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A story to tell

Living

AUTHOR Kieran Cooke

Kilsallagh resident and foreign correspondent, Kieran Cooke, launches a fascinating book on his life and times this weekend

Ciara Galvin

FROM eating scones in Ian Paisley’s house, to hearing about cattle prices at a Louisburgh filling station from the late Oliver Harney, Kieran Cooke has lived a colourful life.
The former foreign correspondent with The Financial Times and the BBC writes about these, and various other happenings that have left a mark on his life, in his book ‘A not so foreign correspondent in Ireland’.
The UK native has had a house in Kilsallagh, Louisburgh, since 1989, when he and his wife decided to buy a fixer-upper to have some semblance of roots when work did not dictate his location. From Northern Ireland or far-flung destinations like Malaysia or Indonesia, Louisburgh has acted as a constant in the journalist’s life over the years.
Based in Dublin with The Financial Times, Cooke was tasked with covering the perennial story that is emigration in the late 80s.
“I’d heard about places like Kiltimagh where they couldn’t field a football team together because too many people had gone. I was trying to look at the economy, to see why young people were leaving, and came out here [Louisburgh] and my wife came with me, and we stayed in The Railway Hotel, while I was doing interviews in places like Belmullet.
One morning the couple saw an advert in a local estate agent and ‘on a whim’ decided to view the house.
“It was pouring with rain, the most miserable day, it was in the middle of winter and we just decided there and then to buy it, in a sort of crazy-rush- to-the-head way, and that’s it ever since,” he explains, while sipping a coffee in a café under the clock in Westport, fittingly called ‘This must be the place’.

Documenter
A natural observer and documenter, Kieran, whose late mother hailed from Roscommon, compiled the new book after feedback he received from readings he did from his archive at the Louisburgh Literary Festival last year.
The book looks back over 30 years and contains interviews with some well-known people and others who, he says, ‘are just as important, and made an impression’. “They are people I’ve liked and enjoyed the company of, often just normal people, but have extraordinary stories. Everyone has a story to tell in a way, ” says the man with a multitude of stories, one more interesting than the last.
At the festival, the self-professed ‘blow-in’ read interviews he had done with Oliver Harney, and Charlie Gaffney, who ran a pub in Louisbrugh.
“I knew them both well, and I thought, ‘These are interesting characters and I had done pieces on them, for The Financial Times and the BBC’. People suggested he put a book together.
“Part of it is vanity, but the other side of it is a lot of these people, unless written about, people will forget.”
Cooke also writes about other experiences in the book, one detailing some of his time covering The Troubles in Northern Ireland.
“Not so much the bombs and bullets, but it was just the people I met, and normal life going on in the midst of the mayhem.”
Speaking of mayhem, in the book, the father of two documents the sometimes dangerous and difficult sides of journalism and a situation that brought him to tears.
Being shot at in a cemetery in Belfast in 1988, known now as the Milltown Cemetery attack, saw 50 injured and three people dead. Covering the funerals of three IRA members, who themselves had been killed by British special forces in Gibraltar, a loyalist gunman fired shots and threw grenades at mourners.
Cooke found himself behind headstones listening to bullets ‘pinging’ around him and, unknowingly making his way towards the gunman instead of away from him.
“I thought I needed to get away from the Sinn Féin leadership because they are going to be the target, so I started to move away with other people, but didn’t realise I was actually moving towards the gunman. You’ve got this surreal thing when you’re hiding behind tombstones and you can hear pings of bullets going off. So that was pretty tense and dramatic.”
Surreal
He describes the whole thing as ‘surreal’, including the fact that the injured were being loaded into the hearses to be taken off to hospital.
“I remember going back to the hotel and your adrenalin keeps you going but I remember just bursting into tears. And then it was wonderful to just come down here and forget it all,” he says, referring to his constant haven in Kilsallagh.
Having gone back to college in 2005 to study Environmental Conservation, Mr Cooke now works mainly on environmental matters, writing and broadcasting on various issues, and holding teaching workshops for environmental journalists in the developing world.
But whether it’s Turkey, Greece, Nigeria, Southeast Asia or Kilsallagh, he maintains that it’s the people that make a place.
“Recently I was in Serbia, and it was really interesting but again, it’s more the people because you’re with a group of journalists, it’s intense, you’re with them for a week going out doing stories and if you’ve got a good bunch of people that makes it,” he explains.

The book
Not used to having to solely edit his own work, Cooke says it was a tough and sometimes ‘lonely process’ putting the book together.
“I have the greatest respect for writers who go away and have the self-belief to sit down and in six months or two years later, produce something.”
So what can people expect from ‘A not so foreign correspondent in Ireland’?
“It’s got significant local content, I’m pleased with that. It’s a bit whimsical, a collection of reminiscences about people and places that have made a distinct impression over the last 30 years. It doesn’t pretend to be an analysis of Ireland’s politics or economics. I hope it’s entertaining.”
And what’s next for this journalist? Well, the launch of the book takes place at Books@One in Louisburgh on next Saturday, August 18.
It seems this may just be the start of a series of books from Kieran Cooke’s archive, with another perhaps delving into more international dealings he’s had throughout his career, such as ‘bizarre meetings with Colonel Gaddafi’ to name just one.
Watch this space.

The launch of ‘A not so foreign correspondent’ in Ireland takes place at 3pm on Saturday, August 18, in Books@One, Louisburgh. All are welcome.