Memories are made of this
Although James Morrissey has lived the high life as a jet-setting music journalist, his heart remains in Kiltimagh
FROM Roger Miller’s ‘King of the Road’ on Mrs Carroll’s jukebox in Kiltimagh to interviewing Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Elton John and a host of others, life has been kind to James Morrissey. Shades of the Kevin Johnson classic, ‘Rock and Roll, I Gave You All The Best Years of My Life’, fleetingly come to mind as I speak to James in the Belvedere Hotel in Dublin. And as The Saw Doctors might sing, part of his heart is living in the sixties still.
Shaped and moulded by his young years growing up in Kiltimagh, James went on to become a leading journalist with the Irish Independent before he and three friends launched the Sunday Business Post in 1989. Today, he heads up his own public relations operation in Dublin.
Kiltimagh is branded on his heart. It is the well to which he returns every now and again for sustenance and inspiration. In a world where many find themselves adrift, it is where James casts anchor, if sometimes in memory, and he is at peace with himself and the world.
“Growing up in Kiltimagh was idyllic. When I close my eyes, I think of the people who lived in our street, James’ Street. I still like to call it our street even though I’m long gone from Kiltimagh. When you think back on old times, you think of your parents and both of mine are dead, God rest them. They gave me a wonderful upbringing.
“I also think of neighbours who made a big impression on me. Neighbours who were neighbours in the fullest sense of that word. I have great memories of people long gone, the late Pat Costello, Eamon Jordan, John Joe Walsh, the Murtaghs next door to us, the late Dr O’Donoghue, a wonderful doctor and a very kind, gentle and caring man.
“Also people who are still very much with us like John Ronayne who ran the hotel [Westway] and who gave me a job in the early years chopping wood and cutting grass and the summer pocket money. I recall in later years working with Enda Cleary, a truly wonderful neighbour, an exceptional man, kind and generous. When I went off to study in Dublin, Enda gave me the job of driving down new cars from Dublin and it was a wonderful way to earn money and a great way to get home to Kiltimagh at the weekends.
“I think of my early years in Kiltimagh and the St Louis nuns who did an awful lot for the town. I was taught by the late Joe Roughneen, another great neighbour.”
When James switches to Kiltimagh mode, it is a case of sweet surrender. The memories roll like the credits at the end of a classic movie. Home base has been touched in a special way. “You think of Nat King Cole singing about those lazy, crazy, hazy days of summer. I think of learning to fish with my late father who worked with the Department of Social Welfare and was based in Kiltimagh and going down to the Moy fishing with him and often accompanied by Pat Costello. Going off fishing on my own when I got my first bicycle, using Wal Costello’s air rifles and trying to shoot whatever there was to shoot out there. Hope I didn’t shoot or maim any moving objects back then!
“I remember great friends that I grew up with, people like Seamus Kelly, Ted Gormley, John Murtagh, John Roughneen, Gerard Keegan, and one person who was central to my growing up in Kiltimagh, and central to my life’s association with Kiltimagh, the late Kieran Heneghan. A gentle, kind, generous person, a great friend and a wonderful character. I was delighted that he was at my 50th birthday some years ago as were others from Kiltimagh.
“I still enjoy the old stock like Tommy Gallagher in Chapel Street whom it is a joy to drop into in his homely pub.”
His late father Donal was a Dubliner and his mother Mary (May) was Philbin from Kiltimagh and a sister of the late Bishop William Philbin who served as Bishop of Down and Conor.
“The first time I ever tasted shop jam, shop bread, shop vegetables was when we went on our holidays to Cleggan in Connemara. My mother grew the potatoes and vegetables, and had blackberries, gooseberries, raspberries all growing at home. She made her own jam, her own marmalade, baked her own bread every single day. I used to think it was wonderful to taste the shop bread at the time. Now I wish I could have my mother’s brown bread back again. We kept bees at the back of the garden. I remember smoking the bees out of Mrs Madden’s chimney on one occasion.”
Newtownbrown National School (Kiltimagh) and Garbally College provided James with his early education. But late at night, another calling was finding receptive ears and a willing heart. Radio Luxembourg was ushering in a new era in music, the pop station that hugged the medium wave band on 208 metres.
“One of the few reasons I liked the long winter evenings was that the Radio Luxembourg signal came in much stronger than in summertime. It was Luxembourg all the way for me back then. All the great disc jockeys of the time, Alan Freeman, Tony Blackburn, Dave Cash, Bob Stuart, all those.
“Kiltimagh was thrown head-long into the sixties by the arrival of a jukebox in Mrs Carroll’s shop. During those summer months, going down to Carroll’s for a cone and listening to the songs of the time was really special. What memories.”
Mrs Johnson’s shop in Kiltimagh was an important part of his life. “I went to Johnson’s for two purchases each week, the Western People and Spotlight magazine. My interest in music was there from a young age. When I went to university in Dublin, I had a habit of failing exams. I spent longer in UCD than I should have and I decided at one stage to ease the financial burden on my parents and go off and get a job.
“My interest in music pointed me in the direction of Spotlight magazine. I remember writing several letters to John Coughlin [editor] asking him for a job. I wrote four letters before he even replied to the first one. He eventually said ‘I couldn’t make up my mind whether you were mad or very determined but if you’re made up of a little bit of madness and a bit of determination, maybe that’s a good combination’. That started off my career in newspapers.”
One person who has remained a very close friend over the past four decades is the genial giant of the Irish airwaves, Larry Gogan. And James is still charmed by the bubbly nature that exudes from the perennial Dubliner. “I believe that Larry Gogan has done more for music in Ireland in terms of pop music and his support for Irish artists from the showbands right through to today than anyone else. I don’t think anyone in this country has made the contribution that Larry Gogan has made to the music business. He is one of the greats in the Irish entertainment industry. I know him since the Spotlight days and have remained very good friends. We had him over for dinner two weeks ago.”
In 1989, James and three other friends decided there was scope to launch a brand new Sunday newspaper. It was a huge undertaking at the time. The Sunday Business Post was born. “It was certainly much easier to write about business than to set up a business. It was a difficult period but there was a great sense of achievement in creating something new, different, and competing with the established major publishing organisations. I sold my shares and left after three years to go into the communications business generally.
“That’s what I’m doing today – public relations, crisis management, corporate strategy. I am very fortunate to have some very good clients with whom I have a great relationship and for whom I have a lot of respect. I think as one gets older, compatibility considerations are more important than commercial considerations. I think we are entitled as we get on to spend our time more in the company of people we like and doing things we like and less time in the company of people we dislike.”
James has written a history of Inishbofin and also of the Congested Districts Board (with a strong emphasis on the Kiltimagh area).
He has never wavered in his firm belief in the power and importance of the community and the structures that support it. “I believe it is a sense of community that binds us together. Human beings need each other, they need the support of each other, the conversation, the camaraderie, the highs and the lows, and it is very important to show support. In a strange way, the longer I am out of Kiltimagh the more Kiltimagh means to me. It’s one of the ironies of life. I think your past is very much part of your present and future.
“I love Dublin and Dublin has been very good to me, both in terms of friends and my life is here. My wife Heather is from Dublin [they have two sons, James and Andrew]. But to get into the car and point that car west any time of the day or year fills my heart with great happiness. I just love heading west. I’m a bit of a romantic.
“I am privileged to have grown up in a place like Kiltimagh and to live in a country that still has a lot going for it. But we must not lose our since of community.
“Killing off pubs has the potential to kill off society. I fully support measures that are designed to curb behaviour that leads to injury and death. But there must be a halfway house. I think the Dublin-based civil servants and the Dublin-based politicians, when they moved in on the drink-driving legislation, they really brought in legislation that has very deep-rooted consequences for social life and community life in Ireland.
“In cities, we can all get taxis and buses and transport. But the way in which this whole issue has been handled leaves an awful lot to be desired. I’m afraid Dublin legislators have let rural Ireland down badly and I would debate that with anyone. From the cosiness of their Dublin dwellings and offices with all their conveniences, this is no way to treat and criminalise ordinary people.”
James Morrissey remains a proud son of Kiltimagh and a wonderful ambassador for Mayo. His philosophical reflections on rural life show he has never lost touch with his roots. Common sense is still number one in the charts for the man from James’ Street.