Journalism was the one profession I really wanted to enter when growing up in the fifties and sixties.
Now, happily, I have just completed 50 years working as a journalist – with three Co Armagh newspapers for three years and, for 47 years with the Belfast News Letter, the world’s oldest English-written daily publication.
On my way to the ‘Big Smoke’ in Belfast in the early 1970s, from November 1971, I spent six weeks as a reporter with the Ulster Gazette in Armagh; 13 months with the Portadown Times, and 22 months with the Portadown Times.
The experience in working for the weeklies was invaluable, particularly my time spent in Portadown in the early period of the ‘Troubles’ when tensions were high in the town due to IRA attacks and counter loyalist paramilitary violence.
Tragically, ‘Troubles’ stories in those dark days got the biggest headlines, even in weekly newspapers, and sold newspapers.
Moving to the News Letter in the centre of Belfast on November 17, 1974 was a whole new experience for me, with daily news coverage dominated by the continuing spiral of terrorist violence and sectarian division, on a level far above what was happening in provincial towns.
My first correspondent work for the paper had been in 1973, a year after an IRA bomb outside the Donegall Street offices killed seven people.
When I arrived at the News Letter, then edited by acclaimed journalist Cowan Watson, it had an editorial staff of 52, with reporters, feature writers, sports team, sub-editors and photographers (we had five cameramen then), bunched together in a sprawling four-storey building, that also contained an administrative suite and large printing presses that daily rolled out the tens of thousands of papers.
As many as 200 people were on the News Letter payroll then. The editorial team was male-dominated with only three females on staff – prolific court reporter Maureen Martin; women’s issues’ editor Niki Hill, and news reporter Penny Henderson, daughter of the paper’s proprietor Captain OWJ (Bill) Henderson.
Within six months, I moved on to the paper’s newsdesk, working with news editors Stewart Mackey and Harry Robinson, like me a Co Armagh man. I was also given a roving role to cover local government in Belfast, Craigavon and Newtownabbey and was also assigned to a ‘Your Town’ feature news series focusing on main towns in the 26 district council areas of Northern Ireland.
This was a popular series and it allowed me to see at first hand life in rural towns on issues important to communities there.
When covering ‘Troubles’ incidents one had to be totally detached from the emotions of the story and report accurately the essential details. On one occasion, however, I was deeply affected by what had happened.
It was the IRA Kingsmill attack on January 5, 1976, when 10 Protestant workmen from the Bessbrook area were murdered. Being from Bessbrook myself, I knew most of the workmen well; several had been school mates and, on hearing the news of the attack while covering a meeting of Craigavon borough council, I immediately drove down to Bessbrook to meet family and friends to share with them the grief and shock over what had happened.
It was a sad week in that tightly-knit South Armagh community and I still vividly recall seeing five coffins carried into Bessbrook Presbyterian church and three into the local Church of Ireland for the services. Both funeral days were wet, and I remember the News Letter headline used on my reports — ‘The skies wept over a village in mourning’.
There were other major terrorist atrocities I covered, including the La Mon House IRA attack on February 17, 1978. That Friday evening I was on the News Letter news desk and got a tip-off about 8pm from Jim McDowell, one of our senior reporters, that something was amiss at the Castlereagh venue.
Big Jim, a seasoned hack, was not working, but volunteered to cover the story which he did in great detail. As the death toll mounted to 12, our early paper deadlines were passed and we finished publishing five editions for that Saturday by 5am.
When the Mountbatten killings occurred in Sligo in August 1979, I was also on the newsdesk that day and again Jim McDowell volunteered to travel to the scene of the attack. He stayed with the story for several days, filing back to the paper first-hand reports and reaction. And this in days when there were no mobile phones.
For the first two decades of my journalistic career, we compiled our stories on typewriters – computers were not introduced for journalists in the paper until the late 1980s, with progress of modern technology.
Indeed, when I first arrived at the paper, chief leader writer Bertie Sibbett was compiling his Morning View pieces hand-written.
During the ‘Troubles’ we were a close-knit, professional editorial team at the News Letter. We survived two winter strikes at the paper — one a journalist dispute; the other printing.
In my time there, I worked alongside some of the finest journalists in Northern Ireland, some of whom later enhanced their careers in television and on radio.
Tragically, stories of killings of RUC officers, UDR soldiers and innocent civilians and bomb atrocities were high on our daily news agenda, but to maintain a proper balance we gleaned stories more upbeat and positive, non-troubled related and our excellent features team and sports department played an important role in this.
Being a unionist newspaper, politics was given considerable space, with the paper in the 1970s/1990s fortunate in having Mervyn Pauley, one of the best political correspondents of his generation.
Morning View column was widely read as the accurate barometer of unionist thinking across party loyalties and, for a decade and a half from 1993, I was actively involved with the editor of the days in writing these leader articles.
The News Letter has always been a strict law and order paper with criminal and violent activity and the paramilitaries consistently denounced in the Morning View columns. On policy, the News Letter is solidly unionist, but importantly interested in the good and welfare of all of the people of Northern Ireland. Core News Letter readership has been, and still is, mainly based in towns and villages beyond greater Belfast and circulation outreach to rural heartlands complimented by our excellent Saturday Farming Life supplements.
While organising the news desk was a big part of my job for several decades, writing remained my natural skill and I managed to fit in big feature interview spreads with various public figures, church leaders, sports personalities and top American country singers.
Over my 47 years with the News Letter I worked under 11 editors, with all I enjoyed a good working relationship. In the 1990s the News Letter moved out of Donegall Street in the centre of Belfast to the Boucher Crescent industrial estate, where it remained for upwards of a decade and a half, before moving to another location at Carn industrial estate in Portadown.
Geoff Martin, editor in the 1990s, inspiringly dispatched me to the United States in 1993 for a series of features on the Scots-Irish communities whose families emigrated from Ulster in the 18th century and had an influential role in American history.
My two weeks in Tennessee produced a special July 4 News Letter brochure and the exhilarating experiences there led me to write 11 books on the subject.
• Geared up for Good Friday:
Billy recalls: “Interestingly, up until the late 1970s, Good Friday was a day when the News Letter could increase circulation, with our morning rivals the Irish News and Dublin dailies not publishing on what they considered was a ‘Holy Day’.“
He commented: “We prepared for weeks on a bumper News Letter Good Friday edition and were rewarded with circulation figures as high as 100,000.”
• Billy on churches and country music
More than three decades ago, News Letter editor Geoff Martin introduced the popular Saturday church page which has embraced and led the way in Christian narrative and activity in Northern Ireland until the present compiled by yours truly.
American country music has been a big love and passion of mine, reinforced by my many visits to Nashville and Tennessee for research work on my books detailing the achievements of the Scots-Irish (Ulster-Scots) diaspora who settled in America 200/250 years ago.
My country music column has been a constant in the paper for 40 years and I have had the great pleasure of interviewing some of the biggest name singers in country music genre including Charley Pride, Willie Nelson, George Jones, Garth Brooks, and Johnny Cash.
In September 1987, more than 200 members of News Letter staff enjoyed an anniversary dinner and evening at Maysfield Leisure Centre in Belfast to mark the 250th anniversary of the paper’s existence. Each member of staff was presented with a specially inscribed crystal bowl.
In semi-retirement, I am privileged to continue contributing to the pages of a much celebrated newspaper – one that remarkably has been on the news stands since 1737.
The Belfast News Letter holds a cherished place in Ulster society and, in this centenary year for Northern Ireland, may it continue to prosper and speak robustly on its pages in defence of the Union, and on salient issues of the day for our communities at large.
A message from the Editor:
Thank you for reading this story on our website. While I have your attention, I also have an important request to make of you.
With the coronavirus lockdown having a major impact on many of our advertisers - and consequently the revenue we receive - we are more reliant than ever on you taking out a digital subscription.
Subscribe to newsletter.co.uk and enjoy unlimited access to the best Northern Ireland and UK news and information online and on our app. With a digital subscription, you can read more than 5 articles, see fewer ads, enjoy faster load times, and get access to exclusive newsletters and content. Visit https://www.newsletter.co.uk/subscriptions now to sign up.
Our journalism costs money and we rely on advertising, print and digital revenues to help to support them. By supporting us, we are able to support you in providing trusted, fact-checked content for this website.