John Greene: 'Kindness ran deep in Eugene - he was truly a man apart'
Thirty years ago this month I sat in the office of the managing editor of the 'Longford Leader' and asked for a summer job. My heart was in my mouth.
To a teenager obsessed with football and journalism, Eugene McGee was a mythical figure, a master of the universe. He was of course a familiar figure on the streets of Longford town, but his hurried stride, with head down, only added to the aura of mystery around him. He was a man apart.
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The conversation that first day was short, and I couldn't actually see him because his black briefcase was upright on the desk between us. I didn't know where to look as he asked why I wanted to be a journalist instead of getting a 'real' job. If I could have seen his face I'm sure I would have seen him fight back a small grin, which would become a familiar expression over the years.
I stammered about wanting to help out round the place, and he said he'd find something for me to do.
I left thinking I would end up as an office boy, making tea or whatever.
But that summer, Eugene sent me around the county, to football matches, council meetings, court sittings, local festivals and more. Over the next six years, through the rest of school and all through college, I spent my summers learning all I could about newspapers from Eugene and the team he had built around him on the Market Square.
In 1995 I joined the staff on a full-time basis and continued my education under his watchful eye.
Over the last 24 hours, as news of his sudden passing spread, stories from others - such as RTÉ journalists Ciaran Mullooly and Damien O'Reilly, and best-selling author Belinda McKeon - who were also fortunate to have spent some of their formative time with Eugene have resonated with me.
For someone who could be notoriously blunt, who didn't suffer fools and who avoided small talk whenever possible, he had an incredible ability to develop young journalists.
He taught us about the value of listening to people, because everybody had a story to tell. He led by example, and we happily followed.
And just as he was as a Gaelic football manager in the Seventies and Eighties, Eugene was a visionary as a newspaper owner and editor. Indeed, to my mind, Eugene was one of the greatest provincial newspaper editors the country has ever seen.
He had a rare understanding of rural Ireland, and of the role that a local newspaper played in it. Nothing was too small or insignificant; the 'Leader' would never shy away from the big story, but in many ways everything that happened in Longford was 'big' - so long as it mattered to someone, it was important in Eugene's eyes. And he made sure that this ethos permeated the paper's pages every week.
He felt the 'Leader' had a responsibility to Longford people everywhere, to fight for them and to inform them.
He became editor of the 'Longford Leader' in December 1983 after a bitter dispute between the owners and staff had led to the closure of the paper for nearly 10 months.
Six years later he led a management buy-out and became the majority shareholder, a position he maintained until it was bought by Scottish Radio Holdings in 2002.
Under Eugene's direction, the 'Longford Leader' became an extraordinary newspaper. It was a powerful champion for a small county which was economically battered through the Eighties and early Nineties. The paper was fiercely independent, but was shameless, too, in its defence of the county and its people, famously campaigning for Longford candidates in general elections in the Nineties.
"We appealed in the last two elections that Longford elect two TDs, one FF and one FG, rather than three TDs in Roscommon and one in Longford," said Eugene in 1997.
It is ironic now that Longford does not have a TD or senator in the current Dáil, something which he simply couldn't countenance in those days.
He added: "I see the paper's job to defend the local community and to speak up for the local community. When central agencies try to close a post office or Garda station, we see it as our duty to speak up and defend them, because we are the voice of the local people. We highlight things in the county which need to be done."
Through the pages of his paper, but also through his contributions to national newspapers, and radio and television programmes, Eugene was an eloquent and authentic voice on the decline of rural Ireland. He believed strongly in the value of community life and this informed much of his journalism.
Through his whole career, as a journalist, as a newspaper owner and editor, as a commentator on Gaelic games, as a brilliant inter-county manager, as an astute observer of Irish life, as a voice for rural Ireland, as a successful businessman and as an author, he remained a man apart.
He retained an independence of thought and action; he never allowed his innate understanding of the world around to him to be corrupted by influence or favour; and he continued right up to the end to be a voice of reason in a world gone mad.
He believed in family and friendship, and was hugely loyal to both. Kindness ran deep in him, although his big heart and generosity was something private to him also. He never sought acclaim or recognition for his many good deeds.
Eugene was a mentor and a friend. Little did I know on the day that I sat trembling in his office, staring into the back of a black briefcase, that he would leave the mark he did - on me, on Longford and on the world around us.
Eugene McGee truly was a man apart.