I’d been trying to get into books for a long while before I succeeded in 1979. The 1970s were a time of severe recession-they seem to come along in Ireland with the regularity of the 39A bus, our local bus service. But I met up with the legendary John Murphy, the founder of Appletree Press in Belfast and for them, I edited a book on fishing. What I knew about fishing could have been written on a smaller space than a matchbox, but we assembled three of the best fishing writers in Ireland and they set to with gusto.
Next came the first book under my own name, Bewley’s, beginning a long friendship with Tom Kennedy and his Dutch wife, Appie Kennedy-Jonker. The book was literally put together on a kitchen table, but the launch in Hodges Figgis in Dawson Street, Dublin, went well, with the help of agony aunt Frankie Byrne and veteran actor Noel Purcell. Donal Foley gave it some great coverage in The Irish Times. My book publishing career had begun in earnest.
Another big break came soon afterwards,when Michelin in Paris decided to launch their first Green Guide to Ireland. After a competition to find an external writer to join their staff writer on the project, I won, having submitted a lengthy Michelin style piece on Limerick city. The end result of all that was endless touring around the southern half of the country. The exhaustive fact checking by Michelin was wearing at the time, but in hindsight, it was invaluable. Getting one’s facts right is always the most basic prerogative for any prose writer.
A lot more travel writing followed,including for Fodor’s, the American-based guide,and Berlitz, which at the time was based in Lausanne. Going to editorial meetings for Michelin in Paris and Berlitz in Lausanne was one of the perks, but I was a little surprised to find how unwelcome the slightest hint of alcohol was in the Michelin staff canteen in Paris. They eschewed alcohol with a zest that would have met Fr Matthew’ s approval! Lots more travel writing followed for Appletree Press, for whom I researched and wrote many travel guides to Ireland, with all kinds of variations along the way,such as a book on museums and a title called Traveller’s Trails, unusual themed itineraries for visitors.
Some further company histories followed,for renowned places like Weirs the jewellers in Grafton Street, Dublin and the K Club in Co Kildare. One of the most interesting books in the genre has been a much more recent one, on the history of Calor Gas in Ireland,where once again I was working with the inimitable John Murphy of Appletree.
There were a few ‘misses’ along the way.I researched and wrote the biography of J.J.’Smokey Joe’ Walsh of the Munster Express in Waterford, but for various reasons within his family, it was never published. A pity,since he was one of the last of the old style characters in the newspaper business. The most famous anecdote about him, although doubts remain as to its veracity, concern his toupee. The story goes that whenever he went out, he sprinkled salt from a salt cellar on his shoulders to give the impression of dandruff!
I was also commissioned to research and write the history of the old First National Building Society, but that disappeared into the ether when they decided to opt for stock flotation. Rather sadly, the First National, which had strong local roots around the country, has long since been consigned to history.
But against those titles that never were,some that I wrote were especially interesting, like The Newspaper Book in 1983 and The Advertising Book in 1986, my largest book ever, at nearly 800 pages. A subsequent book about newspapers,Paper Tigers, published in 1993, was based on a radio series that I had researched, written and presented for RTÉ Radio 1. That radio series also gave an insight into how quickly skills can change;for the series, I learned how to edit all the taped interviews I did, but these digital days,of course,the art of editing tape has long since been consigned to the history books.
In recent years, much of my book work has been on local history titles, which remain a popular genre in book publishing. While local history books are no short cut to instant riches, and are more like a slow path to modest returns, they are memorable for a much more important reason, the riches of meeting so many wonderful personalities around the country. One of those was John ‘twin’ McNamara from Achill Island, the subject of a book I had published in 2012. These local history books have also resulted in some wonderful and enduring friendships, like Mary Murphy from Co Galway, the expert on Achill’s Eva O’Flaherty and Maria Gillen from Athlone, who has been busy researching the life and times of Emily Waddell, who did so much for Achill a century ago.
My most recent book work has been with the excellent History Press Ireland, including two books on Ballsbridge and another two on Dundrum.
Out of all my books, under my own name and contributions to series, they’ve nearly all been related to Ireland. But I did a book called Offbeat Paris, from which sprang my other website, Offbeat Paris, on weebly.com. A couple of years ago, I started doing a weekly blog about the daily goings-on in France. It’s such a fascinating country and there’s never any shortage of good news stories,and France being France, scandals. At the beginning of 2014, I turned the first 12 months of those blogs into book form.And along the way, in 2010,I did my one and only novel, Rising to the Deadline, under the nom de plume of Alexandra Bell.
I can’t not conclude this brief resumé of my book publishing work, as well as my work over the years for such newspapers as The Irish Times, and my work for RTÉ Radio 1, without mentioning my wife Bernadette. Her career was spent in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and she has had a vast amount of poetry published,in both Irish and English.
Work in progress
I’m currently working on a book called Sandymount in Old Photographs, for The History Press Ireland. It’s due to be published in March,2016. Of all the places I’ve covered in my local history books, Sandymount has yielded the richest treasure trove of old photographs. In the process, too, many wonderful people in Sandymount have been only too ready to help, assistance that is most gratefully acknowledged.