The Director of Media for Culture Company 2013 Garbhan Downey talks about how his first experience of libel law happened when he was 10, meeting his wife in a Latin class and why he believes that 2013 will be Derry’s year.
He’s been a novelist, an editor, journalist and radio presenter; when it comes to the media game Derry man Garbhan Downey is a skilled player.
Garbhan is currently the Director of Media for Culture Company 2013; he’s one of the people tasked with making sure that the city delivers on its promise to leave a lasting cultural legacy when the showpiece kicks off next year.
Before taking up the media director post last summer, Garbhan was best known as an author of both fiction and non-fiction (to date he has published six books; his seventh is due for release soon).
Garbhan’s decision to start writing books was one that he arrived at gradually. Before penning his first novel (Private Diary of a Suspended MLA) in 2004 he made a living as journalist; he has worked for various publications in the past, including, the Derry Journal, the Irish News and the Sunday Times.
A child of the sixties, Garbhan’s abiding romance with the written word began when he was a young, would-be sports reporter at Rosemount Primary School in Helen Street.
“The school team had made it into a final and if I remember well we lost the game to a disputed goal. Whilst all of the Rosemount PS supporters thought the goal should have been offside the referee saw it a different way and allowed it to stand.
“I was incensed with his decision and afterwards I spoke to different people and asked them for their opinion.
“I went back to the school and wrote up what I had. I remember my teacher - I think it was John Flood - he called me to one side and had a talk to me about libel law and told me that I was supposed to tell someone if I was interviewing them. I was only ten years-old,” laughed Garbhan.
Garbhan was born and reared in Crawford Square and De Burgh Terrace. His father, Gerry, is a retired lecturer at North West Regional College and his mother, Aine, is a retired university lecturer.
He has two brothers, Ronan and Cormac. Sadly, his brother Ronan died of a chronic chest condition when he was only 32 years-old.
“Ronan was not only a great brother but he was also a great friend. He was a very talented musician and had great passion for everything he did. I was devastated when he died.”
As a youngster Garbhan could often be found with his head in a book or standing rebelliously in his friend’s garage with a guitar draped around his shoulders. He said that he loved nothing more than to listen to the Beatles, The Undertones or The Ramones but admittedly, his band never quite managed to replicate the sound of their idols.
“They were great times. We were a punk-rock band and I was in the band along with my friends Eamon Williams and Harry Burton. Harry actually went on to join a band who were aptly named The Rejects,” he smiled.
“I read voraciously when I was younger. It was one of my favourite things to do and still is to this day. People think that just because you spend most of your time writing for a living that it puts you off reading - not me, I adore reading and would be lost without it.”
Garbhan attended Rosemount Primary School and said that it was the place “that taught me more about life than any other”.
“Rosemount PS was just an amazing place to be. I loved it there. The teachers at the school were amazing and I’d definitely say that it taught me more about life than any other.”
After passing the 11 Plus Garbhan made the move to St. Columb’s College in Bishop Street. It was at St. Columb’s that Garbhan developed a love for languages and emerged from the school with A-levels in French and Latin. In 1984 he left the ‘College’ for Galway where he continued on with language studies at University College Galway (UCG).
“Galway was simply magic. There was a real emphasis on the arts there and it must have been doing something right because the current Taoiseach Enda Kenny and President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins and Attorney General for Ireland, Máire Whelan all went to UCG.”
His years at UCG were to have an everlasting effect when one day a girl from Monaghan sat beside Garbhan in a Latin lecture.
“In typical Derry man fashion I sat at the back of the classroom so that I could keep an eye on everyone else,” he joked.
“But in one walks this young girl from Monaghan and she asks if she can share my book. I always say that when she went to leave the class at the end of the lesson her own book fell out of her bag and she had it all along!”
The identity of the girl was Una McNally from Ballybay in Monaghan. Garbhan and Una married 11 years later in 1995 and she is currently a partner in a legal practice in Derry.
Whilst studying at UCG, Garbhan found his way into student politics. When he graduated in 1987 he became full-time Students Union deputy president. It was also around this time that Garbhan rekindled what began in the corridors of Rosemount Primary School when he became editor of the university’s magazine Student.
A year later Garbhan moved to Dublin where he became deputy-president of the Union of Students of Ireland.
“I enjoyed my time in student politics but I soon realised that I enjoyed watching it more than I did playing. It was then that I decided to become a watcher and stop being a player.”
Garbhan moved back to the North a year later where he studied for a Masters in Computing at University of Ulster, Jordanstown.
When he completed his masters he returned to Derry where he started to submit articles to the Derry Journal.
“It was thanks to the wonderful Domhnall MacDermott that I got my chance to shine at the Journal. Sadly Domhnall passed away but I learned so much from him - you always remember the person who gave you your first chance.”
Garbhan was soon taken on as a staff reporter and before long he was covering important news stories, court and sport.
On leaving the Journal, Garbhan went to work for the Londonderry Sentinel before eventually ending up at the Irish News where he operated as the newspaper’s full-time north-west freelance journalist.
Garbhan’s first book was published on the back of his time with the Irish News. He contributed fans-eye columns from the World Cup in 1994. When he returned to Ireland all of his columns were brought together in a book called Just One Big Party.
Garbhan and his wife Una spent a brief time living in America but when he returned home to Derry he worked as a reporter and presenter for BBC Radio Foyle.
“I remember thinking that I wanted to try as many different facets of journalism as possible - I really enjoyed doing radio and still do.”
In 2001 Garbhan left the BBC to become the first editor of the Derry News.
“Working for the Derry News was great. There was a great team at the paper then and we had plenty of good times.”
The temptation to write fiction proved irresistible in 2004 when Garbhan decided to leave his editor’s job.
“It was something that I always wanted to do. There’s a great sense of achievement when a book you’ve spent a lot of time working on is finished.
“It was during this time that I did a lot of work with Guildhall Press. They were fantastic to work with.”
His third book of fiction, Running Mates, was published in 2007. It tells the story of a corrupt race to be the next president of Ireland.
Garbhan’s career is littered with pinnacles; writing his first story, publishing his first book and now he’s the Director of Media for Culture Company 2013.
Delivering during Derry’s year as City of Culture is not something Garbhan is taking lightly. When asked for his hopes and ambitions for the showpiece year he talks with almost unrivalled passion and enthusiasm.
“I remember reading an article about City of Culture in 2008. I thought that it was a fantastic event and it was something that Derry should apply for.
“I’ve written a lot of material for the likes of the Derry Journal and Culture NI on the City of Culture but I can’t take any credit for the successful bid. That was all down to the hard work and vision of others.
“However, the reason I decided to put myself forward for the job was because I wanted someone just as passionate as myself or even more so to be the person to take the city forward during 2013. If there was someone out there who could do the job better then I would have gladly stood aside but I am so honoured to be doing this job. It’s an absolute joy because City of Culture is something that I really believe in. I think it’s the best thing that has ever happened to Derry and it has the potential to leave a lasting legacy for generations to come.
“One of the things to come out of the City of Culture that has pleased me is just how positive and supportive all sections of the community have been. From Creggan to Nelson Drive we have people looking to get involved - it’s an honour to be part of this.
“It’s a project for all of the people of Derry and we are always here if anyone has any ideas or suggestions. I’ve no doubt that 2013 is going to be a massive success and we will be publishing our timetable of events in the spring.
“ It’s going to be an amazing year and I for one am really excited.”
Garbhan and Una have two children; Fiachra (13) and Bronagh (9).