Once Upon a Time in the North West

Garbhan Downey's transatlantic newsroom thriller characterises the resilient role of Derry through some of the last century's darkest days

Garbhan Downey's latest novel, Once Upon a Time in the North West is, according to the press release, an historical novel-cum-21st century mystery, which charts the fortunes of a family-run Derry newspaper, from the founding of the paper in 1912 until the Queen’s meeting with former IRA leaders in 2012. And it certainly is all of that. It is also a history of the newspaper industry, and of the thinly disguised role played by the Derry Journal during turbulent times.

It begins with the passing of Sean Madden, the publisher of the North West Chronicle. During his life he kept a private diary and, unlike the sanitised official record, his is a warts and all account of what really happened. Because of family connections in America old Sean had lots of dealings with various influential people in Washington, people who would prefer if the contents of that private diary remained exactly that – private. And so a top Irish American diplomat/security service type is sent over to Derry to get it before the Brits or the Irish can lay their paws on it and discover what the Yanks had really been up to.

This is more than rollicking good yarn. Garbhan Downey knows his people, his city and its history and if anyone is serious about reading up on what happened in Derry, particularly in the lead up to and during the Troubles, this is the book for them. A lot of very serious research has gone into the writing of it.

As for the novel itself, the reader is in for a bit of a roller coaster ride of events and places, being taken to both sides of the Atlantic, through the War of Independence, the Civil War, the Great Depression, World War II, gerrymandering right up to the ceasefires. Even the founding of the Kennedy dynasty gets a mention. Sometimes it is hard to keep up.

Indeed while reading Once Upon a Time the thought strikes me that maybe some readers might feel inclined to suggest Downey is 'bigging up' Derry, that such a small city couldn't have such big secrets or such a big role in Irish history. That would be wrong. It's still a matter of some amazement to many – often myself included – that such a small Irish city, in the rural backwater that was the north west of the country, took centre stage in world events for so much of the last century.

Derry was the cradle of the Troubles and for years journalists, politicians, social scientists, military strategists and so many others from across the globe found their way to the city because they found an urban war being fought on its streets fascinating. It was an anachronism, out of place in a modern European democratic society, or so they thought until the Balkans war came about.


During my time as editor of the Derry Journal I had, quite literally, hundreds of journalists from many lands cross the threshold of my office wanting to know what it was all about. And the Americans were particularly involved, visits from 'diplomats' - most were really CIA - being pretty regular occurrences too.

The fact that there were so many influential personalities around the city over the years played a massive role in increasing its stature and influence. There was John Hume, Martin McGuinness, Bishop Edward Daly, Seamus Heaney, Brian Friel et cetera. These were people with international name recognition.

And there were others, people behind the scenes, who played significant roles over the years, particularly those who helped in bringing the Troubles to a close, sometimes at considerable cost to their personal and psychological health. Believe me, they are there.

Downey's narrative examines all this – the social, economic, political and religious developments surrounding the events that led to the outbreak of the Troubles and the events that followed.

But this book is about more than this, much more. It is also a celebration of the character, the humour, the never say die spirit of a city, of a people who never gave in even in the darkest days. Downey gets that. Once Upon a Time in the North West celebrates that Derry, the one that so few writers ever relate. Derry is, was, a city of great people, of great character, great resilience.

Garbhan Downey began his journalistic career in the Derry Journal. He subsequently moved on to the Irish News and, later, the BBC before becoming founding editor of the Derry News. With seven books already published and his own experiences in journalism there was no one better placed to write such a novel. It deserves to be widely read and widely acclaimed.

Once Upon a Time in the North West is published by Guildhall Press and is available to purchase now.