Publishing Pure Derry
Founder Keyser O'Shea on the importance of satire, social media and publishing a book with Blackstaff Press
Pure Derry is a parody news outlet that reports local and world news through comical and satirical scenarios. It’s basically a mixture of political and social satire, with a big dollop of irreverent comedy thrown in for good measure.
It actually first appeared online a decade ago, in 2003. I started writing news stories that parodied the local newspaper The Derry Journal, and a basic, lo-fi website turned into a huge success, literally overnight. We ran for about 40 editions before ending in early 2007. We came back on Facebook last year, after a six-year sabbatical.
Our second coming definitely would not have happened without social media. (Sorry, I didn’t intend that to sound so biblical.) Facebook is perfect for online satire. Our old website was ‘edition’ based – it basically involved compiling a whole magazine of content before releasing it, which was very time consuming.
Social media, however, allows us to be reactive, to post stuff whenever we have an idea or a story breaks, and also to get instant feedback from our followers and fans. I’ve definitely enjoyed our social media reincarnation the most of our two eras.
Most Northern Irish satire starts anonymously, in my experience. I think a fear of reprisal from humourless sectarian numbskulls is a factor – ask Newton Emerson or the Loyalists Against Democracy for a second opinion, though.
That said, satire is counter-culture – it’s saying what is on people's minds and trying to reflect hypocrisy in society through humour and ridicule – and I think the anonymity, in combination with an audience, helps reinforce that ideology. Pure Derry could be written by any person on the street. I think that is a beautiful notion, and much more interesting than a mugshot and a name on the inside sleeve.
We have just published a book with Blackstaff Press, a 'best of' type of collection, and I felt it was apt that the book would hit the streets anonymously, just as the web content had always been offered up. Blackstaff approached us to write the book. (And it is a book, I can assure you; it's got an ISBN number and everything.) They said they loved the material and would be interested in pursuing a printed version, and I was happy to oblige.
You can get the book in Easons, WH Smith, on Amazon or (my preference) direct from us at our Pure Derry shop. That’s a blatant plug, of course, but buying direct from us is the best way to support us. Also, I’ll sign it especially for you. Who could say no to that?
I had discussions with the publisher about my ‘coming out’, and it nearly happened. They wanted it, but in the end I went with my gut instinct. One day I may drop the mask – eventually. It would be nice to take credit for the work. I’m only human, after all. Who knows, maybe some day soon an anonymous first edition will be a collector's item.
People from outside of Derry will appreciate the book, absolutely, just as they appreciate our online presence. We’ve got loads of fans from all over the world. You don’t have to be from a small island off the coast of Ireland to get Father Ted, and you don’t have to be from Derry to enjoy Pure Derry. It's just a setting.
Satire is very important in a society like Northern Ireland. Someone recently said to me that satire was the only true political opposition in Northern Ireland – given the farcical usuns/themuns mentality on the hill – and I think they were right.
When republican dissidents or loyalist fascists – sorry, flag protestors – do or say something deplorable, satire writers will be first to take them to account. Ridiculing sectarianism to tens of thousands of readers is much more effective than any meaningless condemnation by a local politician, in my opinion.
In a way it feels like we're continuing a long tradition of satirical comedy in Northern Ireland, but there is room for much more. We came around just as The Portadown News was coming to an end; we picked up the baton, if you will. In the years we were away though, no-one really emerged to fill the void, which surprised me. Aside from missing writing, I also felt there was still a massive gap in the market for good local satire.
We’re exploring expanding at the moment, and recently put out a call for content creators. I think it's best to try and evolve rather than follow the same formula. Personally speaking it would be nice to bring others on board, share the load, develop new ideas and new types of content. (Incidentally, my new co-writer goes by the name of Mr KobaYesHi. It's a Usual Suspects thing; I'm a movie geek.) But ultimately it will depend on the people who get in touch.
It’s not paid work, mind. Money shouldn’t be your motivation when it comes to writing satire. I’ll be lucky to pay for a holiday from the book sales! A local book success won’t make you rich. There is no media juggernaut behind Pure Derry. It’s a guy with a laptop, a word processor and a dodgy copy of Photoshop.
What is it about the Derry sense of humour? I think maybe being sandwiched between Letterkenny, Strabane and Limavady we have all had to develop a sense of humour to cope. And I think we are all more outgoing as people because drink is cheaper than in Belfast, probably.
With regards to the UK City of Culture, we’ve been true to the spirit of Pure Derry first and foremost, and not held back. But I also wanted to be positive about how far Derry has come and how proud I am of my hometown.
That was a hard balance to strike, but I think we managed it. Ironically one of the things that made comedy possible during 2013 was how difficult others found it to be positive, despite all the good things happening around the city. Coming down hard on whingers is a recurring theme. (Hold on, am I whinging about whingers?)
My guilty pleasure is mocking local eating habits. Some of the stuff that goes on in our takeaways and restaurants is so unique to Derry that you have to laugh. I’ve beaten the jokes to death by now, but Derry people would walk on broken glass to reach a bowl of tobacco onions or garlic potato cubes...
In keeping with the season, the story we ran last year in direct response to the flag protests is one I’m very proud of. Entitled ‘Snow Surrender’, it parodied the issue in a scenario whereby loyal Christmas fans wanted a year round Christmas tree on display at Belfast’s City Hall, despite even Santa only having his up on designated days of the year. A long-term follower of ours described it as ‘satirical perfection’, which really made me smile.
Amazingly, we rarely get negative comments. And the sales of the book are humbling. People keep telling me that they are getting three or four copies as Christmas presents for family members, and that just blows my mind. Who knows what the future holds? I love writing, but I also love trying new things. I’ve spoken about doing a theatre piece, a musical, more video and expanded website. You’ll just have to keep following to find out.