In September, when Leona O’Neill starts teaching A level journalism at Derry’s Verbal Arts Centre, she’ll be marrying one of her two great passions in life. Given that weekly column in the Irish News and the fact that she’s working on her second book, we can safely assume one of those passions is writing. The other, which she’s less known for, is teaching. That springs from a genuine love of being in the classroom but also from the massive influence on her life of her late father, the well-known civil rights activist and history teacher Liam Breslin.
In September Leona will step in front of a group of Derry students to pass on some of the tricks of the reporting trade onto a new generation. And she says she’ll draw on her own experience of life in the newsroom, but also on her memories of a father who as a teacher put as much stock in the care of his students as he did in the academic side of things.
“I was a daddy’s girl growing up, and I followed him everywhere,” says Leona. She followed him to St Colman’s School in Strabane, where he taught, to finish her secondary education. Leona became one of the first female students at the school, which had previously been a ‘boys only’ college.
Leona has fond memories of childhood days in Troy Park with her brothers Aidan and Cathal, and sister Carla.
“We grew up in a house full of music, laughter, books and myths,” she smiles.
“We were living with the reality of The Troubles as children but in our wee world everything was normal and I suppose we were lucky in so far as we didn’t live in some of the areas which were most affected.”
It was at primary school at Greenhaw Primary that Leona first realized she had the writing bug.
“I won a prize for writing a story about a volcano,” she laughs.
“I was so proud and at that age I used to write stories non-stop. I remember growing up that my dad always talked about wanting to be a journalist but I never imagined at that age that I’d be the one following that path.”
When Liam lost his battle with cancer in 2009, Leona says it hit the entire family “like a bomb”.
“Daddy was the anchor in all of our lives and no matter where we travelled around the world, he kept us anchored here in Derry. We always knew we could depend on him and losing him was devastating for us all. Up until the very end he was still talking and reading books. Life without him has been difficult.”
In speaking about her career, Leona finds it impossible not to talk about her late dad. She says life has taken a different direction since his passing.
“When you go to the depths of rock bottom and you have everything stripped and your heart broken, you have to build it all together again. There’s no doubt about it, you change your perspective. I suppose you have less fear.”
In preparing A-level students for the cut and thrust of journalism, Leona will draw on her own career. It started in the newsroom of the Newry Democrat when she was fresh from her journalism course at Rupert Stanley College. After cutting her teeth in the Democrat, Leona moved on to one of the North’s biggest local newspapers The Andersonstown News.
“In those days as a reporter in Belfast, you were thrown right in at the deep end,” she says.
“Straight away, it was really heavy stuff. I was in there at the tail end of the Troubles and it was both exciting and daunting. It was around the time that Republican and Loyalist prisoners were being released and I had to go to the Maze to speak to the Commanding Officer of the IRA at the time. You just had to go out there and do the job and it was a great way to learn. That story in particular was translated into a few different languages and I still have the front pages of a French newspaper at home where it ran. It was a really interesting time to be starting out as a reporter because you got to work on what were often huge stories internationally as well.”
Leona stayed with the Andersonstown News for five years before moving to the Irish News as a sub editor. It was there she was asked to become a columnist for the paper, writing about family and parenting issues. Her column is now one of the paper’s best read regular features. She also contributes features.
Leona’s column is based firmly on real life experience. She and her husband Brendan, a photographer, are experiencing all the challenges of raising their own family with children Daniel, 10, Caolan, 8, Finn, 4 and Maoliosa, 3. Among other things , Leona has often spoken about the struggles of the work/life balance. Bringing a whole new meaning to the term ‘working mother’ Leona set up her own online news site, ‘Newswire’ in 2011. She recalls working 24 hours a day to bring local news as it happened to Derry’s digital audience.
Working non stop, including taking calls mid-grocery shop in Tescos and being awoken in the middle of the night by telephone calls about fires breaking out, eventually became too much and Leona sold the local news site on as a going concern.
“I was literally working all day and all night,” she says. “I’m proud of the fact that I built the site up from nothing but I’m glad I realised that the time had come to pass it on to someone else.”
That decision gave Leona more time to focus on her writing and eventually led her to her current job in the Verbal Arts Centre, where she’s responsible for marketing. In her new role as the teacher at the Centre’s Journalism School, she’ll teach the subject at A-level. DStudents will learn in a fully accredited setting.
“Journalism is the best job in the world,” she says. “No two assignments are the same and you get to meet the most amazing people and have the best adventures. It’s also one of the most important of jobs, giving a voice to those who have none and shining a light in the dark.”
Potential journalism students can get a taster of life as a journalist on Wednesday August 14 when the Verbal Art’s Centre’s newsroom opens for business for the day . It will cover Fleadh events in stories and images which will be published on the VAC website, the Derry Journal and Londonderry Sentinel. Booking is essential, contact Rose on 71 266946 to book.