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Stormont's secret world of political suspense

(Seamus McKinney, Irish News)

Derry Correspondent Seamus McKinney talks to fellow Derry man and former Irish News journalist turned author Garbhan Downey about his new book, a varied career and getting hooked on fiction writing.

They say there's a book in everyone but most people don't have the time, inclination or wherewithal to write and publish it.

Not so Derry's Garbhan Downey, erstwhile editor of the Derry News, one time BBC reporter/ producer and formerly of this parish. After a long and distinguished career as a journalist in both the north west and Belfast, Downey took the plunge earlier this year and gave up his pensionable job to follow his dream of being an author.

Tonight he realises part of that dream when he publishes The Private Diary of a Suspended MLA in his native Derry, a satire of the political world based on the trials and tribulations of Shay Gallagher MLA.

Now 38 years old, Downey's journalistic career started as a freelance after graduating from University College Galway and spending a year as deputy president of the Union of Students of Ireland.

His early freelancing days where short-lived and he was quickly appointed as a staffer at the Limavady office of The Londonderry Sentinel.

Just a year later, he moved upwards and onwards and joined the Irish News.

After a period with the paper he married Una and headed off to the US.

On his return to Ireland, he once again turned to freelancing before joining the BBC in Belfast.

"It really was a great learning experience. After about a year and with a young family – Fiachra was about seven months old – and Una works in the town (Derry) so there was never any suggestion that we were going to move to Belfast.

"I came back to (Radio) Foyle and worked there for a few years and had a great time, both reporting and producing. Foyle was a buzzing station and is doing very well so it was a great place to work," he said.

Downey always had a desire for books and writing. While at the Irish News, he travelled to the World Cup finals in the US and filed copy daily. On his return, he published his musings in book form.

While with the BBC, he got together with Derry historian, Mickey McGuinness and the two published a history of Derry's Creggan housing estate, marking the 50th anniversary of the estate.

After a few years with the BBC, he applied to the corporation to take a year out and try his hand as a full-time author.

"I'd got the year out but Colm McCarroll (the owner of the Derry News) approached me to be editor.

"I thought to myself it was something I'd always wanted to do, to try editing a paper, and it was a great challenge... I said to myself, right I will try this for three years and see how it goes and I did it.

"I'm not saying it was easy because it wasn't; it was a lot of hours and a lot of work. But it was really the most enjoyable experience of my life to be shaping and producing something which was becoming part of the fabric of the city."

After the three years Downey decided it was time to follow his heart and give the creative writing a throw.

"I always thought to myself that by the time I turn up my toes I would like to have a collection of books written by me on a bookshelf somewhere. I also wanted to do it when I was young enough to have the energy to do it," he said.

He has adapted well to the new life and treats it as his new job, working a disciplined nine hours a day at his task.

His first offering, The Private Diary of a Suspended MLA – published by Stormount Books – takes his hero, Shay Gallagher through a series of adventures.

Downey is not letting the dust settle under his pen.

He has already completed a collection of short stories which he started many years ago. He hopes to publish A Cure for Bad Breath some time early next year.

And if that's not enough, the author is well into his second novel. It is the story of a Derry man who stumbles into politics and finds himself in the race for the Irish presidency.

He also has a third book on the go, a children's book, The Invisible Daddy.

"Writing is different from working in a set job but it is very good in some ways in that you don't have interruptions. In an office you have many calls a day and you're trying to sub-edit stuff and you feel you are getting nothing done," he said.

"Here, working at home, you have great peace so your focus sharpens. Now if you wanted to you could allow yourself to be distracted fairly handy and I have now and again.

"But I would be actually very, very disciplined. We're up early with the wains anyway (Fiachra and Bronagh who is 21 months) so I just start."

With a young family and bills to pay, Downey is conscious of the need to make his new career pay. Ever the realist, he concedes: "It's too early to say."

November 4, 2005

This article appeared first in the October 22, 2004 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News