THE job has changed immeasurably since the mid-1990s when he first thumped a typewriter in a Ballyshannon office.
For Keith Duggan, it is the constant change, the unknown and the wonder that make it all a bit magical.
As the chief sportswriter with The Irish Times, he is one of Ireland’s best known and most read wordsmiths. His Saturday column, Sideline Cut, is a must for sports fans every week.
“After I submit the column on a Friday sometime, I sort of forget that I do one until the following Friday,” Duggan, an award-winning journalist and author, tells Donegal Daily/Donegal Sport Hub.
“With a Saturday column, you can be left to roam about in the litter. Sometimes, the odd time, when I’m happy with it, it’s done quickly, but there are times when I’m dragging across the keyboard for hours and I just think: ‘Ah, the poor reader’.”
Ordinarily, he’d be covering the European Championships this week. The Olympic Games would be on the horizon in late summer. The Gaelic Games season would be firmly swirling.
Lately, though, there has been nothing. Covid-19 has torn up the 2020 sport planners and tossed them to the waste baskets.
“The dates on the calendar tend to dictate you summer to a degree,” Duggan says.
“Such-and-such is in Clones on that date so that weekend is built around it….A Munster final in Thurles or wherever, you just have a mental idea of where you’ll be. All of a sudden. it all just disappeared. It’s strange.
“There would have been big build-ups to the Euros and the Olympics this summer, for instance, but that’s just gone. It’s been odd.
“I’ve got used to the absence of sport on TV and the absence of the absence of the 24/7 cycle of sport. I’ve become aware of just how prevalent that was and the deluge of information, whether you wanted it or not.
“I’m only just starting to realise what it must be like for people who have absolutely no interest in sport. It’s really bloody hard to escape from that noise. I haven’t missed the noise, but I’ve missed some of the sport.”
Working from home in Galway anyway – something that has been the norm for ‘years’ – means he hasn’t had to get used to a makeshift office, perch the laptop on an ironing board or some other household item.
He says: “There has been no change at all for me, but the big change was that, suddenly, you weren’t going out meeting people or interviewing people for features. It was all being done remotely.
“We began to change things up in terms of the type of newspaper writing. The pieces sort of became more thematic, rather than hanging off whatever games were on a particular weekend.
he nuts and bolts have remained the same, but it’s been a big change not actually covering live sport.
“I’m going to be interested to see if this changes how sport will be covered. This has given everyone a chance to do a bit of experimental stuff; see what works and what doesn’t.”
A few weeks ago, Duggan wrote a length feature – running to over 6,000 words on Ireland’s lightweight coxless fours crew from the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. He spoke with the crew – Neville Maxwell, Tony O’Connor, Derek Holland and Sam Lynch – to recount how they finished fourth. They didn’t win and they were the nearly-crew, yet they merited an extensive end-of-May feature in The Irish Times.
“That was the most unusual thing that I did,” Duggan says. “Some people would have known about them. They didn’t win a medal, but they’re fascinating people with a really interesting story. They were all willing to speak and they spoke so well about the time and about themselves.
“We did it as a type of oral history and it was a gamble committing that to print. Pages have never been more scarce than they are now. Malachy (Logan, The Irish Times Sports Editor) went with it. It was great to see that being done. It was something that wasn’t all that obvious and was risky. People responded well to it. Hopefully we can keep on doing that kind of sport feature once this is over.”
HE WAS in the bright lights London when a chance phone call came with an opportunity to return home.
A journalism course in University College Galway had been and gone as he wondered just what the world was to serve him.
A brief stint in America was followed by London, where he worked shifts in a variety restaurants and bars.
“I was just having fun,” Keith Duggan says, 24 years after the invitation to take up a role with the Donegal Democrat, with whom he had done work experience as part of the course in UCG.
“After UCG, I went away and forgot about journalism. I didn’t have the first clue about getting into journalism. I hadn’t had a word published in my life.
“Someone left the Democrat and they needed a replacement. Because I had done the placement, I was just sort of offered a job. That might seem unbelievable now.”
There were no iPhones back then, wired internet was a luxury and Twitter was something resembling the sound of the birds.
John Bromley, the editor of the Democrat, gave him the tool for his new trade, ‘a battered old typewriter’.
“The thing would nearly break your fingers, hitting the keys,” he says.
“It rattled. It was a disaster of a thing.
“This was about a year before the digital system so I got one of the last glimpses of the old way of producing a newspaper: via the typewrite, having it re-typed on bromide paper, sending them into the page room where the guys would ‘cut and paste’ with scalpels and pasting the pages together.
“They literally made the page up as they went according to the plan John would outline. The paper, at that time, was printed in the print works in Ballyshannon and loaded into the trucks. That process hadn’t changed in 100 years.”
The installation of the first digital system was a window into a new world, but soon Duggan was off for a new experience.
He says: “It was a great experience in the Democrat. Court reporting was so invaluable. You just have to have everything right. It has been a tough decade for local journalism, but that gave a real insight into what’s important and why local journalism does matter.”
He recalls his introduction to The Irish Times as arriving by ‘accident’.
A friend pointed him in the direction of a couple of job advertisement. One was in a new and since-defunct sports publication, The Title, and the other was for a sports reporter’s post with The Irish Times.
He was interviewed by The Irish Times but didn’t get the role.
Soon, though, he was making his way to the famous building, with the iconic Irish Times clock on Dublin’s D’Olier Street, where the paper’s offices were housed.
He says: “A lot of people start in local papers or radio station and some go to work for the nationals, but others just choose not to. For me, it just happened accidentally.
“Six or seven weeks after I had been interviewed, I got a call from Malachy in The Irish Times.
“He had been leafing through the applications and he saw something I had written that caught his eye. I still don’t know what that piece was.”
Duggan was commissioned to write three pieces: One on Margaret Johnston, a three-time world bowling champion from Antrim; another was with Michael Bree from Sligo who reached some rarified heights after going to America on a Division 1 basketball scholarship; and the third one was a long feature with Joe Rabibtte, the Galway hurler.
A short time later, Mal was on the phone again and Keith Duggan was now an employee of The Irish Times.
BASKETBALL was – and is – his game.
His father, Carl,was a driving force in the school, Sacred Heart Secondary School, and coached at Sligo All-Stars, too.
It was on the court where the young Duggan cut his sporting teeth.
“I wasn’t an avid sports fan,” he says.
“I watched it and I liked it, but no more so than I liked music or reading. It was just one of the things I did. I was never – I’m still not – a sports stats boffin. I have a lot of friends who don’t work in sport who watch a lot more sport than I do. When I came into journalism first, I did everything and it wasn’t a lot of sport, save for the odd game here and there or the odd feature.”
Basketball defined Duggan’s extra-curricular activities. The game was popular in the likes of Ballyshannon, Donegal Town, Glenties and Kilcar. Faces who would become familiar in later works were then known as opponents.
Jim McGuinness, for instance, played for a useful Glenties team coached by Manus Brennan.
Schooldays were different then in Ballyshannon, with three secondary schools, Sacred Heart, De La Salle and The Tech.
He says: “It’s an awful pity that couldn’t have been preserved. It really helped Aodh Ruadh and it gave the town a stronger identity. The De La Salle had a really strong football tradition at the time.
“A few lads I knew went and played with Aodh Ruadh, but in school it was mainly basketball. I really enjoyed it and still do. I never went up to Aodh Ruadh until I was 18 or 19. I came back from London for a summer and went up, just for something to do.”
Not long after making the big move from Ballyshannon to Dublin, Duggan was put on a plane by The Irish Times to the other side of the world.
The 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney provided one of Irish sport’s legendary moments as Sonia O’Sullivan, after an epic battle with Gabriela Szabo, won silver in the women’s 5,000m.
He says: “Given that I hadn’t covered all that much sport to landing in Sydney was a bit mad, really. I’ve been to all of the Olympics since.
“Those big tournaments are dog-hard work. They’re exhausting but they’re exhilarating, too. You can’t sleep and you’re wired. They’re just a mix of high-stress, comedy and all of the rest. Getting to a game hours before it starts and getting back to wherever you’re staying hours after it ends and what have you to show for it?”
In the last 20 years, World Cups, European Champions and Olympic Games have been just a part of the regular beat.
“The rugby World Cup last year In Tokyo was pretty remarkable on so many level, but the South Africa World Cup (football) jumps out,” he says.
“It was so different. It felt like a very alien place for a World Cup. You could see what the country was trying to do with the tournament. Where we stayed in Johannesburg, everything was so strange, but so interesting.
“Sometimes, it’s more the stories you come across or the people you meet that grab you rather than the events or the places.”
DUGGAN became friendly with Jim McGuinness during their days playing basketball; Duggan with Ballyshannon and McGuinness with Glenties.
They had plenty of battles on the court, but shooting the hoops had created a bond upon which McGuinness would lean when it came to writing his memoirs after stepping down as the Donegal manager in 2014.
Duggan isn’t generally a fan of sports biographies – ‘there are too many of them out there,’ he says – but McGuinness was different.
“I knew that he had an amazing story to tell,” Duggan says.
“I had a sense that it was also tied up in his personal life story.
“Whether he wanted to go in to that was down to him. Because I was from Donegal, I was curious to know what the story was.
“He was getting a lot of approaches as you’d imagine. He kept batting them back. When he stepped down, he figured it was something that he was interested in doing. It was up in the air for quite some time.
“We talked about it, I said yeah and that was it.”
McGuinness’ job with Celtic FC had him in Glasgow and Duggan was in Galway, where he now lives. It was hardly an ideal starting point for a book and much of their work was conducted over the phone.
Duggan says: “Normally, that would be a disadvantage, but because he’s such a good communicator – he communicates as good on the phone as he does in person – we lost very little.”
An absorbing tale, ‘Until Victory Always’ deals with McGuinness’ own story alongside his four years as the Donegal manager.
Duggan explains: “Early on, I came up with the idea, for the purpose of clarity, of dividing the story into the four years that he was managing Donegal. It was just clean and it was like the Olympic four-year cycle.
“We just started going through it chronologically. We’d have an evening talking about 2011 and then an evening talking about growing up in Glenties. As it went on, it just seemed like sense to present the story that way, with the Donegal GAA story running parallel to his own story, rather than bouncing back and forth.”
Duggan has written four books. McGuinness’ autobiography followed The Lifelong Season, House of Pain and Cliffs of Insanity.
“I’m not a particularly organised person at all but you take on something like that, you just have to decide to dive in and make time,” he says.
“With Jim’s book, it was usually early morning or evening time. There was a lot of time spent in the evenings.
“I enjoyed doing it and telling the story and listening to Jim’s story.
“Being from Donegal, it was telling the story of four years that were extraordinarily special in the county. The more time passes, the more amazing what happened actually seems. To have a hand in telling that story was special.”
WHEREVER he goes and whatever his topic, his writings on Gaelic Games define the pages of the newspaper.
Duggan is an authoritative writer on his subjects, but the GAA demands the bulk of his words.
His prose tell the tales of the summed. And yet, he isn’t and wasn’t immersed in the orbit of the game.
Perhaps, though, it is these lenses that give him such a clear picture.
“One of the things that journalism taught me was how valuable the GAA is to its local community,” he says.
“I liked it and watched it, but didn’t think too much about it.
“I kind of saw it as an establishment when I was growing up and I stood off that a bit. You see how valuable it is and what it gives to people and small towns in particular in terms of an energy and connections. The games are great, but it’s not really about the games either.”
The words sometimes write easier when he’s watching Donegal, but covering his native county and their various travails doesn’t cause him to pause to think with any greater depth.
“Just going along as a supporter isn’t always enjoyable either,” he points out.
“You can divorce whatever bias or emotion you have when you sit down to write. The last time I covered Donegal properly was the game against Mayo in Castlebar last summer.
“That was such a mental occasion. I found that I was able to take a step back and appreciate what was happening. I had a weird feeling that they were going to be ambushed that night – and they were.”
THE intro for his match report from that Super 8 game in MacHale Park last summer is a snapshot of a rare ability to describe a game, a stage and a meaning all at once: ‘Not even the summer rain could prevent the Mayo faithful from turning molten as the wild bunch whipped up another 70 plus minutes of beautiful and at times nonsensical chaos.’
A few hundred words followed, but it was a line that perfectly summed up the night.
He thinks now to his days using John Bromley’s battered old typewriter as he discusses the instant world we now live in.
The match report from May-Donegal was online for the world to read within half-an-hour of the final whistle in Castlebar, but he certainly doesn’t subscribe to a suggestion that journalism’s quality or worth have been removed.
“It’s a common argument that the quality of journalism has dipped and it’s thrown at journalism a lot,” he says.
“I think the last few months have done a lot to restore faith and trust. No doubt the demands are more extreme now. The hours have changed greatly. It’s a constant thing now rather than daily or weekly as used to be the case.
“I think the value of a match report on a Monday, certainly for a game that takes place on a Saturday, is debatable. The online match report for games being available in half-an-hour or less of the final whistle is a marvel and often the quality is extremely good across the board. That’s a skill that has become more prevalent.
“ One of the great things about online is that space is limitless. If you have the time, you can invest the space. Sometimes there is an argument that pieces don’t merit the length but when they do you just get a depth that you don’t find in old print journalism.”
His hope for his pieces are to be ‘engaging and enjoyable’ and, interestingly, he doesn’t go to interviews with pre-rehearsed questions for a subject. Rather, he waits for the story to evolve.
“You’re hoping for a connection and you want to get their story,” he says.
As well as he writes, he reads often and dissects all sorts of books, features and columns.
The demands might have increased, but the job of story telling still gives him a thrill
“I still think there is a lot of joy to be had in the job,” he says.
“It’s not all that repetitive. You meet with different people. You’re watching the same thing over and over again: Two teams meet; one wins and one loses. There are a million different stories within that meeting.
“The games are great, but it’s not really about the games either.”Tags: