JUDGING by the number of people that turned up for his retirement party in the Blue Haven Hotel in Kinsale last week, it’s clear that Leo McMahon is held in high esteem by the people of Mid and South Cork, and beyond. It’s not surprising considering he had worked the area for nearly 40 years, and has built up an impressive array of contacts and friends in that time.
It’s been an eventful journalistic journey for the Worcester-born journalist who moved to Cork with his family in 1975. As a 19-year-old journalism graduate Leo was lucky enough to secure his first job with The Southern Star in 1977 at the height of a recession. But Leo remembers that his first week was traumatic to say the least.
‘I had gone from working in a chewing gum factory in Ballincollig on a Friday to covering Clonakilty District Court the following Tuesday and understanding very little of the West Cork accent,’ he recalls.
‘With a suitcase I had arrived by bus in Clonakilty and after the court I had to thumb a lift in the dark to Skibbereen. The last lift I got was in a Morris Oxford estate car with an agitated goat that was moulting in the back. When I arrived at my digs in Skibbereen, my brand new overcoat was covered in white hairs and I must have looked like a yeti.’
Despite the goat’s hairs and strange accents, Leo still managed to check out the disco in the adjoining Eldon Hotel with his new roommates later that night. Some first day indeed!
Being issued with a company car did provide a bit of a conundrum for Leo, as he had only taken a few driving lessons at that stage, despite saying in his interview that he could drive.
‘I had only a handful of driving lessons behind me and recall praying most of the way home to Cork, but I eventually passed my driving test the following September.’
Leo’s first week with The Southern Star was also tinged with sadness as his mother died unexpectedly, and her funeral took place on his 21st birthday.
‘Looking back, I was very fortunate in having such an understanding editor in the late Liam O’Regan during what was a very difficult start to my career. There was sound advice too from sub editor Sean Scully, photographer Jack Power and Examiner reporter Jim Cluskey in those early days,’ he added.
Leo quickly learned his trade as a West Cork reporter and was often seen helping to load the van with the papers on print day.
‘When I started, the Southern Star phone number was “Skibbereen 8” and you had to lift the phone and wait to be connected to the local exchange to make an outward call. The original Star office was very Dickensian and one of the few buildings I would say, to have frost indoors because on winter mornings, we would first have to warm our hands near an internal chimney fire.’
In 1979 Leo became the Mid and South Cork reporter and worked from his home in Ballinlough. He particularly enjoyed compiling and editing the ‘South County’ page from 1991 to 2009.
He also served for many years on the Cork branch of the NUJ as secretary and chairperson.
‘Journalism is literature in a hurry and in a weekly paper you have to be a jack-of-all-trades. I’ve covered countless district and circuit courts, county and town council meetings, press conferences, festivals, exhibitions and book launches. I also canvassed for adverts and compiled various Christmas and other advertising features and deputised several times as editor for the late Liam O’Regan.’
Leo recalls that having five or more assignments in a day was not uncommon and he pointed out that people do not realise that any mistake is public and seen by thousands of readers. The journalist is constantly walking a tightrope in striving to get a balanced report.
‘There were also murders, disasters, accidents, elections and many other national headline-making events to report on, but what always satisfied me most was being able to shine a light on individuals and groups doing good for their community and interviewing people with a good story to tell. That’s because journalism is about people and places and good stories are much more likely to be found ‘on the beat’ walking along the streets of towns and villages and speaking to people rather than from a desktop or smartphone.’
Leo also points out that people like to belong and have a sense of place and he believes that local papers can help achieve this because he says that nothing is too local.
‘It does sadden me though to see town centres which no longer have a town hall and a mayor because these are important focal points for community progress and it has definitely left a democratic vacuum.
‘I would therefore urge the Minister for Local Government, Simon Coveney, who himself was a very good councillor, to consider establishing town and rural hinterland councils which would also have a business and jobs development role.’
Joining Leo on his retirement is his wife Eileen, who herself retired at the end of August after 40 years of teaching. They have two children – Edward who is in London and Joanna who is in Sydney.
Eileen was, according to Leo, ‘the one who kept the home fires burning all those nights I was covering council meetings and other events.’
‘I’m also very thankful to past and present colleagues of The Southern Star and other media I’ve worked with over the past 39 years. I’d like to thank managing director, Sean Mahon, editors Con Downing and Siobhan Cronin, my long time colleague Jackie Keogh, the fantastic girls in the office and all the back room staff in Skibbereen who make it happen every week. I would also like to thank the local correspondents who write the notes and the various photographers I’ve worked with, especially those who were willing to take pictures of derelict sites and road craters!’
Despite retiring from his role in The Southern Star Leo hasn’t put down the pen and notebook just yet and it will always be close at hand.
‘I always keep one in the car and it would be my hope to occasionally freelance and pursue the many other interests I have, especially with regard to history, tourism, sport and gardening.
‘Above all, I’m just happy to be healthy after prostate cancer and have more time to spend with family and friends,’ added Leo.
‘If some of what I have written over the past 40 years has found its way into family scrapbooks, has contributed to an accurate social history of Cork and has given pleasure and benefit to readers and communities, that’s good enough for me.’
And no doubt readers of The Southern Star will agree that Leo has been a shining light in their local newspaper down through the years.