Starting at The End – How I Became A Journalist

THE first rule of journalism? Find the gravedigger.

Put all that talk about holding the powerful to account, the virtues of the Fourth Estate and Woodward and Bernstein to one side. And find the gravedigger. I’ll explain below.

I work as a journalist for a daily paper and website in Dublin, Ireland. I edit a lot and write a little. Like Mencken I’ve had more fun doing it than any other enterprise. I started my career 18 years ago, not by chasing gravediggers, but in a somewhat-related field: as an obituary writer.

I had joined my local weekly paper from school and must have showed a raw talent for lachrymosity – or an ability to spell a list of names correctly.

The Westmeath Independent's obituary writer-in-chief, 1998

The Westmeath Independent’s obituary writer-in-chief, 1998

Because I found myself, every Wednesday and Thursday, scouring the death columns for the names of the locally recently departed.

This was followed by an awkward cold-call to a grieving relative with an offer of writing a piece about their loved one. I was often answered by sobbing husbands or wives, sons or daughters.  More than once I was asked: “Is this going to cost me?”

But, almost without fail, people recounted anecdotes about their loved ones and produced the necessary Sunday best picture.

These were the lives of ordinary people in a small Irish Midlands town at the latter end of a busy century. There were farmers who had rarely stepped away from their few acres, nurses who worked for 50 years before becoming old spinsters, barmen and brickies born in Athlone who’d lived and died in Brooklyn and Birmingham.

Occasionally you’d get a local worthy, a politician or priest, but most of my hours were spent distilling the lives of very ordinary people.

Each article was a life lived, some better or worse than others. And most had at least one nugget, a well-worn story or family legend that made the piece worth writing and, I hoped, reading.

Later I went to college where, for years, I was taught to ignore the gravedigger and focus on the Bigger Issues. But Gods make their own importance.

I doubt many of the articles I wrote in subsequent years – acres of crime writing, accounts from All-Ireland winning dressing rooms, op-eds on Miss World – were read as closely as those obituaries.

How does this relate to the gravedigger then?

The link comes by way of a legendary 1963 article written by the New York Daily News journalist Jimmy Breslin.

It’s an account of JFK’s funeral. Avoiding the usual roll-call of names and solemn prose it’s instead a story told from the point of view of the “$3.01 an hour” cemetery worker who prepares JFK‘s grave.

The burial of JFK at Arlington Cemetery. (Pic: USNPS)

The burial of JFK at Arlington Cemetery.
Pic: USNPS

It’s an Ordinary Joe’s account of an extraordinary day, a piece which puts a regular guy to the front of history’s parade. Reading it this week it put me in mind of my formative days in the trade and dozens of people whose everyday lives, like Breslin and Clifton Pollard, I briefly did my best to bring front centre.

My reports weren’t in the same field as Breslin’s tribute to the common man but the ground rule was, and is, always the same. Find the gravedigger.

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