‘Champion Mike’…in his own words

The late, great MIKE BURNS on his memories of working with the Roscommon Champion in the 1950s

The following article was written in 2003 by leading journalist Mike Burns, who died at the weekend. At the request of the then Editor of the Roscommon Champion, Paul Healy, Mike kindly reflected on his time working in journalism in Roscommon. The article was first published in the Roscommon Champion’s acclaimed 75th anniversary publication 


Looking back is generally a wasteful exercise. Time spent on reminiscing can usually be more productively employed addressing present and future problems. But when the current editor of the Roscommon Champion asks me to take a trip down memory lane, it’s amazing what the long-term memory can produce.

  Take the newspaper’s Golden Jubilee special edition (1977). Back then, I was recalling my early days in the 1950s in Castle Street; the cycle rides from Ballintubber to and from Roscommon when the train from the now-closed Ballymoe station was a relatively costly alternative on rainy days; the first encounters with the newspaper’s founding father James Quigley, and his sons, the always-entertaining James Junior, universally known as ‘Sainty’, and the remarkably fast – and always so accurate – lino-type wizard, Walter; the back-office works and its battered, flat-bed printer which, by some weekly miracle with which I never became really familiar, produced the Thursday-Friday ‘bible’ for the majority of people in Roscommon and environs.

  Tipperary man Gus Smith – later better known as a music critic for the Sunday Independent and, like his late brother Raymond, an eminent author – was then doing the rounds of courts, council meetings, church and school openings, with weekend sports thrown in for good measure.

  Dominick Noone, who spent his days administering the tricky (mainly overdue!) office accounts and his nights playing in one of Roscommon’s many dance bands, arranged for me to buy my first tenor saxophone for the then princely sum of 28 old pounds.

  And the ‘rivals’: Aidan Hennigan and Micheál O’Callaghan of the Roscommon Herald and Paddy Leamy of the Connacht Tribune (Paddy boasted the first Crombie coat to be seen in Roscommon).

  ‘Rivals’ is a perhaps too strong a word: there was an unwritten but productive ‘understanding’, which saw a sharing of non-exclusive material, but without the acquiescence of our editors. This resulted in no-one being ‘stuck’ for a story (the late Tom Rennick, then with the Longford Leader, told me he spent many productive afternoons in Castle Street reading the Champion’s story proofs with ‘Sainty’ frequently drawing his attention to items he may have missed!).

  None of the cut-and-thrust of my later days in London’s Fleet Street and international broadcasting, but nonetheless a very pleasant memory – in spite of the difficult times that were in it.

  Roscommon was then a very simple market town, a very different place to the thriving Roscommon of today. The depression years of the 1950s had hit hard, with commerce in particular suffering the effects of the almost daily haemorrhage of young people to Britain, the United States, and much further afield.

  No town or village escaped that drain. Almost daily, one witnessed the departure of young men and women, sometimes with entire families waiting on railway platforms to say farewell, more often families remained at home rather than face the public grief of parting.

  In later years, many, but not all, returned – frequently for summer holidays and family weddings and funerals, sometimes more happily to put down roots in Ireland again as the Irish economy slowly revived.

  But you can still meet several of those same emigrants and their families, who never came home, in some of the most unlikely places throughout the world.

  It was a generally depressing time. But somehow, it didn’t seem like that. Rural electrification and its attendant ‘switch-on’ dances was rapidly changing the home landscape –and not just for housewives who could now experience the joys of washing machines and, for the better-off, even refrigerators. And the electric kettle could now be said to be truly always ‘on the boil’.

  Television was still a distant dream, and spare money was in short supply, but there was an active social life. Almost every village boasted its own dance hall – sometimes, as in the case of Ballintubber, two dance halls.

  Weekend dancing was a ‘must’ for those who could afford it, and if you couldn’t get to the nearest large town, there was travelling cinema, and during the seemingly interminable Lenten period, amateur drama, where many of us cut our acting teeth.

  And, of course, home entertainment – the frequent visits to ‘rambling houses’, where song and story and the odd cup of tea were part of the late evening menu.

  All that is now but a distant memory. But it is still part of the life of the county so aptly chronicled by the Champion and its many reporters over three-quarters of a century.

  The Champion story is one of remarkable success, a tribute in print to its founder and scores of others. With new owners and new technology producing the high quality newspaper of today, may it now march on to even greater successes as it heads for its centenary.