So there I was sitting in a car at the side of road.
The thing was, the car had broken down.
As the traffic swirled around and local school children looked curiously at a car with Belfast number plates perched on a Sligo pavement, what was there to do but wait for help? Thankfully, on this occasion, I was not alone.
Meet Paul MacAree.
Paul was the driver and I was his co-pilot. Now we were both immobile.
As we waited for the recovery truck, Paul did the only thing possible in such circumstances and firing up a computer screen, he began:
‘So let’s plan for the summer shoot…’
Welcome to EWTN Ireland.
Our adventure had started days earlier in Belfast. From the EWTN studios there, we had headed north-by-northwest to a startup Catholic university outside Derry. It was there that Paul and I had given lectures on the future of Catholic broadcasting. We were also attempting to enthuse those young minds present into thinking of a career in media. Both Paul and I were agreed that we were not getting any younger, and EWTN needs a future.
So having left some food for thought with those young minds, we headed south to do an interview about how EWTN had come to Ireland. It was a long drive. With a good wind behind us we were to make Limerick city sometime after 8:00 p.m.
We were already behind schedule when the car broke down and we found ourselves stranded waiting for a recovery truck in Sligo, a town on Ireland’s west coast — still a good three hours or more from our intended destination.
‘So, we could have the Music Show that week followed by the Arts Show…’
I was admiring my companion’s sangfroid when there was a bang! And with it the recovery men had arrived. Slapping the bonnet down, they indicated we needed to get out — quickly. And so, as we watched the car being towed away into the distance, the sun started also to go down.
‘Do you think the Catholic Lives’ show should be filmed first…?’
Paul continued apace, seemingly without a care in the world, as we walked off into the centre of Sligo looking for something to eat.
The thing was, we couldn’t go very far as we had to be on hand for the call for collection of the repaired car. The garage wasn’t open beyond 6:00 p.m. and, worryingly, it was already after 5:00 p.m.
‘I wonder who the patron saint of mechanics is,’ I said.
‘Who do you think should host the politics angle?’
The thing to know about Paul MacAree is that he is a force of nature. His route to EWTN is a story in itself, one involving a shortwave radio signal in northern Nigeria. One night, the Irishman who picked up that signal and started to listen felt something stir within him. It would not be too much to say that his life was changed that night forever. On his return to Ireland, his former life as a successful musician and record producer was transformed into that of a television and radio producer. One thing didn’t change though: Paul MacAree remained and remains a one-man whirlwind. In days gone by, at Irish seaside resorts children bought what were known as a ‘stick of rock’: a large hard candy often with the resort’s name ingrained in it. Well, today, if you were to ‘cut’ Paul open you would find the letters EWTN running through every fibre of his being. There is no ‘off switch’; his is a 24/7 commitment. EWTN is not a job; it is a vocation. In his own words, he is on a mission. It shows.
I thought about our joint mission that evening as we sat in one of the few cafes still open at that time in Sligo. I decided that this was a funny place for both the mission and its missionaries to have ended up — although by then neither of us were laughing when we saw how little food the cafe had left. What it did have was offered, however, and we ordered. There were chips (french fries). Lots of them. In fact, our plates arrived with an industrial quantity of these, if with little else. In any event, however, food was not to the forefront of our minds: we were watching the clock. As we did so, I was visualising the dread possibility: car-less and no longer mobile, trapped in Sligo for hours, maybe days. It was now 5:30 p.m.
‘…So the shoot starts this June and runs through to August, and we film 20 television series…’
It was now 5:45.
On his computer tablet, still wholly unperturbed, Paul was moving items around the production schedule.
It was 5:55.
‘Well, okay, what if we did the Great Catholic Lives series first…?’
Before I could attempt an answer, the phone kicked into life, and a voice came down the other end: ‘It’s ready’.
Minutes later we were at the garage. And after the obligatory telling of where we had gone wrong in our car maintenance and how to avoid any future recurrence of this, followed by the passing of the requisite silver across the palm, we were done.
The car roared into life and we headed out of Sligo quicker, far quicker, then we had ever arrived. And so, we made for Limerick — now three hours late.
I’m not sure what the speed limit is on the roads in the west of Ireland. I don’t think Paul knows either. It was probably best we didn’t know — we had a radio interview to do.
As Sligo faded so did the light around us. The night enveloped us; the road ahead became a blur of never ending tarmac with hedgerows to either side.
What happened next, to tell the truth, I have no idea as I fell fast asleep. Needless to say, Paul was driving.
When I awoke we were on a suburban street. The car was moving slowly, very slowly. Paul was trying to make out the names on the gates of the not insubstantial properties that lined the street. It was dark. The road had little lighting and even less signage. Undaunted, my co-pilot soon let out an exultant roar: ‘Here it is!’
It was almost midnight.
Now any right-minded and responsible journalists would have long since given up the ghost and politely told their interviewees that the proposed interview would have to be postponed, citing tiredness and the late hour. Not us. Not EWTN Ireland. As the clock struck midnight, Paul and I were to be found standing in front of a door holding a bag full of microphones and a recorder. Nevertheless, the door opened.
Our hosts, Dermot and Sylvia O'Reilly, were as charming and hospitable as only the Irish can be, especially when you turn up four hours late in the dead of night.
Quickly, tea was made and civilities were exchanged and all before any tape started rolling. It was going to be a long night.
That night there can have been few Irish homes around midnight hosting radio interviews on the subject of the start of EWTN in Ireland, but I can assure you there was one.
Eventually, when we had concluded, we packed up the equipment while politely refusing all further offers of yet more food and drink and even a bed for the night. We were still on a mission. It was 2:00 a.m. when we drove across one of the bridges in Limerick city. In the quiet of the night, the city was at peace and, with its lights dancing upon the River Shannon, it looked as charming as the welcome we had just received.
‘I wished we could have spent some time looking around the city,’ I said.
‘Next time, ‘ Paul replied, as we sped off to the south, ‘ I think we can make Cork by dawn…’’
And, with that, we were once more on the road, on our mission, one that doesn’t sleep…