Still flying for stories after 55 years on the runway


I turned 79 in January. People do not believe that, though. They do not think I am that age - they think I am in my 60s. I am the longest-serving active journalist in the country. There is nobody else within an ass's roar of it. I started in broadcasting in 1945. I had a programme running on Radio Eireann - the precursor to Radio One - called The Irish influence on the American folk song.

Later that year, I became the accredited correspondent at Shannon Airport for various Irish and British newspapers, and Radio Eireann, later for the Reuters, AP and PA news agencies and the BBC.

There were these station wagons going in and out of Limerick for the airlines. You could chance your arm and get a lift with them. I would also get a lift with the Post Office van coming from Foynes. I would be sealed in with the mail. That was the only way I could get around. I have interviewed every president of the US since Harry Truman, though I only met Bill Clinton briefly. You do not get near them anymore. In the old days, there was no such thing as security.

Once I got a tip-off that Che Guevara was at Shannon. He was on a delayed Cubana Airlines flight from Czechoslovakia. I went out and recognised him immediately. I went up to him and said anybody whose great-grandfather on his mother's side was a Lynch from Galway would either speak Gaelic or English. He smiled and said, "Let's take a walk outside."

I became friendly with Andrei Vishensky. He was the Russian foreign minister who had been state prosecutor under Stalin and who sent 70,000 people to their deaths. I remember sitting at a coffee table talking to him. In October 1958, I was the only Irish person on the first crossing of the Atlantic in a jet aircraft - the inaugural London-New York Pan American Airways jet service. It was very clear then that Shannon would be bypassed. Once the planes got enough range, they would not have to land there.

I was the highest-paid freelance journalist in Britain and Ireland during those great days, but it was hard work. The crashes made all the money. You were 36 hours going, no bed. The routine became the same. You knew how to handle it. You had two phone boxes beside each other and you would ring reverse charge on each one. "London 6000" was the Evening News and "`London 3000" was the Evening Standard.

I would call the stories over to them. If one typist was faster than the other - you could hear the clicks of the typewriter - I would cough until the other one was ready. The mobile phone came too late for me.

I was a brazen fellow. But you see, you will get nowhere if you do not have that. Nobody owes you a living, you owe yourself a living. I love the challenge of it. You are up against time, up against people who do not want to talk to you; I love the challenge of getting the story, the fact that you are there in the middle of what is happening.

It is difficult for young journalists today to see how different things were then. At Shannon I was considered to be part of the furniture. I was as important to the airport as the manager. I was the one publicising the place. They all appreciated that and they would help me.

There is less trust in journalists now than there was then. There was a good relationship between journalists and VIPs of all sorts. They were delighted to talk to you.

If I get to the stage where I am beginning to doodle or if someone considers I am, that is the time to pack up. But you continue to do it while you can. You have to have something that challenges your mind all the time, that keeps you active.

In conversation with Eibhir Mulqueen