‘I was amazed that the Derry Journal went all over the world’
Charlie McDermott was just a teenager when he arrived at the front door of the ornate Derry Journal offices on Shipquay Street to report for work on his first day back in 1944.
By then, the Journal was already well established as an institution in the north west and beyond, and like many others who worked there Charlie was following in his father’s footsteps.
Charles McDermott senior hailed from the Bogside and later moved with his young family to Marlborough Street. He spent his working life as a Reader in the Derry Journal, responsible for subbing and correcting copy and catching any errors before the paper was printed.
“My father was meticulous,” Charlie recalls. “If there was a parallelogram out of place it was marked.”
Charlie himself was brought on as an apprentice as the machine minder where the paper was printed, and would serve his full seven years with the Journal before going on to work in other newspapers across Ireland and later DuPont.
But it wasn’t his first experience of working life. In fact he had already been working for two years in All Cash Stores.
Charlie, who turns 94, this week, recalls how his own Journal story started. “It was through my father maybe. Sixteen and a half was the limit for getting an apprentice. I would say my father had put a word in for me though I had never thought about it you know.
“There was quite a few family groups in the Journal, Frank Kivlehan and his father - Frank was my boss in the machine room; Cissy Douglas, she had a brother Robert who was a compositor and her sister was Mrs Frank McCarroll.
“I had been working in the All Cash Stores. They were the first big store here and they had branches all over Derry and Strabane, Portrush and Limavady. They owned an estate down where the roundabout is on Buncrana Road, all that estate back up there. Their head office was where the City Hotel is now from there down to the Strand Cinema and there was a timber yard there.
“When I went into the Journal you had to start at 6 o’clock on the mornings the Journal was out, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Myself, Joe Cassidy, ‘Balbo’, Tony McLaughlin, Joe Doherty from the Waterside, there were about eight of us in all and we came in at 6am.
“My father started on Sunday evening to 4am on the Monday morning. We started at 6 because that was when the paper was just starting to roll off. The newspaper rolls were like giant toilet rolls, 500lb weight each. There was two massive big rolls, very tough paper. I was in the machine department in the printing place which was the floor above the newspaper and then there was the composing room where Matt McFadden, Willie O’Connell and Sean O’Connell and others worked out setting up the hand type.
“My father finished at 4, by the time we came down everything that was going into the Journal was already there. When they finished all the chases from the newsroom came out - the chase the type was in and that was all melted down and cleaned up. It was an iron chase elongated, three foot wide and packed with all this lead. There was a pit below the Cossars - it looked like two machines, it was the length of this house.”
As well as manning the machinery Charlie and his co-workers also had other duties as well. “The only time we were involved with the actual paper was in the mornings, and during the day they might call up from the front office for two dozen so I might have to go and start up the ‘Cossar’ and run off two dozen copies for the front office. That might happen half a dozen times a day.
“You would have been in trepidation because of the noise. It started moving slowly and then it was like thunder. There were four linotypes and they had keyboards like a typewriter and they were rattling away - George Doherty, Terry Doherty, Willie McKay, and there used to be Charlie O’Kane and then it was somebody else. That clatter was all the time. The linotypes had a metal pot heated and the lead was in that so you’d reuse the lead, melt it down and type it out and it came down a slot.... They would run off the copy and send it to my father.”
The ‘Cossar’, built in the early 1900s and named after its inventor Mr Cossar from outside Glasgow, was hailed as revolutionary in print production because it allowed for the printing of type on a flat bed using paper rolls. Frank recalls how those working in the machine room had to find ways a new way communicate because of the noise. “There was a lot of miming, you would never have heard each other. It was another language.”
The noisy machinations of the huge printworks aside, one of the others things which amazed Charlie as a young man was that the Derry Journal was read world-wide.
“I realised the extent the Journal went out because they were taken and packaged and were going to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, South America, North America as well as some of the European countries, and they were all wrapped up individually and we had to get that ready. It really was eye opening. It was a big operation, I was amazed at the time.
“Joe Doherty was given the task of taking the ones down to the Post Office and then they had the supply to go to the shops. By the time we got over in the morning the papers were produced and away and Charlie McBride used to take the wee van, a wee Ford I think it was. We also delivered papers. Each of us had an area to do on our way home. We finished at around 8 o’clock so I might have had 30 papers all wrapped up to deliver. My route was up by Queen Street and up into Park Avenue and back down. I lived on Marlborough Road. Other boys who lived in the Brandywell did that area, and you went home and got your breakfast and then reported back for work then.”
Charlie says he remembers a great sense of dedication among the staff at the Journal. “There was a great atmosphere in the place. All of the them were dedicated. That’s what stood out. There was no slacking around and they were on the ball.”
He also remembers some of the people who were instrumental in the Journal’s continued success and who worked within its warren of rooms housing different departments. “Mickey O’Kane lived at the house at the back of the Journal looking onto Newmarket Street. Mickey was what every firm needed, he could do anything and nothing was a problem to him. Mickey would be up in the wee wooden platform at the Cossar and that 500lb weight had to be put on. It was a steel bar and they had to get it in and interwoven and this all happened before we came down. The lorries had to bring the paper round the back, there was a tunnel under Mickey’s house.
“Frank Kivlehan, my boss, his father was in charge of the Cossar. The father was from Sligo, lived in Great James Street. ‘Busty’ Doherty, Father John Doherty looked after the paper room. My memory is the door to the left at the front went into the front office. Frank Deeney sat there and Molly McCarroll. She was the boss. There were some characters. Fr John Doherty, Sean O’Connell, Willie O’Connell, Mickey O’Kane, Willie McKay, Cissy Douglas, Molly McCarroll, Annie McLaughlin who worked in the front office - she was always smiling, a real stalwart, Charlie Haslett, Joe Campbell.
“The doors inside were fantastic, the windows, nothing cheap was put into that building. Frank McCarroll’s office was into the right and there was the reporters’ room. The photography and developing room on the the third floor Larry Doherty, Jim McGilloway worked in there. To the right was a card room for small business cards etc stocked in it which was blocked up, bricked up when I was there. There was a rumour it was haunted. It had a lovely arched doorway and two steps up to it.”
The Journal printworks was also used to print the Feis programmes and tickets and other regular publications locally. “You always got a free programme and a free ticket for the Feis!”
Many of those who worked in the Journal spent their entire career there and dedicated their working life to it. As such permanent posts were a rarity. “It was a job for life for those men and when I was finished I had to move on. That was the way it was. I had a trade which a lot of people didn’t,” Charlie said.
Charlie went on to work in papers on both sides of the border in Cork, Omagh and elsewhere, but Derry was always home and it was always calling him and he would later settle in his native city and raise his family here.
And his memories of his time at the Journal remain vivid at a crucial period in its history. “The main thing I remember was being amazed even at 16 /17 was the spread that the Journal went to - not just one part of the world,,. all over.”