drama Soc and Flirt FM radio, and in between squeezing out a bachelor’s degree in English and Classics together with a diploma in Irish. We came in as “freshers” just when the Celtic Tiger was unleashing its final booming roar, Rag Week and campus life were electric and Galway was alive. 

In the following two years, the passions, madness, and energy fizzled out as the money went away. TEFAL/Korea/Dubai/Australia/Canada/USA became the buzz words for a cohort of disillusioned students lied to time and time again by a government promising no increases in tuition costs and then doing the exact opposite, with rising fees that crushed our hopes.  We were the “Celtic Tiger Cubs”, we were the “BEBO generation” but sadly we are also the most educated emigrants Ireland has ever sent away. Thousands of us have gone, thousands will not come home this Christmas: an empty chair at dinner, one less cracker to pull, another hollow Christmas stocking. I knew I couldn’t stay either. 

In the past hardworking young Irish men and women worked as nannies, builders, and barmen on foreign shores in times of need. This time we not only sent those sons and daughters but also our youngest biomedical engineers, architects, teachers, nurses, journalists, and accountants. A “brain drain” they called it. 

I went to New York working in a Footlocker shoe store selling Adidas and Nike runners that J1 summer. In September I came home like so many, to poor job prospects, no future and the shadows along a growing dole line. I emptied one suitcase and packed another, moving to the north of England, Sheffield. 

There, disconnected from any major Irish community, I learned how to tell stories, how to write for TV and radio, how to give a voice to the hurt, lost and dismayed, working a news beat. BBC Yorkshire and Sheffield University hammered 28 of us into a mould, a robust reporter frame that understand how to broadcast live off iPhones, to break news on social media and engage audiences across the world. 

They didn’t want us to be just current; they wanted us to be trained for the future of media. Graduating at 22 with a Masters in broadcast journalism, I now had three expensive pieces of paper from two universities and a TEFAL cert thrown in for good measure but once again no job prospects.

The visas for America were gone, Canada too, no jobs in England for journalists, “cut backs” they told us, “unpaid internships.” Nothing at all in Ireland. Overqualified, overeducated and undervalued, I was put on a standby list for a J1 twelve-month visa. It came through in late September 2012. 

Once more time an empty suitcase, another refilled and gone again. Tennessee was where CNN’s Jim Clancy recommended, The South was where leading U.S anchors and reporters told me that at 22 I could forge a career in US broadcasting. 

In England and Ireland I was “too young”, an “Italia 90” baby. In America I was a malleable talent. Applying to 180 TV stations in twelve states, working out from Knoxville I began to get nibbles and bites. Interviews, snippets of encouragement; more than the rejection emails from Irish broadcasters or electronic responses from English employers.  Then came radio, 300 applications for roles on and off air. Every morning I woke up at 9.30 and spent three hours applying for jobs, calling, emailing, tweeting, facebooking and Linkedining the people who had the power to put me on TV.

Three months had passed and I still did not have a job, a car, money was running out, I remember calling my mother in Gort refusing to let myself cry. So close but so far, I had burnt the ships and left everything behind, gambled on myself, that I could become the  only Irish guy in local TV news in America. I remember choking back the desire to breakdown as she in her Irish mammy way said “come home for Christmas, it will be okay, we will figure it out together, your father is proud, we are all proud”.

Pride wasn’t enough. I knew I wasn’t better than the reporters I watched on websites and screens of more than 400 TV stations across the US, but I was aware I could be just as good. 100 miles south of Knoxville, CBS TV 12 in Chattanooga told me I was a contender for a reporter role, a week after I almost came home in December 2012. It was simple: buy a car, pass a driving test, find a place to live and go on air New Year’s Day 2013. A tall order in nine days but I had waited and waited for this moment. 

Having never driven on the right side of the road I borrowed my girlfriend’s aging Mitsubishi Galant and did a deal with a driving instructor. I had three days to pass the test and learn to drive before the office closed for Christmas. The instructor was waiting for a challenge like me. Tired of 16-year-olds whining and crashing their parents’ SUVs, my little confused head was set straight as we switched lanes on Interstate 75 at 65 mph, merging between traffic and practicing precision parking hour after hour. 

The test was passed, the internet found me a home and I headed south to the heart of the bible belt on a small bus driven by a cantankerous old African-American man.

Chattanooga Tennessee, the “Scenic City” proved a home from home. 4200 miles from Galway. My boss decided the only way I should learn US TV news was to go cover it. Armed robberies, gang shootings, murders, tornadoes and hurricanes, I was sent out with a little TV camera, an umbrella and live microphone and told “Do the damn news”. By God it worked. Homes were ripped in half, cars overturned, a state of emergency declared in Georgia and I was told ‘you are live, this is a tornado disaster zone, people are dead, America is watching.’ When you are way over your head, ill prepared and have no idea how to do your job, you go back to the basics. I told stories that made me cry, that made me think. 

I was an outsider looking in, this was their world. They opened up in times of pain, curiosity outweighed fear. “Do you have any leprechauns?” “Is it cold there?” “What is a castle like?” “Do you know anyone attending Hogwarts?” 

The novelty of who this small confused little Irish guy was proved a distraction in times of great pain for the wives and mothers of jailed gang members, survivors of meth busts, victims of armed robberies.  My series Through Irish Eyes came out of this: a three-season TV series that showed the south in a different way. So much anger, bleeding and hurting leading TV newscasts was not a true representation of what I also saw in North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama. 

The series highlighted positive Southern life and cultural quirkiness, rodeos, barbecuing, college football and little league baseball. Three years went too fast, awards came, viewerships grew and Galway never seemed so far away.  I achieved more than I had ever dreamed, but in summer 2015, more than a half dozen lone gunman shootings, including one in Chattanooga, the killing of a TV crew live on TV at a sister station and the Charleston church massacre reminded me I needed to come home, to see those who may not always be around. 

Life overseas, on and off camera has led to my penning my first book, planned to come out this Christmas and also called Through Irish Eyes. I don’t know what it’s like to live in Ireland in 2015; I remember it in 2011 but hopefully this time there is a job to give some of us a chance to stay beyond the ringing in of a New Year and the clink of Guinness glasses.


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