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Gaza: Paul Cunningham on witnessing horror unfold

March 12th, 2024 4:29 PM

By Martin Claffey

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The Big Story is a digital, subscriber-only series by The Southern Star. Each part will bring subscribers closer to the stories that matter in West Cork.

Gaza: Paul Cunningham on witnessing horror unfold can be read, watched, or listened to. Scroll down to the bottom of this page for video and audio podcast versions of this interview.


RTÉ’s Paul Cunningham was on assignment in Israel in the days after the Hamas attack, as the world braced for its retaliation. He spoke to MARTIN CLAFFEY about his experiences of the grim situation, avoiding war fatigue, and the importance of presenting a local message for Irish audiences

THERE’S a relaxed pace to life in Baltimore. Sometimes, you’d think the clocks had slowed, such can be the laidback vibe.

It’s something RTÉ political correspondent Paul Cunningham laps up, since he first started coming down to West Cork about a quarter of a century ago.

Paul is happy to have married into the joys of West Cork, after meeting journalist Flor MacCarthy 25 years ago.

‘She hails from Skibbereen, but they have a house in Baltimore in West Cork. So that's where I've been going ever since,’ says Paul.

‘She absolutely loves the place, she loves to try and get down there any chance there is and she has books on West Cork, she lives and breathes West Cork and she nearly has a physical sensation of "I've got to go". So we tend to get down there four or five times a year.

‘Sometimes that might be just for a weekend and in the summertime we might be lucky enough to get down there for a month but we go down there as much as we possibly can and it's always been a fantastic place. We've got kids who love the opportunity to be on the water and we've got such firm friends down there as well.

‘It’s a different pace of life.’

The sense of escape in Baltimore, and time to step back from the chaos, was something Paul will doubtless relish after some of his recent work.

Paul’s work has taken him to more than 50 countries, and conflict is never far away. In the wake of the horrific Hamas attacks in Israel, and the brutal Israeli response, he was back in the Middle East.

In Tel Aviv, in the immediate aftermath of the Hamas attacks, amid the awful foreboding of what was going to happen next, he was the eyes and ears on the ground for most Irish people.

‘Myself and the cameraman Owen Corcoran arrived into Tel Aviv about four days after the October 7th massacre by Hamas. Such was the level of confusion and chaos it wasn't even possible to know who had died and who hadn't.

‘We were traveling around a lot but even then no journalist was allowed into Gaza at that time and there were areas close to the Lebanese border that were cordoned off so you could move around to the country, but you were limited in what you can do much you can see

‘Overall it was very grim. I think it was incredibly tiring because you were just working so much but it was also interesting to see how Israeli people would react to Irish people.

‘We know that you are not with us’

One of many marches that have taken place in Skibbereen since the start of Israel's bombing of Gaza. The group, like many in Ireland, holds regular marches calling for a ceasefire. (Photo: Andy Gibson)


Paul could see quickly that, on the ground in Israel, there was a feeling that Ireland has already chosen a side in the conflict, before the Hamas outrage, before the terrifying response.

‘In many cases we have this view of ourselves as loved around the world a small plucky nation never aligned, never part of the military alliance and yet when it came to Israel, on a number of occasions regularly people would come up and say things akin to “we know that you are not with us”. There was a sense that Irish people were on the side of Palestine and that to a certain extent clouded Irish people from being able to assess the situation.

'They feel that Irish people didn't feel and recognise that Hamas was an existential threat to the Israeli people, that if they have a chance it would massacre again, and they would pose the question “if you were living on to that threat, what would you do”? So at times it was an uncomfortable country to work in because of the challenges that were there but also a sense among the population and indeed to the politicians that when you said "I came from Ireland" you could see a triangulation going on and they were going "oh I know where you come from. I know what you're about", and that was certainly a challenge.’

As Paul moved around Israel, he could see the conflict escalating.

‘We were traveling down towards Gaza and we went to a number of the villages which had been overrun by Hamas and I think that was a real eye-opener because we could see on the one hand the destruction which Hamas had reeked on the place and if you stood and just looked over to your left you could see Israeli air bombardment taking place the plumes of smoke going up.’

Controlled message

Reporting from Israel and the lack of access to Gaza was a huge challenge, and Paul believes it is part of the changing nature of war, and the reporting of war.

‘If I think back to Bosnia Herzegovina in 1993, it was possible to move around that country at will. You were in danger and possibly your life was under threat, but you were able to get around. I was in Darfur in Western Sudan in 2004 and we were moving around without any limitations on us, but the thing that defines the Israeli conflict was that I wasn't able to get in to Gaza at all.

‘Even when I wanted to try and talk to Palestinians and get the Palestinian view, people were very reluctant to talk. We travelled up to East Jerusalem which would be a Palestinian centre where they've got residency rights and far more rights than people who live in the West Bank and so we were on the streets with the camera trying to get people to talk. And the Palestinian population of East Jerusalem didn't want to talk on camera for fear of what they said was an incitement law. Their view was if they spoke freely and spoke their minds that they could end up losing the residency in East Jerusalem and be thrown into the West Bank.

‘On the one hand we were not able to get into Gaza and on the other hand we're trying to represent the Palestinian view but Palestinians didn't want to talk to us.’

The Israeli invasion of Gaza has seen untold horrors unfold, with more than 30,000 people now dead, the huge majority innocent victims, men, women, and thousands of children.

Many people have taken to the streets in Ireland to convey their disgust and to push for an end to the relentless assault. But there is also a danger of people becoming exhausted by the daily images of horror on their screens.

‘I've certainly see among my friends for people who are starting to turn off because they can't look at any more images of young children walking the streets after their entire family has been killed and they have no idea where they're going. The images are so hard and difficult to watch,’ said Paul.

‘What we try to do is to tell a micro story. You'll get that macro story of the Prime Minister said this and the Palestinians said that but if you're able to tell a micro story …can I find a child who is in extremis and then just stay with them for a couple of hours as they try to make their way through a day because that's what it seems to be for most people in Gaza. It's just survival get through a day. That type of story allows people to latch on to something you can relate to and it's a very strong way of getting around that desensitisation.’

‘If you’re a casualty, you’re no use’

Working in a war zone takes its toll on the reporters too. Paul says RTÉ is now aware of this for employees on assignment.

‘We are far more conscious of our mental health now. if you come back from an assignment where it's been difficult, you are offered a counselling session to try and see just exactly where you are. And if more is required then that will be granted. But we also know that an awful lot of the stuff builds up over the time so you can suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder PTSD and it can hit you 20 years after.’

Reporter-cameraman teams set their own boundaries, say Paul, ‘because if you're a casualty, you're no use to anyone’.

‘My experience over about 30 years is you can probably work around two or three weeks operating full tilt. And after that you just get too tired and if you get too tired, you can be a danger to yourself and you can also be a danger to your station because you can get too tired and you start making mistakes and in a situation like that that's simply can't happen.’

Paul and other RTÉ correspondents who are travelling to conflicts undergo hostile environments training or HET, a week-long course from ex-military personnel covering areas like safety and emergency first aid.

‘You need to do it every two years because the natural thing is we get into habits and habits of behaviour. And that's usually the worst thing possible.’

Back to Baltimore

A small group of locals marched to Baltimore Beacon on Saturday, February 17th, in what they called a ‘Beacon of Solidarity March for Palestine’. The group meets at Baltimore Sailing Club every Saturday at 1pm to march for Gaza. (Photo: Andy Gibson)


Paul’s output from Israel was hard watching. Hard listening.

But it shows the value of the national broadcaster sending correspondents to these conflicts.

’I don't want to get my news from just a British or American source,’ said Paul. ‘We have our own focus and you do want to know if there's Irish people on the ground providing insights.

‘If I think of Baltimore, I think of Dermot Kennedy, who is a fantastic maritime historian. He also used to run the Baltimore sailing school. In 2004, when Hurricane Katrina whipped through a New Orleans. I was sent over there with Fergal Keane who is an RTE reporter who currently lives in Baltimore.

'Dermot Kennedy’s brother is a priest and he was living in New Orleans and so words came to me and from West Cork that Dermot’s his so we were able to call down to him.

'The area he lived in had been devastated and there had been some criminals, trying to steal stuff. So I screamed through the letterbox “RTÉ” and suddenly the door opened and he served me a warm can of Guinness because the fridge had been knocked off for the previous four or five days. He took us on a tour through his area and we met people and they were telling us their stories.

'So by having that contact we were able to tell about this Irishman’s experience, but we were able to learn a hell of a lot more because he was like the door of the gateway. It's always something we're looking for.’





Gaza: Paul Cunningham on witnessing horror unfold is the latest in The Southern Star's digital-only series, The Big Story.

Each part of this series brings readers closer to the stories that matter. The Big Story is only available to Southern Star subscribers.

Written and presented by Southern Star deputy editor Martin Claffey. Produced by Southern Star digital manager Dylan Mangan.

Find other Big Stories by clicking here.

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