Memories of trade unionist days
By Tom Gillespie
I HAVE been a lifelong member of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) and in November 2012 I was elected a life member.
In the 1970s and ’80s I was deeply involved in the running of the West of Ireland NUJ branch, which catered for members in counties Mayo and Galway.
I served as secretary for several years and as chairman for one term. It was a learning experience but most importantly it created the opportunity to meet and get to know my colleagues from the Galway newspapers and the Galway-based RTÉ colleagues.
Back then there was no Raidio na Gaeltachta or TG4. These came later and the recruiting of reporters and presenters for the Casla-based broadcasters really swelled the numbers attending branch meetings, which were usually held in Tuam.
The chore as secretary involved taking the minutes and notifying members of meetings.
As in any organisation, there were the regulars who attended and contributed to proceedings while others just didn’t bother but were content to get their official press card and avail of advice or assistance from the then national secretary, Jim Eadie, who was based in Liberty Hall in Dublin.
One of the ‘perks’ of being either chairman or secretary was that you were automatically selected to attend the annual delegates conference which was held around Easter time at a UK venue.
My first foray to a conference was to Norwich in the ‘70s. I must admit I knew little of how they operated or what my part was there.
This was at a time when tensions were high between Ireland and the UK, with the IRA on a war footing.
In order to enter the UK we had to fill out a green form and we were subject to security checks.
A seasoned journalist and experienced conference delegate, Eamonn McCann, from Northern Ireland, advised us on the Aer Lingus flight to Heathrow how to fill out the form.
We supplied all the requested information but we all signed our names ‘as Gaeilge’, which, of course, caused a delay on our arrival. Eventually, we were allowed proceed and we got the train to Liverpool Street Station in London and from there another train to Norwich, via Ipswich.
Norwich lies on the River Wensum in East Anglia and is approximately 100 miles northeast of London. It is the regional administrative centre for East Anglia.
Once we registered and received our accreditation we were allocated accommodation and told where a delegates reception was being held later that evening.
And what a reception it turned out to be. Eighteen local breweries had sponsored a barrel of their ale or lager. There were set out in a tented area, starting from the lighter brews to the darker ales. Being young and eager to please our sponsors we felt obliged to taste all of the barrels.
One product, however, came in a bottle - Newcastle Brown. I had never tasted it before and hope never to do so again. It was very drinkable but boy did it have a kick.
We were entertained by Morris Dancers and we tasted some of the local food products.
I won’t bore readers with proceedings from the delegates conference as it would be totally historical today.
We did get some time to explore the city. It was a time when Richard Condon from Castlebar was running, and had transformed, the Theatre Royal in the city centre.
It was also a time when I was organising the West of Ireland NUJ deep sea fishing competition on Clew Bay, an event that I ran for over 30 years.
What has this to do with Norwich, you may well ask?
Well, on one of the days when we had some free time I went to the market where dozens of stalls were set up. One of them was selling surplus UK Navy attire. I took a fancy to a thick polo-necked woollen jumper and to this day I regret not having purchased one as it would have been a welcome piece of attire out on Clew Bay.
On two other evenings we were guests of Anglia Television and Norwich Union. We visited the TV studios, which had been opened in October 1959 to bring a local TV service to the people of the east of England, who had previously been able to receive only BBC programmes.
Readers might remember that two of the top programmes produced by Anglia were Sale of The Century, with Nicholas Parsons, and Tales of the Unexpected.
We were given a guided tour of the studios and viewed the sets of these two high-rated shows.
In those days the NUJ did accept sponsorship and that policy has changed dramatically over the years.
While in Norwich, the home of Coleman’s Mustard since 1814, we got several samples of their products, one of which was a squeeze lemon, the kind you use on pancakes on Shrove Tuesday.
These we carried home in an NUJ satchel, which were searched at Heathrow. You can imagine the look on the detective’s face when he felt the hand grenade-like squeeze lemon. We got a laugh but were lucky not to have been arrested.
In later years I attended delegates conferences in Sheffield (twice), Glasgow and Loughborough.
One of the highlights of my involvement with the NUJ was when my then Western People colleague, Christy Loftus, was elected president of the union for members in both the UK and Ireland for the year 1999-2000.
I accompanied Christy to the annual delegates conference in Glasgow. On one of the evenings we were taken on a boat trip down the River Clyde. It was snowing and the bitter breeze cut us in two. On returning we were famished and sought out somewhere to eat. A pizza joint is all we could find but it was delicious.