Behind the Headlines

Veteran journalist Alf McCreary recalls a 'multi-faceted, constantly stimulating' career in print

North coast Ulster, where I grew up in the 1960s and 70s, was not exactly a culturally nourishing environment. There were, however, two journalists whose names I managed to become vividly aware of.

One was the late W 'Speedy' Moore, whose musings on provincial life and lore in the Coleraine Chronicle – not to mention his considerable prowess as an accordion and banjo player – became the stuff of local legend.

The other was Alf McCreary. For many, McCreary was the voice of the Belfast Telegraph, filling so many different roles in his five decades with the paper: staff reporter, television critic, army correspondent, sports writer, feature writer, leader writer, religion correspondent, weekly columnist, even (briefly) horoscope writer. There can hardly have been a section of its readership unfamiliar with his byline.

Now McCreary himself takes centre stage, in Behind the Headlines, an autobiographical memoir surveying half a century in journalism, and including material on his early years in Bessbrook, County Armagh, where he grew up in the 1940s and 50s.

It was a different world then, and McCreary shares fascinating recollections of the village, with its grocers in long brown overalls, hearses in horse-drawn carriages, carts selling milk and collecting pigswill daily, and community carol-singing in the streets on Christmas morning.

McCreary doesn't flinch from describing the problematic family circumstances surrounding his upbringing – his mother bore him out of wedlock, and his father quit the scene soon after.

Raised by his maternal grandparents, McCreary frequently had to endure the taunts of ‘bastard’ from schoolmates, in an era when illegitimacy was viewed as hugely stigmatising socially.

One of the first children to benefit from the 11+ examination, McCreary earned a place at Newry Grammar School, and carried on regardless. At Queen's University he studied history, played hockey and enjoyed himself, in a period when there were obvious cultural and religious differences between the students (McCreary was born Presbyterian), but no serious divisions.

That, of course, changed dramatically and tragically, and much of Behind the Headlines focuses, unsurprisingly, on the Troubles, which McCreary reported on extensively for the Belfast Telegraph, and as a stringer for international publications such as the Guardian newspaper, Time magazine and the Christian Science Monitor.

There is no doubt that the Troubles left a heavy mark on McCreary both emotionally and psychologically, and the most moving parts of the book are those that hark back to the major atrocities, quoting pieces he wrote for the Telegraph at the time.

Most harrowing of all for him was the Kingsmill massacre of ten Protestant workmen, some of them old friends from Bessbrook. McCreary's dispatches from the village, and from a wake that he attended, still make numbing reading four decades later.

He was equally shaken by the events of Bloody Sunday four years earlier, and grimly recalls attending a funeral for the victims. 'I walked up to the front of the church, and slowly read all the name plates on the coffins. I was all too aware that each wooden box held the remains of a human being who had been alive and vibrant only a few days previously.'

That strong element of empathy is a keynote in McCreary's writing. It's reflected also in his interest in peace-making, the books he wrote on the Corrymeela community, and his many expeditions to the Third World, reporting on the desperate living conditions he found there for the Christian Aid and Tearfund organisations.

Like most journalists, McCreary has objectivity drilled into him, but some of the frustrations accumulated over the many years of what he calls 'the blood-drip of killings and maimings' in his native Northern Ireland spill over in this autobiography.

He is, for instance, withering about the 'typical mule-headed stupidity' and 'unsurprising lack of imagination' in successive generations of Unionist politicians, while bemoaning the 'remarkably supine and ineffective' Nationalist leadership of the pre-John Hume period.

Internment was, McCreary reckons, 'one of the biggest ever mistakes by the government in Northern Ireland', and he pleads eloquently for 'a proper environment' in which non-combatant victims of the Troubles can tell their stories – 'the greatest unfinished business of all', he calls it.

There are many lighter moments too, particularly those relating to the days before smartphones and the Internet changed the nature of the journalist's job forever. McCreary drolly recalls attempting to file reports from locations such as a stock-room in a filling station, surrounded by sacks of potatoes.

There are fond vignettes of the frenetic atmosphere in the pre-computer newsroom at the Telegraph, where writers yelled out 'Copy!' to the child employees who dashed around collecting it, and on one occasion a fellow journalist hurled a heavy typewriter at the head of a news editor who was annoying him.

In an extended career break from full-time newspaper work, McCreary spent 13 years as Director of Information at Queen's University, a period he recalls with mixed feelings. No wonder: he's a writer and a storyteller to his fingertips, and the committee rooms and vindictive in-fighting of academia were always likely to be ultimately stifling.

Unfortunately, Behind the Headlines has been shoddily proof-read, and is peppered with the kinds of errors (I counted over 60) which a vigilant editor ought to pick up on, but a spell-check doesn't. That's not McCreary's fault, however, and it's a distraction offset by the generous number of evocative photographs included, both personal and professional in nature.

McCreary is in his mid-70s now, and still writing. He had the kind of career in journalism – multi-faceted, constantly stimulating, international in its scope and interest – which is all but impossible for local journalists to achieve nowadays, with the proliferation of what McCreary eloquently calls ‘instant experts and interactive interlopers’, and the interconnectedness of everything and everybody in the world, at the flick of a computer button.

McCreary’s humane, plain-speaking, and fundamentally trustworthy style of writing will, however, never go out of fashion – one hopes, at least. Behind the Headlines should be read by anyone remotely interested in the period he covers, or in the man himself, whose journey from the humblest of beginnings to the height of his chosen profession is as absorbing as it is inspirational.

Behind the Headlines is out now, published by Colourpoint Books.