Dave Kavanagh chats to Kieran Devaney

Kieran Devaney was born in the east Dublin suburb of Liverpool in 1954. He lives  in Rosses Point in County Sligo. He has written extensively for the London Times and other world-wide publications. During a 30-year-career in television he has reported and produced programmes around the world for TV am, Channel 4, ITN and Sky News in the United Kingdom, CNN in the United States and until his retirement he produced the Vincent Browne Programme for TV3 in Ireland.

In 2009 he  moved from Dublin to Sligo to become a full time author. His novel The Drumcliffe Pilots about W B Yeats’ fascination with both the occult and the enigmatic Eva Gore Booth was hailed as “A Hefty Volume Worth its Weight” by the writer J P Dunleavy.

His latest novel The Waves of Tory tells the story of a romance between an Island girl and a member of the crew of a German U Boat and an audacious  plot to smuggle Hitler to South America.

He is now working on a third novel, The Eldorado,  a story of a shipwreck, and survival in the Canadian wilderness which is due for publication in the Spring of 2021.

During his career in radio and television he has produced more than 100 documentaries some of which won him major  international accolades including a Sony Award in Britain and two Gold Medals at New York International Festival of Radio and Television.

His Documentary on One The Last King of Ireland for RTE Radio won wide acclaim both at home and abroad.

Kieran spoke to Dave Kavanagh and selected three stories from his long career as a journalist and broadcaster.

Scooped

We were hoping to scoop the British tabloids and any other journalist who got in our way, not once but twice.

It was October, 1989. Gerry Conlon of the Guildford Four was being released From the Old Bailey after 14 years in jail for a bombing in which they had no part. Everyone wanted the first interview. TV am, the British breakfast programme, and I were taking on Fleet Street’s finest. We’d negotiated a deal with Gerry’s mother Sarah: Exclusive access and exclusive interviews with her son in return for paying the family’s expenses.

We had a cunning plan and it worked like a dream.

Gerry came running out of the Old Bailey and danced with his sisters. I  hustled him into a Mercedes with blackened windows and whisked him off to the applause of Irish scaffolders working on a tall building across the street.

The Paparazzi were in pursuit on motorbikes. We headed towards the Holiday Inn Hotel in Swiss Cottage. We had reserved an entire floor and posted security guards at the lifts.

The Hotel had a slope leading down to an underground car park and a ramp leading up to the north. We had an identical Mercedes waiting on the ramp and when we swerved in a barrier slammed down and the car which swept out was the one which the Paparazzi  followed.

The decoy drove to Birmingham around Spaghetti Junction and turned back for London.

Gerry was safe in his suite in the Holiday Inn drinking Champagne.

 Another reporter was after Gerry’s story. Eamonn Mallie was the voice of Northern Ireland. We let it be known that we were taking Gerry to a Greek Island to give his exclusive interview.

And Eamonn went home without his scoop.

The push button telephone beside his bed confounded Gerry. The security guards reminded him of his days inside. He couldn’t cope with the Texan girl who had proposed marriage on a visit to Brixton prison and now wanted to share his bed. But he gave us his exclusive his interview.

And then he wanted out.

 I suggested he came to my home in  Highgate in North London.

He came and he stayed.

Reluctant to go out during the day because he couldn’t stand the traffic he preferred to remain in bed.

But at night we drank in the Duke’s Head on the High Street and played pool into the early hours.

He talked about his father Giuseppe who died in jail; told me how to make hooch out of tinned fruit and reminisced about the Belfast of his youth.

A fortnight later we decided the coast was clear. It was time for Gerry to go home and time for our second scoop: His reunion with his mother Sarah.

 We’d  chartered a Lear Jet to bring him back.

Heathrow Airport was still staked out by the tabloids and I had to protect

TV am’s investment in a man who was now a friend.

We chose Luton Airport, an hour’s drive from my house and away from the Paparazzi.

Gerry, his sisters Anne and Catherine and I, sat on the floor of the aircraft slugging brandy and whiskey out of crystal glasses from the generous drinks cabinet.

I’d arranged to land at Belfast Harbour Airport, more discreet than Aldergrove, where shuttles from Heathrow arrived every hour.

 Gerry asked the pilot to fly low down the Falls Road.

He pointed to my mobile phone –  he’d never seen one before.

“Will that work up here?” 

“I think so,” I said.

The aircraft roared down into the heartland of Catholic Belfast.

Gerry recited a number which he had obviously memorised for years.

I punched in the numbers.

It was answered. I handed him the phone.

“Hello is that Sergeant ……….?” and he mentioned a name. 

“The last time you saw me I was handcuffed to you. You said that I would never see Belfast again until men flew into space and back.

“Look up and see who’s flying back  now.”

Jim Sheridan later told a version of the story in his film In the Name of the Father.

We landed.

We had cars waiting to take Gerry and his sisters home.

Our cameras rolled.

His mother opened the door.

“What’s it like to have your son back after 15 years?” I asked.

“What kept you so long?” asked Eamonn Mallie, his arm around Sarah’s shoulder.
“We’ve been waiting for you for two weeks.”

Top Cat Teacup

Back in the 1980’s in Sligo, my late wife Sarah Cullen  and I were walking home from Austie’s Bar on a cold, wet stormy night. We found the ginger Tom cat kitten shivering on the road below our holiday home in Rosses Point.

The morning after the storm our neighbour old Mrs. Gillen was hanging  her washing out on the clothes line. She named the ginger Tom Teacup because he was so tiny he fitted onto a saucer.  But after a week of nurturing on buttermilk and the occasional drop of  Mrs Gillen’s medicinal brandy he was fit enough to travel from Sligo back to London where we lived and worked when we weren’t at home in Rosses Point. 

In London Teacup quickly became a regular commuter on the new Ryanair flight from Luton to Knock in Mayo. That was until we decided to try the Aer Lingus service from Heathrow which involved a change at Dublin to the commuter plane to Strandhill,  nearer to home than Knock and just across the Bay from Rosses Point.

And in those days Aer Lingus was cheaper.

“Where are you going with the cat?” asked the check in man at the transfer desk in Dublin. “The hold isn’t pressurised so we can’t carry livestock.”

I said that I had a ticket for Teacup and had paid five pounds for his passage.

He smiled.

“Well then you can fly to Sligo and we’ll send the livestock by car,” he said.

“We had a python we had to send by road to Cork last week.”

A few hours after we landed Teacup arrived in Austie’s Bar in Rosses Point in a chauffeur driven limousine.

The following morning the tabloid newspapers were all over the story.

“Top Cat Teacup gets VIP treatment,” said the Irish Daily Mirror.  “Follow that plane,” said the cartoon in the Irish Daily Star which showed Teacup pointing  his paw out of the window of a stretched  Mercedes.

My wife, the  ITN correspondent  Sarah Cullen, told the regulars in Austie’s that she was the only redhead to show her ginger pussy on page three of the Irish Sun. An invitation from Gay Byrne to appear on the Late Late Show followed but we turned it down because the Aer Lingus limousine was waiting to bring Teacup back to Dublin while we queued at Strandhill for  the first leg of our return flight to London.

Teacup  lived to the ripe old age of twelve. When he passed away in London  Sarah had him cremated and word quickly reached Paddy Clancy, a Sligo born reporter who at the time was working for the now long gone Sunday Press Newspaper. I told Paddy that after a memorial service in Westminster we planned to scatter Teacup’s ashes over Sligo Bay and the story made the front page of the paper.

The following morning the Aer Lingus commuter flight flew low over Rosses Point on its approach into Strandhill and old Mrs Gillen let out a roar.

“Take in the washing,” she shouted at the neighbours.  

“They’re scattering the ashes already.

Paddy Dooney’s Sweater

Paddy Dooney’s Donegal knit sweater was pastel blue with a flock of seagulls flying into a white sky on the front. Paddy had a little shop in Sligo. His window was full of similar pullovers, jumpers and smocks and I handed over ten pounds to bring the sweater back to London. 

It was 1989 and the Berlin Wall had just come down.

I was a television journalist specialising in secret filming in countries where reporters were not allowed. I’d already been to Iran, Iraq, Mauritania and Burma. A colleague suggested I tried Albania, the last totalitarian regime in Europe, a country where God and religion were banned.

 I booked a package holiday and a week later I was flying via Yugoslavia to the Albanian capital Tirana posing as a Fancy Goods Salesman. My camera was wrapped in Paddy Dooney’s sweater and buried in my luggage.

I swiftly discovered I had the most unlikely travelling companions.

Among them John Sweeney, a Londoner of Irish stock and a correspondent for the Observer newspaper; Martin Parr, a photographer who had a studio in Boyle in Roscommon; Crispin Rodwell, another award winning photographer from Belfast, and BBC cameraman  Rory Peck who grew up in North County Dublin.  Then there was Maggie ‘O Kane a young but ambitious RTÉ reporter who was determined  to make a name for herself.

But then we were all young and ambitious in 1990.

And I can’t  forget  the three Sunni Muslims from Bradford in England who said a polite no when the drinks trolley came around  and laid out their prayer mats in the cabin to face Mecca.

We landed in Belgrade and we’re bussed to the border and the land of Enver Hoxha and his final successor  Ramiz Alia…the last dictator in Europe.

The cold war was almost over but it was chilly and I pulled on Paddy Dooney’s sweater. 

Our tour guide Agim Nezaj looked at it enviously.

Agim  realised we weren’t ordinary tourists when the Muslims laid out their prayer mats and the rest of us were only interested in visiting military installations. 

Later in Dures in a church which was now a museum Agim told us that no prayers had been said there for forty years.

Then John Sweeney foghorn voice was heard reciting the Our Father …… and in an act of solidarity the Muslims prayed outside a ruined Mosque.

Agim turned a blind eye while Rory Peck and I filmed military bunkers, food queues and people who surreptitiously showed us their crucifixes, and quotes from the Koran written on parchment which they kept hidden under their threadbare clothes.

Martin Parr and Crispin Rodwell shot iconic images of the land where cars were banned except for the chosen few, and earlier  the vast Skanderberg Square in Tirana which was like a Lowry painting with hundreds of people walking aimlessly or riding bicycles around and around in circles.

By now, the  secret police, the  Sigurimi, were on to us. Maggie O’ Kane decided to escape. She attempted to hitch hike from the port town of Durrës to Tirana but was picked up by the Sigurimi   after 10 kilometres and returned to our hotel in a battered old Skoda.  John Sweeney decided to go for a swim. The Greek Island of Corfu was only a mile and a half across the Straits. A gunboat slipped out of the harbour and shepherded him back.

The Muslims laid out their prayer mats, prayed for our souls and wondered what we were up to.

Former British Army Officer Rory Peck described himself  as a Gentleman Farmer on his passport. He told me he became a cameraman for the BBC covering  the war in Afghanistan because life wasn’t  exciting enough in the SAS. 

Rory and the rest of us had no plans to escape. We stayed put and enjoyed our beers and he confided how he wanted to use the camera rather than the gun to bring change to the world. 

 Soon it was time to go home.

It was illegal to accept gifts from Westerners. But we had  had a collection and left Agim with Nike trainers, Major cigarettes, Korans and Bibles. 

And I left my own present.

Our exclusive reports went around the world, sparking an almost bloodless revolution in Albania. Agim was jailed. Not for helping journalists but for accepting a gift from a foreigner…. Paddy Dooney’s sweater.

 He was eventually released and appointed spokesman for the Foreign Minister of the new democratic government.

Rory Peck never lived to see the results of our trip to Albania. In 1993 he took a bullet in Russia and died  while filming the siege of the White House.

Agim lived a few years longer. He wrote a book and we were immortalised in a chapter called “The Coming of the Journalists”.

Before he died of cancer in New York last year he told me what kept his struggle alive: the seagulls soaring into the white sky on Paddy Dooney’s pastel blue sweater from his shop in Sligo.

“The first time I saw you wearing the sweater the Seagulls  gave me hope,” he said. “I can’t thank you journalists, your Muslim friends and above all Paddy Dooney enough for what you did for my country.”

In conversation with Kieran Devaney

Dave Kavanagh.

Hello Kieran, thank you for taking the time to speak to us. Why did you select these particular stories to send to us?

Kieran Devaney.

Because I managed to write them before my Samsung Tablet was run over by a car when I dropped it outside Austies Bar in Rosses Point!

Dave Kavanagh.

I understand they will be included in your upcoming biography. Tell us about that project?

Kieran Devaney.

It’s a memoir of sorts, a collection of short stories spanning my early days of reporting in Liverpool to the days when I travelled the world for television and radio before settling in Ireland, first working for TV3 and then heading West to write novels.

Dave Kavanagh.

You covered many stories over your career. What are the standout ones and why?

Kieran Devaney.

The Big ones like the Hyssell Stadium Disaster, Lockerbie, the Iran Iraq War; going under cover in countries like Mauritania, Albania and Burma to expose human rights abuses. But just as memorable stories like the time we flew to Tenerife with an incubator  to rescue a couple and their new born baby boy who was born prematurely while the couple were on holiday.

Dave Kavanagh.

Journalism is a stressful professsion. What was the hardest part of being a career journalist?

Kieran Devaney.

Keeping a sense of humour, staying sober and coping with mild dyslexia!

Dave Kavanagh

Whom of your contemporaries in journalism did you most admire and why?

Kieran Devaney

Keith Waterhouse who lectured me about punctuation and warned me that I used too many exclamation marks and my late wife Sarah Cullen who helped me bluff my way into television. Michael Dunleavy who encouraging me to mix fact with fiction. He said my first novel “The Drumcliffe Pilots” was “A Hefty Novel Worth It’s Weight”, but didn’t say worth it’s weight in what!

Among today’s journalist Claire Byrne of RTE stands out as a brilliant writer and presenter who has a glittering career ahead.

Dave Kavanagh.

What does Kieran Devaney do now that he is retired? 

Kieran Devaney.

Write, sleep and look forward to putting the world to rights with my new contemporaries in Grogan’s Bar when I travel to Dublin on a Wednesday!

Dave Kavanagh

Is there any question you wished I had asked? If so, what is it and what is the answer.

Kieran Devaney.

Why do I write? Because I can’t to anything else!

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