My Cultural Life: Malachi O'Doherty

The journalist and author on appearing at the Belfast Book Festival, booking tickets for Cirque du Soleil and why Kurt Vonnegut is more patient than Christ

Malachi O'Doherty is a journalist and broadcaster, and the author of four books, The Trouble With Guns, I Was A Teenage CatholicThe Telling Year: Belfast 1972 and Empty Pulpits: Ireland's Retreat From Religion. He will be appearing as a panelist at the Belfast Book Festival's 'Getting Into Print' discussion.  

When did you become interested in journalism? 
I think I had a journalistic tendency from childhood. When I was about 16 I worked in The Red Barn pub in Rosemary Street and met many of the Belfast reporters of the time. In some ways, they put me off the idea, because they were so bumptious, but they also showed me that there was very little work involved or any particular need for high intelligence or even sobriety. It seemed ideal.

What was it like cutting your teeth as a journalist in Belfast during the Troubles? 
I was very frightened in the early days, but I was also a cocky wee boy who thought he was a clever man. This was a strange time, when much of our journalistic effort was directed away from covering the Troubles and into imagining Northern Ireland as a different kind of place to what it was. In a way the Troubles started too early for me. Had I been a bit older and more stable in my personality, I might have been able to make better use of the experience. But I saw a lot and retained the impressions and wrote about it in The Telling Year

Do you have a journalist hero that you look up? 
Early heroes were Nell McCafferty and Eamonn McCann. I was dazzled by some of the polemical writing that came out of the civil rights campaign and I contributed to this by writing for Unfree Citizen, as did my brother. Today, the journalistic writers that I admire most are Mark Lawson and Timothy Garton Ash. I marvel at the style of Kevin Myers but I think some of his reasoning is simplistic and that he needles for effect.

You work as a journalist, broadcaster, blogger and more. What cultural acitivites to you indulge in during your down time? 
I read. I do a lot of sound recording and editing for radio, and though this is a job of work it is as satisfying as a hobby. If the work dried up I would carry on doing that for pleasure. I also, in addition to writing books that get published, write books that don't get published. And I make up little bawdy rhymes in my head and then forget them. 

If you could have three cultural figures from throughout history round for dinner, who would they be and why? 
Daniel O'Connell, who as an astounding orator must have been a great conversationalist. Kurt Vonnegut, one of the most indisputably good people who has ever lived. Even Christ lost his temper more often than Vonnegut did. He is the model humanist for me - a writer who loved people for what they are rather than what they should be, and who was witty and well grounded. Doris Lessing, because she is wise and attempts a heroic overview of human experience. And I once visited her at home and found her easy to be with. 

If you could have created any work of art in any discipline from throughout history, what would it be and why? 
Love Story by Erich Segal. It just strikes me as the sort of short novel that, given the right moment and the energy, you could write in a month and be sure to sell. I also wish I had written Derek Mahon's poem, Ecclesiastes.

What cultural event has most inspired you in the past few months? 
A reading by Claire Keegan at the Aspects Arts Festival. 

What cultural event are you most looking forward to in the months ahead? 
Cirque du Soleil in Belfast. I have my tickets already. 

You will be taking part in the Belfast Book Festival – what does it mean to the city, in your opinion? 
I think the book festival is hugely important. We have a local media which has virtually deserted the book, and we desperately need festivals and other public occasions to remind people of the beauty and wonder of books. 20 years ago I wrote almost weekly interviews with writers on tour for The Irish News. The big publishers sent the big writers here on their tours and I got to interview Douglas Adams, Robert Lacey, Anthony Burgess, Doris Lessing, loads of them. This doesn't happen any more.

I also think that Irish broadcasting has a responsibility to interact with Irish writing. But nobody in the local media is much interested in the local conversation; they aspire to being impressive in London in stead, and turn their backs on us. 

Have you attended many book festivals before? 
I get invited to other book festivals, Aspects in Bangor, Wigtown in Scotland, The Blue Met in Montreal (which is fantastic). I was reading at the Ottawaw Book festival last May. They have all been good, but I was particularly impressed by the way the Blue Met interacted with Radio. CBC recorded many of the events and put them out as arts programmes over the year. Cheap programming for them and exciting broadcasting for the whole country. I also like the way Evan Thornton's Podco broadcasts from the Ottawa festival online. 

I was introducing John Connolly at Aspects one night. We were to sit and have an armchair chat, but he totally ingnored me and stood up and walked to the front of the stage and did a kind of stand up routine. I could have kicked his arrogant arse for that. 

You will be taking part in the discussion 'Getting Into Print' at the festival. If you could go back in time and meet your younger, greener self, what advice would you give to the struggling young writer? 
I would tell my younger self to fret less and not think it a matter of urgency to get into print. No book suffers by maturing in a drawer but many are crippled by being rushed out. But the best thing that happened for me as a writer was the invitation to write short radio talks, weekly (on BBC Radio Ulster's Talkback) for over 20 years now, and a column in the Belfast Telegraph for about half that period. Journalism is to writing what jogging is to keeping fit. Without that experience, I don't think I would ever have written a book, and my advice to writers is to write every day and get that wee muscle in the brain well toned. 

Books by Malachi O'Doherty are available on 

Check out Culture Live! events listings for more information on 'Getting Into Print' and all other Belfast Book Festival events.

Lee Henry