Journalist, broadcaster and art expert Eamonn Mallie has embarked on yet another career direction with the publication of his first collection of poetry, Under the Tilley Lamp to be launched with a reading at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast on Sunday night.
The self-published collection features 38 poems and his article Grace which was published in The Irish Times in January 2017 as the Northern Executive and Assembly was collapsing in the wake of the resignation of the late Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister.
A desperately ill-looking McGuinness by then was in the grip of the rare degenerative disease, amyloidosis that would kill him two months later. Mallie in that article wondered could powersharing have been saved had Arlene Foster had the "grace" to embrace McGuinness in her arms and say to him, "Martin, it'll be all right. You and I are going to sort out this mess" rather than to adopt an obdurate political response to the crisis.
It prompted one of the biggest reactions to all his reports and scoops over more than 40 years of journalism - hence its inclusion. “The reaction to that story was on the scale of the biggest stories I ever broke,” he adds while remarking that a number of Presbyterian Ministers used the reconciliation theme of the piece for subsequent sermons to their congregations.
In the main Mallie in the book looks back to his childhood in south Armagh. There are also poems about his family and his grandchildren, as well as references to his love of art. The cover of the book features a portrait of Mallie by Colin Davidson, the artist responsible for the Silent Testimony paintings of people who were bereaved during the Troubles.
“The poems are anchored in my upbringing, in my childhood, in the environment where I lived, in being close to the Border, all of that,” Mallie explains.
The cast of interesting characters includes a woman who had a fondness for “red biddy” and a farmer, Patrick James, with a notion for fanciful stories who had three very small fields and once told a crowd in a local pub, “I was out on the farm today and I found another field”.
The title of the collection, Under the Tilley lamp stems from how as a child in the 1950s the Mallies did not have electricity or running water, and how studies were conducted under this paraffin light.
In referring to the poverty of the period he stresses how his mother, Eileen - characterised in one of the poems as a sort of domestic “army council” chief of staff - had ambitions for Mallie and his three brothers and two sisters, and was prepared to ignore some local sneering to push them on.
“Oh, she had drive in her,” says Mallie. “She wanted us to get up and go. ‘Read, read, read’, she said. ‘I don’t care what you read, whether it is the Beano or the Dandy, you must read’.”
Mallie says that she was “five foot nothing” but that she was a towering figure for all the family. He remembers her paying “21 guineas” for an encyclopaedia and dictionary while some of the neighbours wondered, ‘who does she think she is?”
Mallie graduated from Trinity College, Dublin in Irish and Spanish in 1974, and then went on to enjoy an exciting and successful journalistic career. At 69 he remains a busy man. He is writing his biography, runs the Eamonn Mallie website and also is involved in a number of broadcasting projects.
It all goes back to all the reading done under the tilley lamp in the townland of Legmoylin, Mallie reckons. “It truly was the source of light and enlightenment in my formative years,” he says.