Michael McGuinness: more than a historian

THE TOWN HE LOVED SO WELL... Mickey McGuinness with Derry as his backdrop.
THE TOWN HE LOVED SO WELL... Mickey McGuinness with Derry as his backdrop.

When Seamus Heaney visited the Guildhall in the late 1990s to deliver a Columban anniversary lecture, he kept the ranks of the media waiting long past their deadlines as he chatted late into the evening with Michael McGuinness. No one else got a look in - not academics, MPs or clergy - until the two kindred, white-haired spirits had finished their drinks, swapped their historical notes and stopped laughing at each other’s jokes.

And that was the danger with Mickey. He was so warm, engaging, funny and entertaining, and he had so many stories, time just disappeared when he was talking to you.

1962... Mickey in the back yard of his home at Phillip Street wearing a jersey to mark his role in Swilly Rovers' victory in the Irish Junior Cup (1961-62).

1962... Mickey in the back yard of his home at Phillip Street wearing a jersey to mark his role in Swilly Rovers' victory in the Irish Junior Cup (1961-62).

His children dreaded going into town with him. He knew everybody, and he chatted to them all equally and timelessly, from captains of industry to street-drinkers. Worse again, he was a conversational polymath – flying from topic to topic with the carefree abandon of his heroine Amelia Earhart, the transatlantic pilot, who Mickey fought long and hard to have recognised at the site of her greatest triumph.

Deadlines, in the gentle McGuinness mind, were largely notional constructs created by worriers who didn’t understand that a job, or a conversation, takes as long as it takes. For all that, he was a worrier himself, extremely well organised, and he always produced his homework at exactly the agreed time, even if occasionally he might negotiate an extension.

His book, ‘Creggan: More than a History’, is a case in point. It began life as a series of articles in 1997 to mark Creggan’s 50th anniversary, with a view to bringing out a full publication, perhaps in 1998. To that end, I met up with him every week for a work session. And, for a full three years, it seemed we did little but chat, eat bacon sandwiches and craic some more, then promise to get down to it properly the next time.

Initially, I was a little concerned, as I assumed there might eventually be a day of reckoning. But, by the end of the first year or so, Mickey had taught me to relax and enjoy the journey, and to worry less about the destination. And, slowly but surely, the work got done – and done thoroughly.

Mickey and Detta (nee Quigg) pictured on their wedding day.

Mickey and Detta (nee Quigg) pictured on their wedding day.

A millennium ended and a new one started, however, and Guildhall Press had had enough. We were rudely summoned to the MD’s office and told, in no uncertain terms, we could either present the manuscript to them by the first of September or present ourselves to the back of the nearby shops on the same date. We chose the former and, sure enough, had the book with our publishers bang on time – by the last week of November 2000.

It was worth the wait, however – quality should not be rushed. The book sold out in days and there was still time for a full reprint before Christmas.

The book – which was entirely Mickey’s conception (my role was allegedly to impose journalistic ‘scheduling’) – hit all its marks and many others besides. It was, as he promised in the title, much more than a history. It was an epic story of a community and a city through the ages: remembering and celebrating its highs and lows, heroes and villains. It took the reader on a journey from 16th century Jacobite armies to 19th century hymn-writers, and from 20th century republican armies to 21st century pop-stars.

It explored sport, education, industry, music, literature, myths and legends. And, in keeping with the McGuinness objective of creating a true ‘people’s history’, it featured interviews with, or contributions from, scores and scores of Creggan’s own sons and daughters. (Mickey later donated all royalties from the book to Creggan voluntary groups, on the grounds that, as so many people had chipped in for nothing, he certainly wasn’t going to take a fee.)

Most importantly, however, ‘the Creggan book’, as it became known, provided the greatest, and most timely, reputational correction of a generation. Mickey felt it was imperative to tell the rest of the world what he already knew: Creggan, like Derry, had cast off the mantel of being a single-issue news story and was now a beacon of culture, community empowerment and hope.

Mickey’s own association with Creggan dated back to the 1950s when he got his start at the BSR plant on Bligh’s Lane, which made record-players and tape-recorders. He would stay there for ten happy years, starring in company football teams and concerts, and marrying the love of his life, Detta Quigg.

But Creggan was only a small part of his own peripatetic journey. He had been reared in Phillip Street among a family of great singers, who originally hailed from Moville. His huge, musical funeral, which he pre-conducted from his sickbed, was, as one mourner put it, about as close as you could get to a concert without selling tickets.

Growing up during the war, he and his neighbour Liam McCaul served as altar boys on visiting submarines, piquing, no doubt, Mickey’s twin passions for travel and history. In later life, the two old friends would become organisers of the revived Christian Brothers’ Choir, taking Derry music to ex-pat communities across America and beyond.

Mickey had a wonderful voice with a repertoire that went all the way from opera to Irish traditional. (Some even argued he was the finest singer of all the McGuinness children, though we know better than to go there.) However, it was his talents as a stylish right half that would first draw media attention.

West Ham paid for him to come over on trial where he was feted by Irish internationals Frank O’Farrell and Noel Cantwell. The London club offered him terms, something he always downplayed, but, instead, he respected his father’s advice and returned home to ‘get a trade’.

He went on to play for Sligo in the League of Ireland and won an FAI Junior Cup medal for Swilly Rovers in 1962 – it was the first time the trophy had ever come to Donegal.

For many years, along with the likes of Ted McLaughlin, Raymond O’Connell, Dessie Boyle and the Dohertys, he formed the spine of the summer cup giants, Derry Celtic. And he continued playing soccer well into his fifties, many years after his dark, film star quiff had turned snow white – and for a lot longer than was good for his knees.

After almost twenty years working in industry, which incorporated a stint at Du Pont, Mickey returned to university, before beginning a new career as director of the Community History & Heritage Project. He became an authority on the history of Derry emigration, from Colmcille’s voyage by currach to Iona (which he helped recreate in the 1990s) to the coffin ships to the New World in the 19th century. He established partnerships and twinning programmes with Irish and Ulster Scots communities in the US, Canada and Scotland, and was invited abroad regularly to deliver guest lectures. Back home, he was a board member of the Amelia Earhart Centre at Ballyarnett and a trustee of the Waterside’s Workhouse Museum.

He also wrote and researched copiously, contributing to numerous periodicals, broadcasts and books, including ‘City of Music: Derry’s Music Heritage’, ‘Discover Derry’, ‘Creggan: A Pictorial History’ and, of course, his magnum opus ‘Creggan: More than a History’. He also penned the storyboard for the ‘Derry Ring’ – which led to the creation of a successful line of jewellery.

After retirement, Mickey became a director and later chairman of Guildhall Press and was the publishing house’s authority on all matters historical. He never missed a book launch and spoke at many, after which he could invariably be found arguing the finer points of an uncaptioned photograph with fellow GP stalwarts Phil Cunningham, Patsy Durnin or Barney McMonagle. It goes without saying that a light has gone out in Guildhall Press.

Conversations with Mickey were invariably brought to a close by him having to return to his truest vocation, that of taxi-driver to his eight children. He got particular joy from ferrying his musical brood back and forth to their concerts or practice sessions, so he could slip in and watch them perform, often without them knowing. It says everything about him that only one of his five girls learned to drive.

Ever the planner, he would announce his departure at least ten minutes before he had to leave, to ensure he had enough time to tell you how each and every one of his offspring was getting on in Norway, Milan, Glasgow, Nice, London, at university or at home. And, if for any reason he’d a couple of minutes to spare, he’d start on the grandchildren. His youngsters, he’d assure you, were so easily reared you’d barely know they were in the house – though for this he gave all credit to Detta, who was the last word in serenity.

His family, as was obvious to everyone, were immensely proud of Mickey, too, and drew great comfort from the wave of warm tributes that followed his death last week.

Detta and the children – Deirdre, Áine, Dónal, Michael, Brian, Maeve, Úna and Kathleen - were all with him when he passed away, aged 78, at the Foyle Hospice in the early hours of April 10; his sisters had gathered earlier in the evening to sing him their soft goodbyes.

It was a lovely farewell to a lovely man.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam uasal.