https://travelinspires.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/Ballycastle-Malachi-ODoherty.jpg

Photo Flickr user Bruce Durling

Episode 1: From Muff to Ballycastle and Belfast with Malachi O’Doherty 

Jackie De Burca A warm welcome to the Creative Places and Faces podcast– the podcast that explores places that help to inspire creativity. Some are local, some even formative and others are far away and sometimes rather exotic.

Today’s guest is Malachi O’Doherty – who has worked with the BBC, the Belfast Telegraph, The Guardian, The Irish Times amongst others, and he is also the author of ten books.

Our chat today is going to investigate how the places that Malachi has spent time in may have influenced both his creativity and life.

This journey takes us from a little village called Muff in County Donegal where Malachi was born in March 1951. And next down to Belfast, India, Libya and Geneva and then back to Belfast.

We have split Malachi’s interview into three episodes. Episode 1 takes us from Muff to Ballycastle and Belfast and features some:

Wonderful childhood anecdotes, on being a twin and how being a barman is not unlike being a freelance journalist


Jackie De Burca Welcome, Malachi, and thanks very much for joining me. Can you describe where you were born? The village of Muff in County Donegal?

Malachi O’Doherty Well, I have no memory of Muff, in my childhood. I’ve obviously passed through it many times since, but I have no recollection of what life was like there. If you go up the main street then, about halfway up on your right-hand side, you’ll see a little green pebbledash house, and I was born with my twin brother in an upstairs bedroom. The one on the right if you’re standing in front looking at it.

Muff Donegal where Malahi O'Doherty was born
Muff Donegal where Malahi O’Doherty was born

Photo: Flickr user George Clarke

Jackie De Burca Really? Okay.

Malachi O’Doherty And, I- you know, I- my father was a barman locally. My mother, I suppose was just having too many children to be doing anything else at that time, maybe. Well, two twins – born 11 months after the second sister – there is a bit of clutter about the place. We were baptised immediately in that room, I think. I presume a priest was sent for a- maybe just, somebody.

Jackie De Burca Were you?

I don’t know who did it, but, but there we were premature twins. We were not expected to thrive. And so we got the- we got the baptism done as quickly as he could.

Jackie De Burca So well – How premature were you, Malachi?

Malachi O’Doherty Oh, well, I don’t know. I mean, I mean- I remember vague accounts of this. I’m not gonna chance saying out loud how I remember it because I probably remember it wrongly.

But I just told I was about the size of a milk bottle and there were two of us. And I think Roger, my brother, was considered to be in greater danger than I was. Eh, he was saved, fortunately, by St. Anne’s water,

whatever that is or whatever it comes from, I don’t know – but yes, that’s the family story. He wasn’t expected to make the first night and somebody brought some St. Anne’s water and blessed him with that and said the requisite prayers and he’s- he’s as fit as a fiddle now.

Jackie De Burca Wow. Okay. Of course, the memories are, you know, almost nonexistent Malachi, as you’ve already said. So do you even know what age you were when you moved from Muff to Ballycastle?

Malachi O’Doherty Well, about 18 months. Recently, I was doing some research on this and I actually, this is a story I had decided after all the sex scandals in the church that I wanted to clearly, break off from the Catholic church and, and disavow all connection with it. And there was a website where it went through what you could do that. And I- so I found the, I sought out the church in which we were later formally baptised, to get some information about that and a very nice priest there looked up the records and it was- I can’t even remember the name of the townland. But it’s about two miles from Muff, an initial one, a little village church. And the priest was so nice about it, that I felt, I couldn’t say, well, thank you. You have given me all the information I need to leave, to resign my commission, you know. And so I just, I just left it open.

Marconi Memorial, Ballycastle Co Antrim, June 1990
Marconi Memorial, Ballycastle Co Antrim, June 1990

Photo by Flickr user Sludge G

But, but yeah, so we were baptised together at about 17 months old. And the story told down through the family then is that when the priest put salt on our lips, we spat it out. Now other people have come back to me and said, well, I never heard of a child having salt put in his lips during a baptism. But apparently this was part of the country ritual of baptism at that time.

Jackie De Burca Any idea why, Malachi, why they would have done that?

Malachi O’Doherty I haven’t the remoteness notion. No, no, I don’t. I don’t have any idea why. I presume it was just, I don’t know, it was some kind of, there was some blessing or some ritual, which at that time – And it may not have been universal because other people certainly have said that- you think I’m talking complete nonsense when I tell the story. But the story was told down through our family for years, that by the time we got properly baptised, we were running around like wee nuisances and spitting the salt out so I’m not going to call my mother a liar just to implicate someone else’s notion of a, of sacramental ritual.

Jackie De Burca Well, I’ve never, ever heard either about the St. Anne’s water or the salt, in my years in Ireland either.

So yeah, you mentioned earlier on Malachi, obviously yourself and Roger, you arrived prematurely only 11 months after the birth of your sister, Bríd. Now, do you believe it was your arrival that triggered the relocation to Ballycastle, plus your job – your dad’s moved his job, didn’t he, at that time from Muff to a bar in Belfast?

Malachi O’Doherty I think that must be true. And I mean, you know, there’s no way I was anything but an accident. You know, twins, twins- the second twin born 11 months after a sister, you know, it’s- it’s inconceivable that that was planned or hoped for, you know.

Jackie De Burca I can imagine, yeah.

Malachi O’Doherty So that hangs over me still. But, but yes, it- what happened was my mother moved with the four children- five children, because there was another one born then, about a month after our christening, which must have been why they squeezed in the christening too, so there wouldn’t end up being three together.

But we all moved to Ballycastle. That was because my mother’s parents were around the corner on Coleraine road. We were in a little housing complex called Knocklayde View. And, and the grandparents, my grandparents, were around the corner. They had a lovely cottage with what was called a long acre at the back. This was this, as I understand, it was the pension of a public servant – he’d been in the Navy. And that was his retirement was a- was a long acre behind the cottage, where he could grow sufficient vegetables to sustain himself.

Knocklayd mountain Rathlin harbour
Knocklayd mountain Rathlin harbour

Photo: Flickr user Michael Clarke

Jackie De Burca And would there have been sea views with – sorry, Malachi, would they have had sea views from there, from the cottage?

Malachi O’Doherty No sea views, but not far from the sea, but this is on the Coleraine Road going out of Ballycastle away from the sea. eh, but, but yeah, it would have been, you know, I mean, we were so small. I was- we were there for about four years, left in 1956. I was, I was only five years old at that time. So- so I don’t, I don’t have much recollection of going down to the shore, except on one occasion.

Jackie De Burca Oh do you now?

Malachi O’Doherty Well, if you, do you remember if you’ve been to Ballycastle, you’ll know that down by the- by the shore, there is an old landmark- or an old sea mine painted red and white, which is used as a collection box for collecting money. Eh for, I presume I don’t know the British Legion or retired sailors or something like that.

And I think I have a vague memory of my parents taking me down and seeing that and me kicking it to see if it would explode and being warned very strongly that I shouldn’t kick it because it might indeed explode and unbelieving that. So you know, so you can see my, my parents were as fond of spinning a yarn as ever I was.

Jackie De Burca Okay. And, and when you say, Malachi, that I sort of imagined, I had – having not been to Ballycastle myself and only really relying on beautiful photographs online, I had more of a romantic visualisation of your, your sort of four years there. So were you out exploring like the countryside or what?

Malachi O’Doherty We were- we we’re a little housing development, which was probably new, called Knocklayde View at the foot of Knocklayde, the mountain. Although the mountain, you see the, my mother would discipline us by telling us that the bogeyman lived in the mountains and therefore the mountain, instead of being this beautiful scenery behind us was his threatening presence, you know.

You know, I remember playing around the little streets, you know, the little housing complex. I don’t remember much. I remember – I have some vague memory of sitting alone on the curbstone while a neighbour threw fireworks and I saw fireworks, fires for the first time. And I remember some of the names of the neighbours and- and that and my grandfather’s cottage just around the corner, which was fascinating because there was topiary – isn’t that the word for hedge that is sculpted? He’d – he’d – sculpted hedges. He had poppies, which he warned us not to smell. They would give you a headache. And he had a neighbour, a woman who wore a wig. And this fascinated us because, you know, we were always hoping-

Jackie De Burca Oh, I can imagine.

sheep countryside Northern Ireland Malachi O'Doherty
sheep countryside Northern Ireland Malachi O’Doherty

Malachi O’Doherty And we’d lo- Had no idea why she was wearing a wig, but a very clear visual memory of it still. This- this black curly wig sitting like a hat on this woman’s head and her entirely oblivious to the fact that we were all staring at it. But so, on school. We started school in Ballycastle. So I started school twice. I started school in Ballycastle and then I started school in Belfast again. So four years old, I started school at a little – we were in babies’ class. Babies was the bottom one. And then it was senior infants, and then there was primary one and babies class was taken by Sister Mary. And it was, you know, it was just- I mean, I walk past the building sometimes and I still get the heebie jeebies.

Jackie De Burca Do you?

Malachi O’Doherty I- well, I cried my eyes out on my first day at school. We were slapped. You know, we were actually slapped, as you know, with the- there was an orange box and the nun had strips of this orange box to teach us or something. But there wasn’t a proper key in. We had this very light wood from some kind of packing case that was used to slap us. And I remember one day we were invited to bring in cakes and orange juice for an end of term party or something, and we’d go sit at our desks. And I’d brought in a snowball. And have you ever tried to make- eat a snowball without making crumbs? So you’re there- you’re there supposedly having a party and there’s this horror with a stick at the top of the class telling you not to make crumbs, you know. Oh, so it was all just frightening and awful.

Melmount in snow-Strabane Malachi O'Doherty
Melmount in snow-Strabane Malachi O’Doherty

Jackie De Burca Yeah, I can imagine. I actually spent a year, age 10, in Coláiste na Rinne in Waterford. And there- it’s sort of a similar memory, but not as young as yourself. And there, the Bean an tí, she used to get a cane and actually just wanted to try it out, on the children, you know.

Malachi O’Doherty Yeah. Yeah. Amazing. Amazing.

Jackie De Burca Yeah, absolutely.

Malachi O’Doherty I mean, I could talk longer about Ballycastle. (inaudible – 00:12:05) But it was interesting. I suppose one of the things was just being a wee boy, being a twin, being a centre of attention as a twin. And anyway, there was one day my mother had bought us both these coloured berets and we went off to and we wore them to school and somehow or other, we took this notion to post these home to us- to ourselves, you know, so we stuck them in a letterbox and arrived home without the berets to tell Mummy that we’d posted them. And of course, she was furious. And that night, I had a nightmare in which I saw my beret at the top of the spire of the church in The Diamond in Ballycastle. The next day, the postman delivered the berets to the house. And there was another thing I couldn’t swallow. God, you’ve got me started. I had a problem that I couldn’t swallow properly so I couldn’t use a straw for-

Jackie De Burca Really?

Malachi O’Doherty I couldn’t use a straw for the school milk. So I was sent home with a box of straws, with instructions for my mother that I was to use a straw for everything that I drank at home till I learned how to use a straw.

Jackie De Burca That’s unbelievable.

Malachi O’Doherty These are the humiliations–

Jackie De Burca Yeah. Yeah.

Malachi O’Doherty –that have- that would have shaped me into the cantankerous person that I am.

Jackie De Burca What they do- they stick with you. I mean, that’s kind of a- a very bizarre thing to do.

Malachi O’Doherty I mean, this was 65 years ago, you know, and still, you know, I can still see- you still see my beret at the top of the spire and I can still feel the straw going soggy in my mouth, you know.

Jackie De Burca I know. I know. And I know, Malachi, from the research I was doing before the interview- Obviously, your dad played also a very central role. And at that time, he was– he was cycling more or less a 60-mile round trip to visit yourself and your-

Malachi O’Doherty – Oh, not round trips. Sixty miles each way.

Jackie De Burca Oh, was it? Wow. Okay.

Malachi O’Doherty So 120 miles. Yeah. Well- so I, you know, he was- he was working in a bar in Belfast. We were living in a house in Ballycastle. It is about 55, 60 miles away. And so he would work on the bar and the bar- bars close at 10:00 o’clock at night then. And I suppose you had an hour cleaning up afterwards. And I’m not saying you did this every night. I think he probably did it once a week or once a week a couple of weeks– but he would have- he would have cycled from Belfast up to Ballycastle and we would wake up in the morning and he’d be there. And you know, he was a good cyclist. He had been a racing cyclist in Derry in his youth. And he had won cups for that. And they were, I mean, I think I still have one of the cups- and I have one of the cups upstairs, with the handle falling off or one of the handles –

Jackie De Burca Cause he– Yeah, I think he won. Didn’t he win something like literally about a year or so before- what award was it?

Fair Head Ballycastle Northern Ireland
Fair Head Ballycastle Northern Ireland

Photo: Flickr user Giorgio Galeotti

Malachi O’Doherty It was a midsummer race back out in the (inaudible – 00:15:09), or something like that, yeah. Richard Doherty, who’s a historian in Derry contests that version. And says there’s another- B. O’Doherty who might have been. But- but, he, you know, he’s not- he’s not making any show. But I think, I think probably- someone, some B. O’Doherty won that race. And has his name on the, on the plinth of the- of the cup. And I am- I’m sticking the claim to that B. O’Doherty having been my father.

Jackie De Burca Okay. I also was very amused when I read your comparison to Fran O’Brien, obviously the half-man, half bicycle scenario. Yeah, that was, that that was also very amusing. And one of the things, Malachi, you mentioned, your obviously- your twin brother, Roger, and the beret story and so on. I noticed when I was researching, I noticed that Roger – I’m not comparing the two of these photographers, but you’re, you’re both very skilled photographers.

Malachi O’Doherty Thank you so much.

Jackie De Burca You’re welcome. I was curious, Malachi. Do you see any particular reason for that? Do you feel that’s just a genetic situation or do you think that maybe it’s linked to any of the environments that you’ve both lived in?

Malachi O’Doherty I think twins become more alike when you separate them. I think when they- when they are, when you are together and you’re constantly being stood beside each other and compared, then you become resentful of that and you try to draw away from the other or distinguish yourself from the other. And then when you’re not together, you don’t have to do that. And therefore, the natural similarity, you know, returns. I mean, for instance, he doesn’t write much. He does write. He does- He’s a political activist and he writes political speeches and talks. But he published an article in a magazine before I did.

Jackie De Burca Oh, really?

Malachi O’DohertyYou know, so he might well have taken the course I had taken and become a journalist and a writer of books. The same, the same aptitude is there. I’ll tell- I’ll tell you a story. People talk about coincidences of things that happen with twins. Some years ago, I was invited to do work with the RUC, the community awareness programme. And this, what you know- and you know, I didn’t talk to other people about it because I was going into police stations having- you know, giving, organising discussion groups with police trainees and so on. And this was the time when, when you could be in some, at some risk if –

Jackie De Burca Right. Yes.

Malachi O’Doherty It was widely known. But I had a query about the way the work was going. And I knew that Roger was involved in some community affairs work with the consulate in England. So I phoned him up and I just told him, you know, this is what’s happening. And if you ever heard of this, like, are you – any sense of it? And he said, “I do the same work with the police here.”

Jackie De Burca That’s amazing.

Malachi O’Doherty He was going in– He was going into giving talks to the police in the north of England.

Jackie De Burca That’s amazing.

Malachi O’Doherty You know, on- community awareness and the problems arising there. So how does that happen? You know, that can be – that’s bizarre, you know.

Jackie De Burca The connection. I think the connection- my mother was a twin, but not identical like yourself. Like yourself and Roger are.

Malachi O’Doherty We were told- we were told we were not identical. The doctor who delivered us in that room in Muff told my mother that we were fraternal twins. So–

Jackie De Burca Really?

Malachi O’Doherty So, yeah. Well, you know- I don’t know, we never had a DNA thing done to be certain. But, you know, I mean, you could understand similarities like both liking Bob Dylan or whatever, you know. And both having an orientation towards politics and political discussion. But both at the same time doing community awareness training with police forces in two different islands? You know, it’s- it almost would incline you to believing in predestination and karma, wouldn’t it?

Jackie De Burca Oh, that’s another, obviously, a massive discussion that can bring– Bring us up to you- your interview.

Malachi O’Doherty Yeah. All right.

Jackie De Burca Well, we’ll get to that in time. And going back to your father, Malachi. Now, obviously, you know, like myself, you’re a grown-up person but as a child, it’s really impossible for us to understand the pressures that our parents might be under. And obviously, the effect of their bad moods and how they treat us can be very long lasting and detrimental. Do you think that when you wrote the book about your father under his roof, was it in any way therapeutic for you?

Malachi O’Doherty Well, it was illuminating because it focuses the mind on, on the big questions about his character and the relationship in the family. When you’re a child, you’re living in a very- you’re living in a perpetual present, in a way. You’re living in a very- every decade in life is shorter than the decade before it. I hate to break that to you, but it’s true.

Jackie De Burca Don’t worry. I’m discovering.

Under His Roof by Malachi O'Doherty
Under His Roof by Malachi O’Doherty

Malachi O’Doherty The longest of them all is the first decade, you know. So, you have a sense of- you have a sense of time being virtually static, you know, and things aren’t really changing. And when you look back on it and then you think of your parents, I mean- were they married after the war? Both in their thirties? Between 1948 and 1956, they had six children. You know, that must- that must have felt like an amazing whirlwind of them. You know, they must have felt virtually swept off their feet by events. You know, whereas we- I, as a child inside those events, had no sense of that- that storm, basically, that it hit their lives. So I suppose when you go back to look at it and you try and put yourself in their shoes, and see how they were seeing it, and the kind of pressures they were under- you know, to find yourself, you know, within eight years, having six children and moving home twice in that period and having to earn a living, you know. That must have been quite a storm in their lives.

And I mean, I credit my father with having been able to sustain that, you know, and then to raise a family. But he was a- he was a man of a generation that is – was – that produced enough – a lot of surly men, you know? Well, he was, he was a surly, snobbish sort of man. He- you know, this sort of thing is sitting and watching Top of the Pops in a Thursday night and you hear the key in – turning in the door and immediately you go and turn the volume down. And even then, the first thing he says is, “Turn that rubbish off!” You know, that kind of thing. So you know, sympathy with a certain amount of struggle. Not quite understanding why that was the experience of so many other children at that time.

I mean, I did, for a time, I taught a Memoir Class at Queens. And, you know, if you’re looking at it from the outside, you would think that most of the stories you would hear would be stories about The Troubles. But the stories- the stories that were recurring within different groups over years – I taught this for over 10 years – One of the recurring stories was fathers, you know? You know, blunt, unfeeling, angry fathers, you know. And an incredible number. And I wonder, is it that generation that came after the Second World War had their lives disrupted by that? Then maybe look back on the Second World War with some sense of that was the intense period in their lives and everything was dull and drab afterwards are just simple facts.

Jackie De Burca I would think so, yeah.

Malachi O’Doherty And just the- just the other side of it being that, that money was so scarce, you know. People my age will – every – I mean, if I say this, everyone that’s listening will remember, “Who left the immersion heater on?” You know? That- that was the cry in every household, you know. You know, because to me, this – that was the greatest offence was to leave the immersion heater on. We didn’t have central heating. You know, now, you know- now, everybody has central heating. You know, if you ask what were the biggest changes in our lives in the last 50 years, surely, almost- surely one of the biggest and perhaps even the biggest was just central heating. We’re all warmer. We don’t give you the cold pads at night. We don’t shiver in the fire that’s dying. You know, we don’t get sent out to the coal shed to bring a- shovel a coal in. You know, and you don’t – and the smoking. You know, I mean, there were six children, two adults. So we had people all sitting round a living room watching TV and you could hardly see the TV through the smoke. Well, that’s exaggerating, but there would be a cloud of blue cigarette smoke just hanging in the air, you know. And, you know, even the paintwork getting slightly tinted by the nicotine, you know, this was the normal part of life.

Lagan by Night Belfast Malachi O'Doherty
Lagan by Night Belfast Malachi O’Doherty

Jackie De Burca Yeah, very, very, very different days. And I think what you’ve said, Malachi, about the big change, the stark change between the Second World War and then the sort of banal kind of normality of dealing with just earning money and stuff probably goes somewhere towards explaining men. I think –

Malachi O’Doherty Because it wasn’t- my father was one of those men. I mean, he was never violent. He never hit me. But he scoffed at me and shouted at me. He belittled me. I mean, I remember once when he took me out to give me a driving lesson, you know? I mean, it was, it totally impossible for him to give me a driving lesson because he was constantly grabbing the wheel and saying, “Oh, don’t be so stupid!” You know? And, “What did you do this far?” And, “Oh, for goodness sake, concentrate.” You know? “I said, over there, I said, over there! Not that way!” You know, that kind of thing. And I mean, I said it and I end the book by saying, you know, that when we carried his coffin up the street, you know, it was the first time he was ever at my shoulder without telling me that what I was doing, I was doing wrong, you know? He was bad for my morale.

Jackie De Burca Yeah, of course. Of course, he was.

Malachi O’Doherty And I think he didn’t understand education. I mean, not that we had a degree in education. I mean, I am well educated now– But within his life, that was a leader thing. You know, the education that we had is basically a secondary school education. But he couldn’t- you know, he understood families in which the boys did what their fathers did. You know, boys left at fifteen. They were good at working under- under a car. And you know what? He, you know, he didn’t understand and couldn’t relate to boys who- who had ideas that they would go on and be professional. Or just explorative and creative – he hadn’t a notion of that at all. And yet I say that and I’m wrong because, I mean, it was (inaudible – 00:26:45) and one of the books I found was a wee volume of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, you know. So he was- you know, I don’t have a single letter that he ever wrote to me. You know, I don’t recall him, recall him sitting hunched in his chair reading the Sunday Press, you know, and commenting on what he was reading there. But I don’t- I don’t recall him as a writer, you know, doing anything like that, you know or reading a novel or anything. So, you know, so you’re this kind of a man. You’ve been through the Second World War, not as a soldier, of a– with working with the fire service in Derry at the time. And you now have six children and one of these idiot sons wants to be a poet, you know. And what bloody money- how does he ever gonna make a living as a book – He wants to be a writer, you know? You know, it’s just that- you know, from his perspective, this is just stupid, you know? And then you have a mother who defends this, you know, who- who hopes that her bright boys will go on and outshine everything before them, you know? And so I think he felt that he felt lost in relation to that and more comfortable amongst men like himself who could have their drink at the bar and scoff at these, the folly of young people.

Jackie De Burca In the book “On my Own Two Wheels,” you wrote, “Neither my father nor I turned into the 60 year olds that we expected to be. He had been born to be a countryman, but lived to the latter part of life on a suburban housing estate.” Do you think that if your dad had managed somehow or other to move back to his homeland in Donegal and at some stage, you know, when you’re all Irish, would he have felt a bit less embittered with his life, do you think?

On My Own Two Wheels Malachi O'Doherty
On My Own Two Wheels Malachi O’Doherty

Malachi O’Doherty I think so. You know, at the same time, Donegal is a strange place, you don’t really belong in Donegal unless you have property. You know, we’ve a land, you know, we own a house and something. In Belfast to you, the semi-detached house and housing estate. But with quite a substantial garden in front of it and we did grow spuds, and we always had dogs. But, yeah, you know, when you went up to visit him in his latter years and he was sitting there in front of the fire with his duncher on, you know, you kind of thought, you know, this man- this man belongs in a cottage somewhere and he doesn’t really belong in the city. You know, I don’t know. This could be completely wrong. Other people in my family might hear me say anything like that and be appalled. It’s (inaudible – 00:29:26). I don’t know much about our forebears, but I think our forebears in Donegal were more the- you know, more like me, more of the making do, you know, more of the people who make something and sell it, you know? Small business people or something like- I don’t think either, you know, I don’t know of, any lineage of farmers or anything, you know. And yet, he really enjoyed- he was, he loved the garden. And he was often in the garden. And- even in the middle of a housing estate in West Belfast, he had his rows of spuds and stuff, you know, when he was growing things. So I suppose I’m surprising myself by how little I actually know, of who we are and where we’re from, you know.

But I often thought that the way that I was working and living as a freelance journalist, you know- was almost like, there was something of the thinker’s lifestyle about it, you know? Where you, where you, where, you know, you were making do from week to week and you were trying to – talking to editors and pitching ideas to them or to radio producers and pitching them programme ideas. And you were cobbling something together out of your own resources and out of your own (inaudible – 00:30:42)- other words, you know, of interacting with people and getting something out of them, you know.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. We have a kind of notion of that- that’s there’s a wee bit of traveller blood through and through there and that where it wasn’t- where it wasn’t, you know- where it was literary and it was conversational and it was- you know, gathering stories and stuff and shaping them and writing them, you know. Two generations back it might have been- might have been some other commodity, you know, requiring a little bit of deftness and a bit of, you know- You know, the interaction with other people in journalism is, you know- is very, very well suited to me. And I think my dad would have liked that. I think there’s something even similar to the barman. You know, the people coming in and telling you yarn at the bar and humouring them a bit and getting a tale out of them and then, and then on account of getting a tale out of them, getting a bit more of a tip, maybe- you know, or getting a lot to drink, you know. There’s something you know, there’s something I mean- I’m only thinking there’s either some sanity, you know, but there is some similarity between that and the life of the- of the freelance journalist. Less so of the staff journalists. Staff journalists talk about – your staff journalist just does the same thing over and over again. You know, there’s about six template stories in the BBC News, you know, and whether it’s John Hume dying or an earthquake and a- you know, in, on, or off, all or whatever, you know, they’re still basically the same format of doing it whereas the freelance journalism, the comment-based journalism that I do is more weaving something out of nothing sometimes, it feels like. You know, it’s like pulling ideas out of the air. It’s having a chat with somebody and picking something up and working it into something else. You know, it’s-

Jackie De Burca To have been able to kind of come back over a bar, as your dad would have done, and have that kind of craic, as he said, going on with the customers. Do you see that has been sort of a similar type of energy that a freelance journalist has to go with to find, obviously, storylines that they’re going to pitch to editors, that type of thing, you know? What do you think?

Malachi O’Doherty Yeah. I mean, one of the great journalists that I worked with was a man called Terry Sharkey. And I remember once going – I’d done a job with him and we had to go into a pub in Moneymore- actually, in County Tyrone. And, you know, we all got in and I’m standing there beside him looking around thinking, “How are we gonna do this,” you know? And he’s just chatting away to people. And I thought, “That’s it. That’s what this is.” You know? That is – And Barney, my dad, was – my – he was like that, you know? He, you know- and that’s in me now, you know, the greater confidence is developed and I do the same thing. I, you know, walk into any situ- even though sometimes I just quite- for a wee spin on a bike and just see somebody and just stop and talk to them, you know? And in this country at least, yet, you don’t get regarded as necessarily being intrusive or weird if you do that, you know? You’re not immediately suspected as somebody that might be dangerous if you just stop by somebody in the park and say, “Hello, how’s it going? You all right there?”

And, you know – I went with – Barney, with my dad, you know- you’d just be at the gate and it would be queer weather we’re having, you know- and away you go, you know. So there’s something- there’s something about that, that relates to the whole storytelling. You know, there was– there are people and nature has made us so that way. We pick things up and we bring them home and we share them and that’s part of the leavening of human society, that you’ll have somebody who- who superficially appears to be just wasting his time, that he’s- he or she is feeding into the whole thing, you know.

 

Episode 2 – From Donegal to Belfast and India

Jackie De Burca Yeah. Going back to Donegal, Malachi, you said in our sort of preparation for today’s chat, you said, “I always had a sense that it was an ancestral homeland. It seemed a place where law was less rigorous, where one might be settled and one’s life without the pressure to humiliate or progress in a career.” How do you feel about that statement now, given what we’ve just been chatting about?

Donegal after the storm
Donegal after the storm

Photo by Flickr user Liam Moloney

Malachi O’Doherty Well, I suppose, you know, there’s something of the- I mean, what we’ve been chatting about in that easy going way, you know, seems to me, to be more Donegal than Belfast, you know what I mean? We’re leaving out my mother’s lineage and William O’Halloran and the navy and everything. So I don’t know how that fits into it. And maybe even physically, I look more like- like that side of the family. I’m not sure. But still, yes. There was also the thing that when you- even going back to the 1950s and wee day trips to Donegal, you had some sense of just kind of breathing more easily when you’re over the border, you know. And why was that? Partly it was to do with, I don’t- partly it was to do with the stuff you had in your head about the awful north and about it being our land that was stolen from us, the old- the old mythology.

Jackie De Burca Yeah.

Malachi O’Doherty But it was also something to do with the general untidiness of it, you know? It was, you know, it was the paint peeling off the shelf, you know, the rougher roads. I mean, it’s not like that now but it was then. You were definitely, you know, you had a sense of moving from a prosperous or at least well-ordered country, crossing a line into somewhere with, which was more a peasant society or more slapdash or less, you know, and within that, there was also- and this was part of our experience. It was simply true. That there wasn’t the same (inaudible – 00:36:47) of the pubs closing in time. You know, in my teen years, I had been working in bars occasionally in Belfast and working with my dad. And there was that thing that hit 10 o’clock and it was time- “Gentlemen, please,” you know? Whereas you would go into a hotel in Portsalon or Rita’s or someplace like that, you know. I knew how to drink and this is Ireland- and nobody’s precisely asking you what your age is and closing time just seemed a notional theory, you know? That’s not how it was then. So all of that, that sense that Donegal represented a laxity or flexibility in the rules, you know- that, that there was this part of your life or part of your hinterland- well, that you could retreat to, where you knew that the- the sternness of the North, you know, didn’t apply. And, you know, I mean, I don’t know what it’s like now. I mean, you know- it may be that you couldn’t now drive a car across Donegal without number plates, you know? But there was a time when you could, you know, and be drunk as well, you know? Yeah, I’m sure it’s all, it’s all better now.

Donegal Malachi O'Doherty county of birth
Donegal Malachi O’Doherty county of birth

Photo by Flickr user Liam Moloney

And the other thing is, of course, you need to cross the border into Donegal now. You’re crossing on to better roads than you’re leaving behind you, you know? So that’s changed. But still in all you know, there’s something about crossing the border, leaving the police barrier, the customs man behind you, the fantasy that you were smuggling, you know, you weren’t smuggling at all. The Customs guy, man, just sat on his- on his chair and waved you on, you know. And-

Jackie De Burca Yeah.

Malachi O’Doherty I’ll tell you a story. I was- it was the day of my father’s brother’s funeral. And so we were driving down to Dublin. So we’re going over the border into Dundalk that way, right?

Jackie De Burca Yeah.

Cloughcor Strabane Malachi O'Doherty
Cloughcor Strabane Malachi O’Doherty

Malachi O’Doherty My father was in the car and he said, “Gotta remember that pub there. I remember the time I would stop there and your mother and I had gone out for a drink, got in for a drink, and would send you out some crisps and minerals. And you’re sitting in a bar on who should come along with the guards. And the guard said, your sister and nan says, “Where’s your mommy and daddy?” And Nan said, “They’re in the pub.” And the guard said, “Oh, well, that’s all right then.” And the Barney told that story. And he says, “No, that won’t happen today.”

Jackie De Burca No, no, not at all.

Malachi O’Doherty That was acceptable of the guards come along to check the- where your mum and six children- sitting in a wee (inaudible – 00:39:32) or something, drinking Fantas and eating their cheese and onion crisps and no adult anywhere near and says- well, “Where’s your mum and dad?” “Oh, they’re in the pub.” “Oh well, that’s all right.”

Jackie De Burca That’s grand. Yeah. That’s grand. So, with the huge difference between the feeling and the experience of going over the border to Donegal, you know, on visits from Belfast. Imagine, Malachi, if things have been different and your dad didn’t need to go to Belfast to earn more money. How do you think your life would have been different if you’d stayed in Donegal all that time?

Malachi O’Doherty Well, that’s a good question. I mean, I just don’t know. I mean, the other question is, how would it have been different if it hadn’t been for The Troubles? You know, because The Troubles also became such a focus of my journalism. I mean, I think- I think I- I mean, what I wanted was to be a writer and to write stories. And I wanted this before I had stories to write. But I had that inclination, you know. And I- you know, conceivably I would have lived in Muff, growing up in Muff, maybe joined a local amateur dramatic society or something, maybe got a job as a barman or maybe gone to the Teac in Letterkenny and- and got a trade. Or- or maybe you got a job on a local paper you know, and you know, been a reporter in Donegal in the local newspaper. You know, everywhere has its journalists. Or you know, or maybe I would have- I mean, here I’m gonna say something I shouldn’t say, but I have a strong religious bent, you know? Which worries me, you know, and has worried at me throughout my life. And you know, until- when I was in my mid-teens, I wanted to be a priest. And I mean it was my father basically, he stood in the way of that and said, “You’re not going. If you still want to go next year, you can go, but you’re not going.” And that was that. And he was right to do that, you know. But then again, I went to India and I lived in an ashram in India. And that religious bent came up again. So, I mean, in some ways, if I was- if as a writer, I had not been distracted, maybe, is the word? Or led into that whole kind of discussion around politics and The Troubles? And that maybe then, that whole kind of worrying about the cosmos and our place in it and whether or not there’s a spiritual side to life or, you know, maybe all of that would have, would have taken up more space. And then I’ve written more about that, you know?

Alley in India Malachi O'Doherty
Alley in India Malachi O’Doherty

Jackie De Burca Okay. Okay, interesting. And when you originally relocated to Belfast, how are your earlier memories in contrast to the sort of the more simple lifestyle that you would have been leading up to the age of five? Or do you even have strong memories of that time, Malachi?

Malachi O’Doherty I started school in Belfast in the pavilion of Casement Park Football Club right there, the G.A.A., that- there wasn’t a Catholic school built for us yet. And obviously, we were Catholics and we were going to go to a Catholic school and- and not just state school. Not that I’d any say in the matter. So, we were sent to classrooms in that- were improvised in this stinking pavilion, you know? And I can still smell the damp concrete and the sawdust that was put down over vomit and stuff. And I- and the horrible image- and you see, I’d come from a family with two girls and a mother so it was mostly, it was a half female- half of the sky was female, where I came from. And you know, in the school that I’d been in Ballycastle, it had been a mixed school. And then suddenly, I’m in an all-boys class and you’re standing at a urinal in a stinking football pavilion with 20 boys all pissing together, you know, and threatening to piss on each other, you know? And I was totally appalled by the whole thing, you know? So you know, I mean, I don’t have very strong memories of Casement Park and the teacher there, but I- you know, would later go into the main primary school, which was The Holy Child. I remember, you know. I mean, when you were in it, you accept it as the norm. It’s- you know, 20 or 8 years later, you look back and you remember a teacher flogging a boy with a cane because he had run away from home to find his daddy, you know. And you think, how in God did that happen, you know? You know, and I mean- I’ve got six slaps from my bad handwriting.

I was slapping me and my hands, it’s always to improve my handwriting, you know. I mean, whoever these idiots, you know, so but– but I tell these stories to people of my generation who were there and they haven’t done the re-evaluation. They haven’t kind of, you know, they still look up to these people who did that, you know, and say, “Okay, you know–” I remember talking to one of the lads, you know, just a year ago. I hadn’t met him for years. And then we met up in London and we had a chat and a talk and it was great meeting him, you know. But do you- That’s, you know, he would say, “Ah, the one thing about your man was he was always fair. He didn’t slap you unless you deserved it.” And I’m thinking, if he had an eight-year-old child, came home from school and said they’d been beaten with a cane, what would you do? You’d- you’d go in and you’d way over the school. And yet there were parents who did that. I remember sitting in class one day and the teacher goes to the door and suddenly this handbag comes flying through the gap between the door and the wall. And, you know, in an attempt to cleave him and this woman shout, “Adam, you lay a fu- hand on my child again!” You know? You know, and it’s all being really embarrassed, you know, that this woman had let herself down so badly. But actually, she was the one who was responding logically to the situation, not us.

Jackie De Burca [MIC MALFUNCTION]

Malachi O’Doherty I don’t know that, I’m not left-handed. I- you know, I’ve heard stories like that, but I’m not aware that anyone close to me who was being forced to write with a right hand. I mean, I can specifically remember a teacher, you know, helping a boy who was left handed, you know? Because there’s- because being left- being right-handed suits the way we write from left to right across the page, you know? Whereas you will see somebody writing their left hand or their arm seems to arch right round, you know, to draw the pencil in a funny way. So, I- you know, so I don’t know. No I mean, we had, we had violent teachers and we had very good teachers. You know, there was one teacher, Brother Walsh. And, you know, he was- he was a good humoured man who very rarely used the strap. And he had a playful nature. And he made us write a composition, as it was called, an essay composition every weekend, you know, in life? Like from the age of 11, you know, you’re writing these compositions, but you could let off- always could let off if it was your birthday. Some of us had four or five birthdays in the year. But you know, I wonder, you know, I- you know, that- every Sunday evening, you know, of- of my early teenage years were spent at the Christian- Christmas ta– sorry. At the kitchen table, writing a composition for Brother Walsh. I mean, I must have- it must have been a big contribution to my ability to write in later years, you know, for a publication, it must have been. I mean, if you hadn’t had that, if I hadn’t done that, you know- how much catch up would I have had to do on just learning to write, you know? And now, I write. And so, you know, for the last 30, 40 years, I’ve been writing a thousand words a day, you know? You know, it’s a normal thing.

Christian pickets in India Malachi O'Doherty
Christian pickets in India Malachi O’Doherty

Malachi O’Doherty So that – that was a bit like, I suppose like, for some, some boys would have good, good physical training and gone out running, you know, and would have achieved a level of fitness through that. And I think with, with writing all the time at school and after that- that gives a fitness to the generation of language and the brain. Yeah.

Jackie De Burca [MIC MALFUNCTION]

Malachi O’Doherty Yeah. Oh, yeah. I mean, I don’t remember any of them, I don’t even know where these things are, you know? But, but I do – But I remember. And I remember- and it’s as funny thing to stick in your mind, but I remember once sitting right in the composition and getting stuck after about 200 words and having nothing to say and leaving it and then getting a flash of an idea of something else to say that would dovetail with what I’d done. And I- and that was like an epiphany. That was like, “oh, that’s how it works. That’s how you can do it”. You know, you don’t have to stay on the straight line. You can- you can bring in ideas. You know, you can take another idea that you hadn’t previously thought of as being related to the subject. And you can twist it and fit it, you know? And I thought, (inaudible – 00:49:46) you know, I never thought of that, you know. And then, you know, I went back and finished this- this composition. I’ve no idea what the subject was, but I- it was just that kind of sudden realisation that this trick of writing a story or writing an essay. An idea, you know, that you could pull something in from the side that hadn’t been there in your original conception and you could- you would work on it and- and it felt like cheating, you know? It felt like, like trickery.

But- but it’s creativity. But I also remember– I also remember other teachers, you know? I mean, I think we were given an essay to do in primary school on the theme- The story was lost in the fog or something. And I wrote a story about getting lost in the fog. And it was handed back to me by the teacher with a four-letter word at the bottom D-A-F-T.

Malachi O’Doherty That was it, you know? So you had to find your encouragement where you got it. You know, you weren’t always gonna get it from teachers. You know?

Jackie De Burca [MIC MALFUNCTION]

Malachi O’Doherty Brother Walsh. Brother Walsh, yeah. Yeah.

Jackie De Burca [MIC MALFUNCTION]

Malachi O’Doherty We lived in a housing estate which was at the western edge of the city. So, there was no further development beyond us. So there’s open fields around us. So you could go and play in the fields and jump in haystacks and stuff. There was building going on around so the new houses are being built in your (inaudible – 00:51:50) so you could also go and play on building sites. And we did this, you know, go and bounce on the planks and stuff. The neighbourhood was, I suppose- I mean, I would imagine that- I mean, I’m thinking back to say, 1964 or something, in a street with about 65 houses in it and maybe four cars in the street. I think that was probably normal at that time. And there were at least four or five of our near neighbours were policemen, who cycled to work at Dunmurray Police Station. And, you know, we knew them and we knew their families.

We- there were Protestants there who went to other schools and they played with us and there were Protestant friends. But there was also a kind of thing, you know, if your mother called you asking a Protestant friend about something related to Protestantism or something, you’d get told off for that. You know, that was bad manners. You just- you know that’s- you know, you’ve no right to be asking that. Just you- you behave, treat them as– you know. I mean, so, you know- there was that, you know, that sense that the Protestants lived a different life, went to different schools- were cleaner. I mean, my mother used to comb my hair at the kitchen sink, and then she’d say there, “Now, you’re a wee bit more Protestant looking now.” You know?

So there was, there was a consciousness of two communities, you know.

And there was also, if you like, a theology within Catholicism that you were getting at school up to that point about being part of the one true faith. You know? There were- there were teachers who would have told you that Protestants went to hell, you know? Now, that was changing because the Second Vatican Council was coming in. So that was changing at that time. But still, no, a lot was there. But- but there was no fear. There were- there were residual traces of the previous troubles, which really only ended in ‘62. So there was, you know, there were posters of- I remember seeing a poster up in a tree saying “Free Political Prisoners” and asking my mother about that. And she says, “Oh, that’s nonsense. That’s all daft. There’s no political prisoner.”

You know? That would have been her attitude, whereas my father would’ve been more Republican-minded. And then- we all get chemistry sets for Christmas one year and started making gunpowder. And we- and this was true. And I was making gunpowder and making these fireworks and lighting them on the street. And there were boys came over to me and say, “that’s not how you do it at all”, you know.

And, and these are boys from the Fianna, you know? And, you know, and they were saying, what, – “You use weed killer and sugar.” You know? And- and you could go into the chemist shop, you know, you could go into the chemist in the Anderson’s (inaudible – 00:54:52) road to buy your chemi- chemicals for your chemistry set. So I used to go in a Saturday morning with 3D and buy a couple of ounces or an ounce of potassium permanganate or whatever, you know? So you could- you could go into a shop and just ask for potassium chlorate, you know? And take it home. And make a- make a wee- It was never a bomb, you know, because, you know, but it was a firework, you know? Mine always just flared and burnt. But- but you kind of knew that there were boys around, you know, and there were men around you, you know, who were still connected to- to the IRA or the Fianna movement.

You just didn’t talk to them about it. And there weren’t that many of them. There were very few. We thought of ourselves as Republican. You know, we went on our day trip to Buncrana, you know, for a summer holiday. And when you were there, you would buy a wee tricolour pin and wear it in your lapel while you’re in Donegal. But then as you approached the border, your dad would tell you to take it out and not to be- not to be-

Jackie De Burca Obviously, talking about your first job in the Sunday News in Belfast and how you felt quite morally lost in Belfast at that time. And you were heading off on a summer trip to Amsterdam. Shall we pick up from there?

Malachi O’Doherty Yeah, I was with my friend Dennis, and we were taking- it was the- the ordinary summer holiday from, from the job. And we ferry across to Heysham and hitched- took a bus over to Lancaster, to the M6, and then stook our thumbs out to hitchhike. And we turned down a couple of short lifts and then got a lift with two girls in a dormobile, a motor caravan. And they said they were driving to Dover. But when we got to know each other better, they said they were going all the way to Amsterdam. So we all travelled to Amsterdam together and around Belgium and Holland in this motor caravan for two weeks. Which was a terrific adventure, you know, and just what I needed after the stress of Belfast. And when I got back, I basically- after some hesitation, packed in the job and went to live near one of these girls with- with her brother and her.

Bus shelter Belfast Malachi O'Doherty
Bus shelter Belfast Malachi O’Doherty

You know, it wasn’t a relationship that lasted forever, but it lasted three years and at the end of the three years, I went to India. And I was- I suppose I look back on it as a fairly young and immature person, you know, not even handling a relationship very well. But still, in all, it was- it was like a gift from the gods. Here am I, in Belfast. I’m – you know, I’m utterly exasperated, depressed, drinking too much and not- you know, not enjoying life and worrying constantly about my own safety. And something just- this little hand just reaches down from the sky, picks you up, and puts you in another place and gives you a girlfriend. It’s like- It’s the sort of thing- it’s the sort of thing that inclines you towards magical thinking, you know? And the same thing happened again three years later. We- at the time when the relationship was dying and I was, you know, lost for a clear idea where I was going, didn’t have a job because I’d been out of journalism for three years.

And, and then I saw an ad in The Guardian personnel column that said “Retired author wanted to work in India with Swami on Bhagavad- on commentary on Bhagavad Gita.” And then, and I- So I wrote the box number and got a call from this German guy and asked me when I could go to India to work with a Swami. And then I went, you know, he said- you know. And so, by- that was December 1975, and I went on a plane and I’m and I’m in India and I’m- I’m living in this little ashram with a Hindu monk, you know? He’s a bit of a- a bit of a fascist at heart himself. But within manageable levels, you know? And I stay there for three and a half years, four years with him.

Jackie De Burca How did you feel about that environment, Malachi, when you first arrived in there- obviously, presumably, it must have been an absolutely massive contrast to the other places you’d been up to that point in your life. How did you feel about that?

Malachi O’Doherty Well, I remember stepping off the plane and the first- feel- the first sensation off the plane is- aside from the whole cluster of people, was the smell of coal smoke, which reminded me of Belfast in the 1950s and- but this very intensely bright sunshine, which was much brighter than, than we’d have known at home. Which- and I went back to India last year, and that bright sunshine is gone because of the pollution, though apparently, it’s coming back now because CoViD is reducing the pollution. And then, I’m immediately surrounded by all these hawkers, you know, saying, “come with me, come with me. I know a nice hotel.” You know? And there’s an Indian guy who’d been- I’d been chatting to on the plane. He just said, “come with me. I look after you.”

Jackie De Burca Okay.

Market stall in India Malachi O'Doherty
Market stall in India Malachi O’Doherty

Malachi O’Doherty He- he drove me to a- first of all, brought me to his home, gave me a cup of tea and settled me down, and then drove me to the ashram and I introduced myself to people there. Swamiji wasn’t there at that time. He’d left.

Jackie De Burca Okay.

Malachi O’Doherty Which was very careless of him. But, but the instructions were to take me to a house in (inaudible – 01:00:44) and I went to stay with this Indian family. And then when Amiji came back to Delhi, I went to meet him and we went from there to a place called Bridge Guard, which is on the Ganges. And we- he was staying in a hostel there, which is called a Dharamshala, while he was building another ashram nearby. So I lived that first winter in this little hostel called (inaudible – 01:01:09) Dharamshala, at a corner room in a courtyard and a typewriter and foolscap paper. Do you remember foolscap paper?

Jackie De Burca Oh, I do. Yeah, I do.

Malachi O’Doherty Yeah, we weren’t using A4 paper. We were using foolscap at that time. And essentially, basically, I would sit with the Swami in the mornings and he would dictate his book to me and I would help them with the grammar and the spelling and so. And then in the afternoon, I would type it up and then in the evening, either go for a walk, along the Ganges, or you know. And at first, I was lonely and missing my girlfriend, you know? But I- you know, I began to enjoy the solitude, enjoy the peace of it, doing loads of reading.

Cremation at the Ganges in India Malachi O'Doherty
Cremation at the Ganges in India Malachi O’Doherty

And then I got into meditation. I- he initiated me in the practise of meditation and hatha yoga. And I got very deeply involved in that, you know? And perhaps probably too deeply involved in it. But at least the thing- over a period of three and a half years, rounded itself off, in that it starts off with me being seduced by this highly manipulative figure and then the kind of blissful period, and then this struggle where the tensions begin to arise.

Jackie De Burca Yeah. Okay.

Malachi O’Doherty Like any relationship. And then breaking free from it. I think if this thing had broken down before I had resolved in my head what was wrong with it, then that might have been difficult afterwards. That would have left me with problems. But actually, I mean, I- I had my- I had my seduction, if you like, while I was there and I had my bus stop with full conviction at the end. But I had to learn quite- I had learnt the practise of meditation and yoga in some way and- and I had been keeping diaries. So my own writing had developed quite well at that time. And my old thinking about who I was. I think essentially it was a regression, you know? I think it was a regression. I think- you know, having come through a kind of confusing, over disciplined education and into The Troubles and you know, not really finding my bearings in life. I think, you know- a three-year holiday beside the Ganges, was just what I needed to restore my spirit, you know? And I think that and that’s- that’s what happened. And I came back from there a more confident, more adult person. But I did become a child while I was in it, you know?

Jackie De Burca Ah, that’s exactly the question- I was not wanting to totally cut across you but the actual phrase that came into my mind, Malachi, was, do you think it was like regressing and bringing, bringing what they like to term as the inner child back into balance, if you like?

Malachi O’Doherty Absolutely. I do think that, I do think that. And I think, you know, that you know- if you had seen me walking along the Ganges, you know, with my blissed out expression on my face, just totally, totally happy- you know, like a child with no worries. You know, you would’ve seen that. But- and the other side of it was that although this seemed to be a totally other world, stepping out of what I had known, it actually was very close to a reproduction of what I had known. You know, Hinduism is very like Catholicism. You know, the Swami was the dictatorial father or the hard teacher, you know- the charming some of the time and scary the next. So in a sense, it was it was like replaying a period that had been difficult and getting a better handle on how to deal with it. So when I came away, and I mean, when I came away from it, I just turned up at the Sunday News one day to look for some work. You know, the kind of comment people made was- you know, you went away a boy and you come back a man, you know?

Jackie De Burca Okay.

Malachi O’Doherty You know. Which isn’t to say that they didn’t think I was completely nuts because of what I’d done, you know, but– And, you know, if a friend came to me now and say, for instance, a nephew or a niece came now and said, “look, I’ve got this great opportunity to go to India, to live with a Swami and help him write a book. And I’ve got a one-way ticket.” You know, I would say, “are you out of your freaking head?”, you know? “Who’d do that?”

Jackie De Burca Would you really? Would you really?

Malachi O’Doherty I think I would. Yeah. And then, think about it as– think about it in another way. There were no phones then and there’s no internet. You know, I was totally out of communication with everybody, you know? I mean, I remember once having to make a phone call in India and we had to go to the police station to ask if we could use their phone. And this policeman was asleep in his underpants on his desk. And you know, I think we spent like half an hour trying to get a signal on the phone and gave up, you know? So that degree of– being cut off is not really available to anybody anymore anyway. Not anywhere.

Jackie De Burca No, no. You said about India– you said, “I lived there for four years. It was a total escape, a space for regression, my own psychotherapy. Like taking a reset on my thinking after years of The Troubles in Belfast and a period in England with a sense of lost direction.” Do you accredit that– I mean, you’ve kind of touched on some of that just there anyhow. But do you accredit that to– more so to Swamiji himself or to the environment or to the stage you were at? Or was it kind of a mixing of those energies together, Malachi?

Malachi O’Doherty Good question. I think the- the actual practise of meditation was very important, but it was important– See, the tension between Swamiji and me was– is meditation, a spiritual exercise understood within the Eastern tradition of communing with the divine? Or is it something that you try to understand within the Western psychological framework? You know? And the reality is that while I was- while I was thinking that what I was doing was feeling in my meditation when I wasn’t kind of reaching a sense of connection with the Divine and discovered a- you know, what you’re supposed to do is not think– and concentrate. But then your thoughts kind of ramble away, you know? But that turns out to be the healthy part of it. That turns out to be the thing that was psychotherapeutic. Because if you’ve got your mind fixed on something and then your thoughts are kind of working themselves out and intruding- you know, what happens in that process is that the thoughts that you don’t want to think come up, you know? The thoughts that would normally disturb you come up and they don’t disturb you so much because half of your mind is engaged on the concentration, on the object of meditation. So, you know- so sometimes, those thoughts would come back and surprise you and hurt you and sting and humiliate you. But then, they would kind of- then you would be neutralised within that, you know? So I think- So I think there’s, a I think there’s a Western psychotherapeutic model for understanding what was happening in meditation. But that would be in– Swamiji would have seen that as failure of the meditation, whereas actually I think it was really quite, quite helpful. But I also then did go into further and deeper repression of thought and sensation.

Malachi O’Doherty You know, since I would discipline myself, not– normally, if I’m walking around town doing something, I’m singing every song in my head, you know?

Jackie De Burca Yeah.

Malachi O’Doherty That’s what I do. So I would say when I was at my– in my disciplined fears, I would just cut that off. I would just say to myself, “stop that.” You know? (inaudible – 01:09:12) That was part of it. And so, what you are doing is you’re building up a huge pressure of repressed sensation and thinking, you know? And that erupts and- and it did erupt, you know? And, you know, in something that- you know. Well, if you have a kind of volcanic eruption or orgasm in your brain, then you’re- you’re going to think of that as a hugely wonderful spiritual experience. But if you tell something about someone about it, they’ll think you’ve just had a nervous breakdown and you might both be right.

Jackie De Burca Yeah. Okay. And another–

Malachi O’Doherty So–

Jackie De Burca You go ahead, Malachi.

Malachi O’Doherty No, go ahead. No, so I just have to– I was left some years re-evaluating the whole Indian experience and sifting it in and trying to understand it. That’s all.

Woman on Rickshaw in India Malachi O'Doherty
Woman on Rickshaw in India Malachi O’Doherty

Jackie De Burca And okay– So that kind of connects with what I was going to interject with there, Malachi. One of the things that I felt from reading your writing and your experience in India was, it did stand to you in terms of the courage that you’ve had to bring into various situations that you’ve been in as a writer over the years. Would you agree with that? Do you feel that that might be true?

Malachi O’Doherty No, I don’t make any claim to having courage, you know. I don’t feel–

Jackie De Burca Okay. You don’t want to say– so to say, that you’re courageous. But in terms of phrasing- (inaudible – 01:10:49) considered either to be strong or dangerous men, as you’ve had to do in your line of work over the years. Do you feel your time in India was supportive towards enabling for you to do that?

Malachi O’Doherty Maybe- maybe a bit in that I think I have an insight not just from Swamiji, but from my father, and some of my teachers with how the- the adamantly, determinedly right man thinks and feels, you know? I mean, I recognise him, I’ve met him before. You know, there’s that. But I also, you know- I came out of India as a very kind of tender person, you know, who had been celibate for four years, by the way. You know, apart from a minor lap. And so, you know, I had to find my way in interacting with women again because they were all four years older as well. You know, it’s something to, you know. Well, you know, if you haven’t had a girlfriend for four years and the woman who is your age is 28 years old- you know, when the woman that you left was maybe 24 or younger. So- so I was, I was displaced in terms of inter- relating to women. I was, you know, I was- I was sexually enthusiastic. You know, I was ready for it. And I was- I was overeager for it. And that at a time when there had been a huge cultural change in terms of the growth of feminism as well. So you know, I had difficulty in relationships and I had- and I was cumbersome and I was foolish and I was- you know, not- you know, well attuned, you know? And in some ways, see, if I look back to the most stressful times in the following years, it wasn’t- it wasn’t interactions with hard men or whatever. It was relationships. It was a foolish falling in love and break-up, you know?

I mean, it was- you know. And what I was- I suppose, doing was I was falling in love with women who were as maybe displaced and chaotic as myself, you know, kind of recognizing- you know, one stray soul recognizing another, you know? And needing more from the other than- each needing more from the other than the other could conceivably give, you know? So very hungrily falling in love over and over. And the awful break-ups and stuff, before settling down into, you know– because that side of myself had been suspended in India, you know? And it had never really matured before going to India, you know?

Jackie De Burca Yeah.

Malachi O’Doherty So I suppose when I, you know- so I mean, it had that long relationship in England. Which, you know, which had been a difficult one or at least had its difficulties. So that– is that- still connected. Yeah. So it’s actually, I mean, I’m 28 years old and still not, not materially physically a virgin, but still essentially a beginner in terms of–

Jackie De Burca Yeah.

Malachi O’Doherty –knowing how to, to develop a relationship and maintain a relationship and be good for somebody in a relationship. And let’s hope it’ll be good for me.

Destiny, karma & baloney, writing, photography and Terry Brankin

Jackie De Burca Do you think at all, Malachi– just something that comes into my mind- I’ve been- I haven’t done anything like the years you did obviously in an Ashram, but I’ve been on retreats and healing situations. I can imagine that that period of time and the bliss that you were feeling some of that time– Could that- could that have given you a different perspective, possibly, overly high expectations of normal human relations afterwards?

Malachi O’Doherty You mean, would it have primed me to expect more than was possible–

Jackie De Burca Yes, essentially. Yes. Yes.

Malachi O’Doherty These weird experiences of going to Amsterdam and going to India were– had a sense of the magical about them. You know, I had mythologised them in my own mind, to believe or feel that things happened because they were destined to happen.

Jackie De Burca Okay, yeah.

Malachi O’Doherty And you know that – And that if I was just available to good fortune, there was– there was a script there for me, you know, was already laid down. That was the kind of way I was- I was kind of thinking. And that fitted with a lot of the discussion you see in India around Hinduism and Karma. So there was a kind of a sense that- you know, if I had met this girl who was really interested in me, you know, and we connected so well, that this was meant to happen, you know?

Jackie De Burca Yeah. Yeah.

Malachi O’Doherty I mean, that- that’s the kind of thinking that maybe come out of that. And actually, you know, none of it was meant to happen. What you- what you have to do in a relationship is get to know the other person, let the other person get to know you and ride the storms, you know?

Jackie De Burca Yes. Absolutely.

Malachi O’Doherty Yeah. And I didn’t know that. You know, I should’ve known that.

Jackie De Burca Yeah. I think – I think it’s a – It’s a normal reaction from, you know, your years in India to be looking for sort of that almost twin soul or soul mates, let’s say.

Malachi O’Doherty Yeah. Yeah. And we used language like that. People were using that language, you know. I mean, I don’t want- I’m not going to go into– I mean, I have– I am doing a book on relationships so we can talk about that another time. But I mean– but that is the kind of– I mean, for instance, I’ll just tell you briefly. In Donegal, I met a woman who was part Indian, right? And, you know, we were– on the first day we were together, we sitting down talking. And she told me the name of her Indian grandfather. And I said, “Oh, I know. That would be– he would win one of the sands of Calcutta.” Yeah. And says, “qas he a member of the Brahmo Samaj?” And she says, “he was.” You know? So because I had done my reading and knew about the religious reformation, if you like, within Hinduism in Calcutta at the beginning of the 19th century. And she had never met anyone who knew anything about this. Although she was a highly educated Swiss woman, you know? And here she comes to Donegal, and this guy who’s giving her a lift is taking her and having a drink. And he’s certainly talking to her about her grandfather. You know, with- with knowledge that she’s never come across another person– And again, you kind of get that “of course it’s meant to happen.”

Jackie De Burca Yeah. Yeah.

Malachi O’Doherty And it’s all baloney, you know?

Jackie De Burca Yeah. Well, it’s- I guess it’s up for grabs. I mean, for example, you said–

Malachi O’Doherty Put it that way if you like. I think it’s baloney. Well, I do.

Jackie De Burca Okay. I’m kind of open minded about–

Malachi O’Doherty At least I think you’re better treating it– I think you’re better treating it as baloney. Put it that way. I have no idea about whether there’s a script laid down. I have no idea. I mean, I do still have that feeling of there being, you know, a– I think, you know, the whole idea of karma and whatever. I do- I’ve been so immersed in that thinking, you know, that I too, have that- feeling of that. But I think that if you are in a relationship and you start thinking in those terms, then you are– you can’t anticipate what the script is. Even if there is a script, you can’t beat it at what it is. So what’s the point–

Jackie De Burca I know.

Malachi O’Doherty –in congratulating yourself and having recognised the script and play, you know? That’s my– that’s- that’s what I’m saying.

Jackie De Burca No, I don’t think so–

Malachi O’Doherty –That’s a different conversation.

Jackie De Burca Well, I was, I was actually looking- looking at some of the notes I had made. At the same time, I’m thinking exactly about what you’re saying. And on one hand, maybe our chosen partners– forgetting about the script for a moment– Are they people we have in common life– life lessons in connection with? You know, that’s another possibility.

Malachi O’Doherty I also think the way we relate to people, like siblings, as well. You know, I think there’s something there. I think you you find your sibling in the other, you know? But I mean, if you are in a relationship with someone and you have that feeling that this person is your soulmate, that you’ve been together in a previous lifetime or whatever, and things are going wrong in the relationship– you know?

Jackie De Burca Yeah.

Malachi O’Doherty You know, that– that thinking may just disrupt the way in which you manage that situation, you know? You’re better– you’re better just leaving that thinking to the side altogether, you know? That’s– that’s my feeling.

Jackie De Burca I think– I think if things go wrong, Malachi, you could view it as maybe that these are points of growth for both people.

Malachi O’Doherty Yeah, of course they are. Yeah. Yeah. Or you can walk away from them because they’re a pain in the arse. You know, if you’re in a– but if you’re in a, you know– but even in a stable relationship– and I’m married now, 25 years, you know–

Jackie De Burca Yeah.

Malachi O’Doherty –Going back quite a bit. But even within a good, strong relationship, there will be moments of– there will be quarrelling and moments of doubt, you know. And you work through them and you make it work. You know? You don’t– You don’t- you can’t fall back on some sense of spiritual destiny having brought you together. And think that that’s gonna get you through those difficulties. You know, it’s back to the question of whether what works is the Western psychological model or the spiritual model. And I come back to the Western psychological without saying that the spiritual model is wrong, because how do I know? You know, how can we know that? I mean, we live in a context which is beyond all comprehension, you know? So how can I know what’s wrong? But still in on the– on the day to day level, what works is psychology and consideration and empathy on a personal level. Not some- not some– not some reliance on God to sort things out, you know?

Jackie De Burca Definitely. You wrote in, I Was a Teenage Catholic – “I had my spiritual roots in Ireland that simply could not be transplanted in India and that it was here that the only path I was really called to had to be walked.” When you refer to your spiritual roots, Malachi, do you feel that that also encompasses your life works, the responsibility, if you like, of being a communicator and a writer? How do you feel about that?

Malachi O’Doherty I think that’s what I do best. I think it’s a responsible thing to cut into the political discussion that we’ve been having over the last 40, 50 years and chip in my bet. I- having said you have to get away from all that magical thinking, I do think that I have a nature, you know. In my nature is- is not just conditioned by circumstance, but it’s- precedes all circumstance. Or what you mean is- was it genetic? What I have, you know, I have an orientation or if you like, towards writing and communication and image making. And I think that has been a good thing to do, and I think that you judge the quality of your life by the satisfaction you feel in what you’re doing. And for instance, when I’m engrossed in- in writing the next chapter in my book, you know, then I– I’ll tell you something very interesting about writing– just to slightly change the subject. If you pick up one of my books and say, “do you remember where you were when you wrote that page?”

Jackie De Burca Yeah.

Malachi O’Doherty Invariably, I will not be able to tell you. And the reason I can’t tell you I’ve worked out is because I was so grossed– engrossed in what I was doing at the time I was doing that, that I wasn’t taking in any stimuli from the environment around me, you know?

And I think that’s– I think that’s quite a telling thing. You know, just to illustrate that, you know, that my meditation, my absorption is at that time is wholly encompassing and absorbing. And it’s- and it’s the right– that, you know, that- that fact of itself attests doing the right thing for me beginning at that time.

Jackie De Burca I think so. So would you feel the same looking at your photography, Malachi? I have the exact same feeling with writing myself. So, I absolutely get what you’re saying. With your photography, would you feel the same? So it’s almost like this, like, kind of marriage or connection between you, the scene, and the moment at that time, that kind of level of absorption. No?

Malachi O’Doherty No, partly because the thing is, it happens so briefly when you’re taking a picture. But also, I think that whereas writing is about throwing the mind out and grasping hold of something and engaging it, I think that the photography is more responsive. You know, it’s like letting something happen, you know? Artists struggle with fine art or fine poetry. I think in a sense, every photograph is a fine photograph, you know? Unless you’re a wedding photographer and you have to go out and do things at your job. But I think there is– you know, I do– I think they employ two different sides of the brain maybe? You know, at the writing side.

Now, I’m saying the writing side is the assertive, engaged, reaching out. But there are also times when you’re just out having a wee dander and click, you know what to write. You know, things just come to you- you know, and I was just describing that in terms of that experience as a child, writing a composition and getting stuck and then something coming laterally into it.

So yes, there is, you know, there is something responsive in both.

But I do think that the writing mind is a more assertive mind. I don’t feel that the– I don’t feel that the photographic mind is an assertive mind, although it’s a cheeky mind. It can be very intrusive, you know? I mean, sometimes you take a picture of somebody, you really are doing something really quite rude. You’re trying to catch them, letting themselves dine, you know, or betraying their inner soul, you know?

And so, there’s that. So I don’t know. I mean, I’m thinking out loud and I’m still thinking that the writing is a more- well, it’s certainly more cumulative. You know, you get an idea, you build in an idea, you build on it further. You test it. You know, you bring things in from the side that say, you know, it’s a building project. Whereas taking a photograph is you will take it away and edit it in Lightroom and you know, make changes to it. And maybe there’d be different changes if you’re doing another day. But it does now that, you know, working on a photograph isn’t for me, anything like writing, say a 3000-word essay, you know, which is- you know. One is receptive and the other is striding out on a journey.

Jackie De Burca Okay, okay. Talking about journeys, Malachi, there are a couple of other locations that you did spend some briefer times in, which were Geneva and Libya. And can you tell us a little bit about, you know, each environment, what you were doing there, what it meant to you? And were there lessons that you-

Geneva Malachi O'Doherty inspirational places
Geneva Malachi O’Doherty inspirational places

Malachi O’Doherty Well, Geneva was the– the part Indian girl. You know, I went and stayed with her. And then while I was there, I got recruited into this job teaching. And then in Libya– I really didn’t want to go to Libya. I really resisted. And I really had the feeling, you know, this is not– this doesn’t fit– this doesn’t feel like, you know, the lift to Amsterdam or the– or the chance of going to India. This just feels too– too practical, you know. And so, I was you know, I had a bad feeling about doing it. But actually, I was wrong. It was quite good for me to go to India. India was the kind of counterbalance to India. Sorry. Libya was a counterbalance to India and India had gone so soft and so gentle and so dreamy and- and whatever. And then suddenly, I’m in a work camp with men and we’re drinking and we’re arguing. I’m going to a military camp to work with soldiers, young conscripts, you know, who were hardly kids themselves, but– but amongst other soldiers. And I just think that kind of– I don’t like to use the word “toughen me up”, but yeah, it did– it did, it kind of- the kind of- was an unnecessary corrective to the kind of hippy dippy state that I was in when I came back from India.

Jackie De Burca Yeah, yeah. So that sounds – sounds, Malachi, like it made also an important mark on your– on your sort of, psyche, if you like. I mean, you returned–

Malachi O’Doherty Yeah, yeah. A lot of it was about being with men, you know. A lot of it was without being with men. And you’ve learnt some very interesting things when you were with men all the time. I mean, for instance, sometimes- sometimes you go into the canteen for breakfast in the morning and you’d say to the guy next to you, or facing you, “Geez, I had the weirdest dream last night.” and he would say, “me, too.” You know, you talk about women being synchronised in their periods. Maybe we were all synchronised in our depressions. And then– and everybody’s missing their girlfriend or their wife, you know, and everybody’s saying awful times and sometimes shouting matches and stuff.

Jackie De Burca Yeah.

Malachi O’Doherty Not for– not – not actual blows, but Jesus, quite close to it sometimes. And the other thing that’s so much easier with German men and French men is being naked together, you know? Which you, you know, you don’t do in Ireland, you know? With you know, men would just undress by the pool and jump in together, you know, stuff like that, which wasn’t sexual or anything. It was just– just an evolving body consciousness, you know, in the following sense of being more at ease with the body around other bodies. But a lot of heavy drinking, a lot of arguing, a lot of seeing men close to the edge, you know, in terms of depression. Missing their– missing their partners.

And a sense that men had this internal life of the mind, you know, that was troubling them. A funny story out of that, if you want a funny story- there was a cook called Walter– Walter Ludwig. And Walter Ludwig was– had been married, and his marriage has broken up. But he and his wife were still friendly. And she actually came out to the camp and– and I danced with her one night at a ball, you know, and a terrific time. But she was just drunk and dancing and going crazy and– But then a few weeks later, I was going to Switzerland to meet my girlfriend there. And Walter asked me if I would send- go to your florist in Geneva and send a dozen red roses to his wife because it was her birthday, you know? And you know, he had good feelings for her. So we went to a little florist in Geneva and said, you know, want to send a dozen red roses to this woman in Jersey.

Geneva city by night
Geneva city by night

And he said, well, we don’t know what roses cost there. So, all we can do is charge you for the roses here. And if they’re more expensive there, we’d give her fewer. And if there’s– it’s cheaper, we give her more. And I said, “okay, well, 10 red roses and then we’d gamble on it.” And then I get back to Gene– back to Libya. And Walter was waiting for me.

He says, “What the f– have you done?” And he says– I did what you asked me to do. He says, “you sent my wife 60 red roses. She thinks it’s back on again!”

Jackie De Burca Well, that’s brilliant. That’s brilliant. So, coming back to Belfast, Malachi, you returned. It was in 1983 that you returned, isn’t that correct?

Malachi O’Doherty Yeah. Yeah. Yes, that’s correct.

Jackie De Burca Okay. And I read, it was in an Irish Times article that I read that you were at that time a little bit concerned that you’d come back a little bit too late to kind of make your mark on your chosen vocation. After everything that we’ve spoken on– go ahead.

Malachi O’Doherty No, I’m just saying I thought that by that- at that point, I thought journalism is finished. I hadn’t– I’d lost my chance. I’d been too long out of it. So, I’d have to do something else. You still there, by the way? Can you hear me?

Jackie De Burca Yes, yeah. Yeah. I am.

Malachi O’Doherty So, I mean, I actually- I actually enrolled at the College of Business Studies to do an A-level in French because I picked up a bit of French when I was away with an idea that I would maybe go to university and get a degree and go straight, you know? And– and while I was doing that and I wasn’t enjoying it, I thought, this isn’t really me at all. But I started writing little stories and sending them out. I send a wee story to the Irish news.

University Road Belfast Malachi O'Doherty
University Road Belfast Malachi O’Doherty

Jackie De Burca Okay.

Malachi O’Doherty It was a story about getting trapped in the toilet for the disabled on a stranded boat, or something, you know? And then– and then- they published it and sent me 20 pounds for it. And then I sent them another and they give me another 20 pounds. And then they- they called me up and say, “look, these are all very nice, but would you not want to do some real work for us?” I said, “Sure.” And says, “Well, would you go and interview so and so?” And so, I was back in, you know, in no time at all, I was back into the groove of– of freelance journalism. And it suited me very well indeed. It suited me a lot better than being a member of staff in an office, you know, with the kind of rivalries that you get in an office, the office politics, you know? And stuff and– You know, if somebody– you know, I wasn’t making good money, but I was– I was making enough money to get off the dole and– and it built from newspaper work to radio work. From radio work even to television documentaries that I think– I presented with a dozen TV documentaries.

Jackie De Burca Yeah, yeah.

Malachi O’Doherty And then, I just kept on going, you know, and now, with anything that I do that is- well, I still write a column for the Belfast Telegraph. But the– the sense of having a project as about the books, you know, I like to– I always like to have a book in hand that I’m working on. And so, I have that. So–

Jackie De Burca What are you working on at the moment, Malachi?

Malachi O’Doherty You’re not gonna believe me if I tell you I’m actually writing about four books at the moment, but I am– the main book- the one that I have to deliver at the end of September is a book about The Early Troubles. The– the working title is The Year of Chaos. It’s about the period between internment and Operation Motorman. Also my book, “Fifty Years On: The Troubles and the Struggle for Change in Northern Ireland”– that’s out this week in paperback. That’s– and then, see what happens is you’re writing books and you’re into writing books, as you know, you get the commissions and you work for them, and that’s the best part of it. But you also work on other things tentatively and see if they develop. And so, you’ve got a kind of a concertina effect. You get these bunching up on you. Literally, I have about four books that I’m trying to work on at the moment. I brought in a novel, my first novel earlier this year, “Terry Brankin Has A Gun.” And I have a sequel underway on that, you know?

Jackie De Burca Okay, tell me something, Malachi, that your– your most recent that you’ve just mentioned, “Terry Brankin Has A Gun.” It has a brilliant, fast moving storyline, obviously set against the backdrop–

Malachi O’Doherty Oh, thank you very much.

Terry Brankin Has A Gun by Malachi O'Doherty
Terry Brankin Has A Gun by Malachi O’Doherty

Jackie De Burca You’re very welcome. Set against the backdrop of a post-Troubles Belfast, if you like, to use a coined phrase. The character, Terry– Can you tell- can you tell readers and listeners a little bit about your character, Terry?

Malachi O’Doherty Well, Terry was in the IRA and he did some awful things, but he left, partly motivated by conscience and partly because he met a really wonderful young woman called Kathleen. And he– so he put the IRA behind him and he and he got married. He trained as a lawyer. He became a solicitor, a bit of a property developer. Good relationship with his wife, but no children. Bit of a cynic in some ways, you know, because he’s a lawyer and he deals with cases including loyalist paramilitary cases. But life’s chugging along nicely until the Cold Case Review Team arrived to enquire about a bombing in which a child was killed. And that blows his marriage apart and blows his hopes of stability and settled down apart. And- and that’s the start of it then. Things begin to happen, which are initially inexplicable. His- his wife has basically walked out on him. She can’t live with a man who killed a child.

And- but she’s attacked in her home where she’s– she’s staying in one of the houses that they rent out to students in the Holy Land. And on her first night there, a petrol bomb comes through the window and all the properties that they own are bombed or petrol bombed at that night. So then– so you have the mystery. So basically, the challenge for Kathleen is– are you better off- when somebody’s trying to kill you, are you better off with a husband who’s capable of killing, you know, to protect you? And– and the answer is yes, you are, you know?

Jackie De Burca Yeah.

Malachi O’Doherty So– so that takes you on a kind of– hopefully, a fascinating romp, you know, to find out who it is that’s after them and to deal with other problems along the way. So, Terry- Terry is a very strategic person. He’s– in another life, he would never have done any harm to anybody. He certainly would never have killed anybody.

But now if he– if, if he needs to kill somebody to clear the decks and protect his wife, he’ll do it.

Jackie De Burca Yeah. And was his– was his character based on any particular real life character that you’ve encountered? Or would you say he’s more like a composite or how did you–?

Malachi O’Doherty I don’t know. I don’t know. I do have a sense that if he walked in the door, I would recognise him. But I don’t know, you know, what he’s made of. I mean, I do know that there are people who had violent paramilitary careers and never went to jail and– and have professional lives. No, there are there are such people amongst us. And good luck to them, you know? But Terry himself, you know, I– I mean, I have made him, you know, and I have maybe exaggerated some of his qualities because they impress me.

I mean, I like it that he’s really logical. And he is really strategic. And I like that about him. I like it about him that he loves his wife. You know? You know, that he will deal– You know, he will look after her.

But, you know, I think in a way, he’s still evolving as well. I mean, he– there’s a sequel now in the making in which we will have other insights into his character.

Jackie De Burca Okay.

Malachi O’Doherty And I think there are other characters in the book, you know, who are- you know, like Basil McKeague, the copper who’s a born-again Christian, evangelical minded copper.

Jackie De Burca Yeah.

Malachi O’Doherty Whose idea of justice is to leave it to God. You know, he says- you know, I don’t want this guy to go to jail, I want him to go to hell– I mean, I think Basil is a– at one point, I thought of making Basil the centrepiece of the whole story, you know, and maybe doing a sequence of novels. A bit of a born-again Christian detective. You know?

Jackie De Burca Yeah. He’s a great character as well. You mentioned, Malachi, in terms of the places, you know, Belfast being home and so central to your work, obviously, that goes without saying. You said previously to me, “It is home. It is where people get your jokes. In many ways, Belfast was difficult because of The Troubles. In recent years, I’ve taken to lunching in city bars, enjoying the lightness of familiarity that had been tainted unobscured in the past.”

If you had a friend who was coming to visit from anywhere else in the world, apart from Ireland or– North or South of Ireland– and coming to Belfast for the first time in 2020 or 2021, what should be the first sites that would be so close to your heart? They could be iconic or sort of off the beaten track. Where would you bring your friend?

Malachi O’Doherty Well, yeah, it’s probably down to the Morning Star.

You know, I think that a bit of old Belfast, with the wee entries between High Street, Down Street and some of the pubs down there and the nice pub food, you know? I mean, people often ask for a wee tour and you take them up behind the- and you show them the murals and stuff, you know?

But I– and I also– I mean, I– you know. Also take them out for a drive around the mountains where you get a view of the city from high up. You know, I think there’s some great sites up there. I mean, that’s it. I mean, I – It’s very hard for me to think of Belfast as a tourist city because I’m not a tourist in it. It’s hugely different from what it was. I mean, it’s very much more easy to cycle around now, you know, there’s the towpath and the docks area. I mean, you think of that docks area– I mean, a McHughs bar. And places like that. McHughs. It wasn’t McHughs. It was Dubarry’s, you know, I mean, that that was the sleaziest part of Belfast in the ‘70s, you know, that you wouldn’t dream of going near, you know. Because that’s where, you know- and now, it’s the classy pub restaurants, you know? And that’s a marvelous change, and that change has been handled really quite well, I think. You know, I think it would have been– It would have been conceivable that somebody might have just thought of just– demolishing the whole lot and building anew. And having said that– that I still think that area around the Titanic is lovely. You know, when you cycle down there, go down to the Public Records Office of the Titanic. It’s almost like Geneva, you know? Some of the, you know, the modernity of it. Beside the water and on a nice day, it’s lovely.

Jackie De Burca Yeah.

Malachi O’Doherty But, I mean, I- I have a close friend that I’ll not name, but he’s– he and I meet every, I mean- the CoViD has wrecked this, you know, so. And he’s got health issues so he needs to be shielded. But before that, we called ourselves, jokingly, The Chowder Club, you know? And we would meet in a different bar every fortnight to try their chowder. And it’s amazing how many Belfast bars serve chowder.

Jackie De Burca Really?

Malachi O’Doherty And we became experts in the Belfast chowders. You know, The Morning Star and, you know- and I could tell you the worst of them and the best of them. But we haven’t been able to do that since, since March. So I think the last chowder we had was in White’s Tavern. So you know, it’s just that’s– that’s lovely that Belfast still has Kelly’s Cellars, White’s Tavern and Morning Star and the old entries and– and that, you know, you can- you can walk around it and cast your mind back to before The Troubles. And it’s still the same place.

Jackie De Burca Yeah, I think so. One of the teams that you mentioned earlier on– much earlier on– we were talking about obviously telling a yarn, telling stories, and you talked about the people coming to your course, that they were coming from all sorts of different backgrounds but had the common ground of maybe needing to talk about this– this– the relationships they’ve had with fathers. And in the foreword that you wrote for Belfast Stories, you wrote, “I discovered that it is through individuals telling their own stories that the simple model of a society preoccupied with its own division breaks down.” I was really, really moved by that. Can you elaborate, please, Malachi?

Malachi O’Doherty I mean, that is so obviously true, you know? I mean, at the moment, people are absorbed in reflecting on John Hume and his achievement, you know? No, but the– you know, which was not to begin say, in any way- but the model, the vision of Belfast in John Hume’s remedy, if you like, are the Clinton-esque view of Belfast, is that Belfast is a society that was deadlocked between two heterogeneous communities– Sorry, homogenous communities at odds with each other, you know? And you can read it that way. That is true, that if you put Belfast on the stream and the sectarian division will emerge and we will argue about anything, but we will line up as (inaudible – 01:45:40) to do that, you know? But the reality is that when you sit down and say to somebody, not- “what did you do in The Troubles?” but say, “what were you doing when you were 30?” or you know, or, “what was it like growing up at such a place?” You know, they don’t bring forward The Troubles as the, you know, as the most significant part of their experience. They don’t bring up sectarianism as the biggest blight on their lives. And it didn’t bring up the Brits as the biggest blight on their lives. You know, unless it– unless you have at it really bad. And someone did have, you know, and I’ve met them. But generally, you know- what they talk about- each individual life is an individual life with its own story and its own experience, you know? And each mind is informed by that experience. And it’s when you go to the individual that– that the whole idea of- of a homogenous society, of- you know, of a two communities model, it just becomes irrelevant. It becomes– it’s like that silly song from a distance, you know, which actually I think is appalling. But from a distance, Northern Ireland is a bleak, divided society, you know? Come up close to it and talk to people and it’s not, you know? It’s, you know, from a distance there, you know, the– there are canals on Mars– going to land on Mars and there’s no canals. So, it’s something similar to that.

Jackie De Burca Yeah. Okay. I am so happy that you could join me today, Malachi. You’ve been so patient with our technical issues and everything. And so- so thank you very much, Malachi.

Share on social networks

Jackie De Burca

Jackie De Burca is is a travel, arts and culture writer. The author of Salvador Dalí at Home, De Burca has spent much of her life in Spain since 2003. Originally from Dublin, Ireland, she is the creator of Travel Inspires: the authentic travel magazine by the people, for the people. She mentors aspiring writers around the world, who have the opportunity to showcase their work on Travel Inspires. De Burca feels an inspirational connection with the land in Spain, while maintaining her deeply rooted attachment to Irish landscapes, soil and of course, the Irish character.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Interests
Our Newsletter

Subscribe to our newsletter and get exlusive first minute offers straight into your inbox.

    Interests
    Our Newsletter

    Subscribe to our newsletter and get exlusive first minute offers straight into your inbox.

      Visit us on Social Networks

      Visit us on Social Networks

      Close

      From Muff to Ballycastle and Belfast with Malachi O'Doherty

      [contact-form-7 404 "Not Found"]
      [contact-form-7 404 "Not Found"]

      Privacy Preference Center