Nicola Anderson: Respected newspaper man who loved the smell of lead and ink, and the thrill of the big scoop
Published 22/04/2016 | 02:30
James Downey recalled how the "romance" of the trade of journalism had entered his bloodstream at a very early age.
Even in his childhood in Dromahair, Co Leitrim, he was already a news junkie, devouring the reports of newspapers - invariably the Irish Independent - the "staple of every Irish middle-class Catholic household."
Writing for newspapers gave him "half a century and more" of hard work and sheer pleasure, he wrote in his autobiography, 'In My Own Time'.
"I would grow to love the smell of ink and lead, the thrill of the scoop and the satisfaction of directing the production of a newspaper on great occasions," he said.
He was born in September 1933, the son of a school principal; his mother died of cancer before he reached the age of three, leaving James to be brought up by a prematurely aged grandmother and his father, whom he described as "stern, aloof and largely absent."
Sent away to boarding school in Newbridge College, his early ambition to become a journalist mystified both his contemporaries and the masters at the Dominican College, who could offer little by way of career guidance.
James started at the bottomof the laddeer at the age of 18, contributing the Dromahair notes to the 'Sligo Champion' - for which he was paid by the line - before moving to the 'Carlow Nationalist", where accuracy and objectivity were prized.
He was fortunate enough to be taken under the wing of the editor, Liam Bergin, who also trained broadcaster Olivia O'Leary.
From him, he learned a lot about journalism and at the age of 20, when he was appointed district correspondent in Portarlington, James began what he described as "one of the happiest years" of his life - though he noted that while he had rarely been offered a bribe throughout his career, "most of them came in one year in Portlaoise, Mountrath and Monasterevin" from court defendants keen to keep their names out of the paper.
A year later, he was headhunted by the 'Irish Press' and moved to Dublin, recalling visits to the slums, where he "stood amazed" at the conditions of the poor. He frequented the fringes of the Bohemian society of the day, making the acquaintance of Patrick Kavanagh, Myles na gCopaleen and Brendan Behan - whom he found "impossible to admire as a person".
He worked for a number of publications before ending up at 'The Irish Times' as a sub-editor and political correspondent, serving at a time of turbulence here and throughout the Troubles in the North.
He became a deputy editor and London editor in a varied 29-year-long career with the paper but was known to be bitterly disappointed when he was passed over for the editorship in favour of Conor Brady.
On holiday in Croatia, he met Moira Stevenson and the couple married in 1963 and had two daughters.
He ran as a candidate for the Labour Party in 1969 but later remarked that he'd had a lucky escape because life as a politician would not have suited him.
His first column in the Irish Independent appeared in 1989, and he continued with the paper for 27 years, well respected for his unrivalled knowledge of Irish politics - and much loved for his dry wit.