I decided I wanted to become a newspaper reporter at the age of 11. The sum total of my ambition then was to write for the local rag, the East Belfast Observer. I cut out the banner and tacked it to my notice board in my bedroom. Not the behaviour of a normal child, but then anyone who considers journalism as their career choice is ticking different boxes anyway.
Ten years later, I got my first job back in Belfast at the Irish News. A family owned and run newspaper that served the nationalist community mostly. For a boy who grew up in East Belfast and attended a school that was infinitely more British than Irish, I was stepping into a world I had lived beside but never experienced.
The newspapers bread and butter beyond reporting news was death notices and Gaelic games. Two things that are not huge fixtures in Protestant East Belfast. I was a news reporter and for the first time in my life was spending large amounts of time in West Belfast, prompting double takes from my local taxi drivers when I asked to be driven to Gaelic clubs at night for social events. I came to know the streets and thanks to a byline picture some local pensioners came to know me too.
A name like Drennan is a benefit in Belfast, as it could be from a unionist or nationalist family, so I flew under the radar mostly. I was asked to interview an old lady who was a doyen of her local community and had turned 100. The interview was going well and the family were touched a reporter had been sent to cover her birthday. I innocently asked my final question, “has the queen sent you a telegram?” silence fell in the room and the clock in the room ticked louder. “No the Queen will send me nothing, but I got a lovely one from the Irish president”. First rule as a reporter know your audience.
Being family owned, the newspaper was frozen in time. The elderly and kind owner Mr Fitzpatrick did a tour of desks weekly to see how we all were. There was a 90 year old night security man who kept himself awake playing solitaire by the printers alone, I always was relived to see him alive in the morning. We always hoped any burglars were trained in CPR. There was a smoky snooker room that you had to gain an invite to from the photographers, my favourite of whom was Hugh Russell a former champion professional boxer and Olympic medallist. I tried to wangle myself of as many jobs as possible with him to talk about his career. “Were you ever scared Hugh before you fought?” “Is the pope a catholic? Of course I was you buck eejit”
There were wizened old pros who took me under their wing, over a pot of musty tea in Belfast Central Library they gave me advice and handed me helpfully annotated scraps of my articles. The best of whom was Brendan Murphy, a former publican turned chief photographer. He had an ability to capture emotion in his photography like nothing I have seen. He was hilarious and we had lunch together most days. There was sadness to him too, he had seen the worst of Belfast though his camera lenses. He told me he’d been to far too many funerals. Too many funerals on damp Belfast days with a widow crying due to a needless death. He had been held up at gunpoint by the police, the IRA and the UVF sometimes in the same night. He introduced me to Bill Birmingham’s second hand book shop and the novels of Brian Moore, in his eyes the greatest Irish novelist ever, even If Moore did hate Belfast.
I wanted to continue that life forever. Waking up, finding a story and writing it. A simple life that certainly didn’t pay well, but I was happy. I left the job and Belfast six years ago for the uncertainty and adventure of London. I was lucky to experience such a special place.