The Eavesdropper - Social Innovation Before its Time

That day in 1985 was one of those lazy Sundays that most Irish towns and villages enjoyed back in those days. In a time when nothing happened on Sunday, when shops closed, people walked around town, visiting the graveyard, and strolling around the Bowers. When people caught Rosary and Benediction at 6pm in the church, the smell of incense off them as they headed home for Where In The World, Glenroe, and then another week of just existing. Those were the Sundays that shaped us.

That summer we were a group of local teenagers occupying the porch area of the old library — the door to the right of the archway to the current library on Main Street. To this day, I have no idea how we got the key to the place, but we did. The stairs up to the old library was in bad shape and was out of bounds, but we had the ground floor and responsibility for ensuring nobody fell through the floor or got hurt. It was ideal for our lofty ambitions — a Main Street location to make a tourist information office, a youth club headquarters; a place for idealistic young people with their heads full of Live Aid ideas in that Live Aid summer.

From that office that heady summer, we became a sort of interpretative centre for nothing — offering advice on everything and anything. Unauthorised, unfunded, unresourced, we got our own furniture and stationery and we blasted out tourist information, advice, and news on local activities. We even installed speakers so that the entire Live Aid concert would blast out from Wembley to Ballinrobe.

By the time Live Aid came around that July, our office on Main Street was already the headquarters of something else — The Eavesdropper. Three weeks before Live Aid we met on a quiet Sunday afternoon and outlined our plans to bring out a community magazine for Ballinrobe. Up until then, there had just been The Bridge, but that came out just once every decade with all the help of historians and journalists. We, who had nothing, were planning to come out every few weeks.

That afternoon was also memorable for other tragic reasons — it was that day that Air India Flight 182 exploded and crashed into the sea off the southwest tip of Ireland, after a bomb had been planted aboard by Canadian Sikh terrorists. 329 people died that afternoon in one of the worst terrorist atrocities. So even on that quiet Sunday, as the news came through of this atrocity just 200 miles away, the quietness of the streets was not broken.

At the time, in those days before local radio, the only local news was available on the district notes section of the local papers, and as most of the notes were compiled by the one person, what you saw in one paper, you saw in the rest. So we saw an opportunity to bring out a publication that would look at the micronews of Ballinrobe. To feature material that would not make the local papers, to voice opinions that would not be aired anywhere else. At that time, Ireland had only two radio stations but there was something else we relied upon— that famous voracious Mayo appetite for news and newspapers. The love that people have to see their name, and their story, in print.

With me that afternoon were Elizabeth McConnell, Liam Horan, Richard Molloy and later Maeve Moran and Denise Tiernan, and later again Keith Walsh. What started that day was to affect our lives for the next four or five years, tying us into fortnightly deadlines, shaping us in some regard, teaching us skills that college could not.  News gathering, diplomacy, financial management, sales, and more importantly, knowing our audience, a skill that is helpful in every field throughout life.

In the beginning, we used every contact we had to ensure that we could get the magazine printed. Our initial base was in the unused section of the Varley house at High Street — a space which had in the previous decades been used as the Town Library and the Teagasc (ACOT) office. In there, we typed and glued pages together and when we had eight or sixteen pages completed, we had an Eavesdropper.

With just an old manual typewriter and a Pritt stick, we set about writing and then laying out the first issues. It would not be much — eight pages of local news and notes; bits of history, bits of gossip.

Fr Shannon and Fr O’Malley had not been long in town and they encouraged us, by allowing us to sell it in the church grounds after each Mass. Here, we caught people unawares as they came out, but after a few weeks, a queue was forming and people had the 20p at the ready to hand over.

Every week we sold out, only ever managing to hold a copy or two back for the album that I hoped one day would look back at them — and now I am thrilled that our work has a permanent accessible home on the Historical Ballinrobe website. What is less endearing for us though is the thought that the years have advanced to the stage where our work becomes history — but in essence, journalism is like that. It is history written on the hoof, capturing a picture of a town at a time, and hoping to freeze it forever.

When I spoke to Liz McConnell about it this week, she accurately described that what we did would nowadays be termed social innovation. We had little resources, in fact none, but we were determined that this would work and that everyone in the town would want to read it every week it came out. Over five years, we never had a penny out of it ourselves, the only extravagance being dozens of mince pies which we gave out free with Christmas issues when we’d dress up in festive gear in order to ensure that every Christmas bumper issue found a home in the town.

The money that was accumulated saw us sponsor a child in Africa (Margaret Muhonja); saw us support the activities of the youth club trips to the cinema in Castlebar, and enabled us to fund the purchase of equipment to keep the publication alive.

Initially, Nellie Keady of Western Pride Bakeries allowed us to use her photocopier in the tight office at the side of the bakery. Here on the Friday before publication, we would print off thousands of A4 sheets, ready for folding and stapling into the first editions of The Eavesdropper. Then, we arranged teams to sell it outside church after Mass at the weekends — on cold winter Saturday nights, on freezing Sunday mornings, for five years, this team wrote, produced, printed, and sold The Eavesdropper.

Eventually the project outgrew the office at Western Pride as that poor copier was spitting smoke at the end of a long print run of Eavesdroppers. So we bought our own one. We met with Mary McGrath from Claremorris, the Rank Xerox rep; and with the goodwill of Bank of Ireland manager Norman Molloy, we took out a bank loan to buy our own photocopier and our own electric typewriter.

These were both based at our house in High Street, and weekly, the crew would meet to get the paper out. Here, we had a whole house to ourselves, and dressed in our stone-washed jeans and desert boots and dripping in Eighties notions, we sat and ate Jaffa cakes and drank coffee made from our own percolator left over by some German fisherman, and fought over what would be in the next edition of the magazine.

It was a fun time — listening to edgy artists like Mary Coughlan, Gordon Lightfoot, and Sinead O’Connor, and by the end of our first summer, we had quite a following.

We even tendered for larger community projects — getting the job of producing the annual Ballinrobe Show catalogue — a task that saw us working through the nights to get it finished.

At this stage, we were all going to college in Galway and Dublin, so the only opportunities we had to write and type the Eavesdropper were in stolen hours on Friday nights or in rushed Sunday afternoon meetings before we took to the bus to get back to college for Monday morning lectures.

Remember, this was in the day before email — so stories had to be written longhand, and then typed flawlessly onto sheets of paper of certain column widths to fit into the Eavesdropper.

Eventually, the Eavesdropper became more confident and we wrote with the free abandon of idealist youngsters on aspects of our town that were not carried elsewhere. When Noel Browne wrote of his sad childhood in Ballinrobe in the 1930s in Against The Tide, we were advised not to mention it, (and even our permission to sell in the church was under threat) but we went ahead and published excerpts, probably without any effort not to contravene copyright laws) Some months later, Dr Browne contacted me to let me know that he appreciated our efforts to get his story across to every house in Ballinrobe, in a manner in which his book would not.

The Eavesdropper in its original format ended after about five years and was later restarted, but it differed from the original. By that stage, local radio had started and hearing news from your community became commonplace. And so the Eavesdropper became less special.

I have no doubt that Eavesdropper gave me and the team who worked on it, the grounding and the confidence that we have since used to go on to form solid careers in media, in academia, in education and in science. In the knowledge that what we did, came with even the mildest encouragement from adults, I would strongly encourage the next generation of Ballinrobe teenagers to grasp the nettle, to use the available technology they now have to paint a modern picture of the town from which we all came, to create something that will impact, that will make a difference.

he editorial team of The Eavesdropper would like to thank Averil Staunton and the crew behind Historical Ballinrobe for ensuring that the legacy of The Eavesdroppers moves from my attic to the digital archives where they will live forever.

To the people of Ballinrobe, who encouraged us, we also express our gratitude for supporting us by buying The Eavesdropper and more importantly, for encouraging us to go on and write and say and do what we believe in.  Enjoy……

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