Tony Macaulay | Interview
Author & Peace Builder
Conor O’Neill • Photography: Conor Kerr
Tony Macaulay has rubbed shoulders with Royalty, met the hardest-of the-hard Belfast has to offer, stood in for Candy Devine at Downtown Radio on more than one occasion, contributed to NVTV, BBC Radio stations Two and Four, Downtown Radio and Radio Ulster as well as writing for the Belfast Telegraph. His first three books, Paperboy, Breadboy and All Growed Up have been translated into braille by prisoners in the Braille Unit of Maghaberry.
Given his busy schedule, it’s not surprising CultureHUB caught up with him as he waited to board a flight to the U.S. where he’s speaking at the Maryland Irish Festival. Tony talks about his recent book Little House on the Peace Line, Northern Ireland’s current political and social status, plans for the future and of course, his writing.
Kicking off with the latter, I ask him about his habits with the pen? Tony replies: “I’ve had a pattern over the last five or six years. I try to write once a week, it varies depending on when I can do it. I like to write when I’m out and about, when I’m home in Portstewart I do a wee coffee shop tour going up the prom and I’ll write and go for a walk, then go to another coffee shop and write. I find walking is really good as I’m thinking things through. I travel quite a lot too, especially with the last couple of books, so I have written a lot at 30,000 feet on eight-hour plane journeys.”
I hone in on Little House on the Peace Line’s melancholic beginning and ask if his time at the 174 Trust kicked the optimism out of him or was it simply maturing as a human? “I think it was a mixture of both. I was idealistic and zealous about what I was going to do and wanted to change … I’m still committed to social change and peace building. What has changed is that difficult situations have made me more of a realist. I would call myself a ‘grounded optimist’. I’m still a ‘the glass is half full’ type of person.”
Spoiler alert, look away now if you have yet to read the book! Chapter five ‘No Father of Mine’ details Macaulay’s father’s suicide, I ask if this event was one of the reasons his time with the 174 Trust was cut short? “I hadn’t really thought about that. That has been a defining moment in my life. I had to choose, ‘Was I going to survive this? Was I going to be a victim for the rest of my life?’ It’s something I live with every day. I did make a conscious decision that this wasn’t going to ruin my life. At the time I didn’t think it had any influence on how long I stayed at the Salt Shaker, I was so focused on my work with the young people it didn’t even cross my mind. It’s only looking back now I realise I was getting close to burnout. Unconsciously the stress, the process of bereavement added to the burnout; my health wasn’t great and that was maybe part of it.”
Macaulay graduated with honours with a Media Studies degree, did that impact his work? “One of the things I remember studying was communication theory, what’s important in any meeting is to know your audience. I’ve always applied that in all my work. Anytime I’ve applied for funding I’d be thinking ‘who’s my audience?’ It may be four people on a committee, but trying to understand how they might see an organisation like the 174 Trust and how I might word things, so I did apply that a wee bit.”
The epilogue tells of how Macaulay has kept in touch with some of the members of the club from way back in the 80s. I wonder how he thinks of their children’s future? “The members’ children are children of the peace. Their parents were children of The Troubles. The members’ children have no concept of that awful experience of people dying every day, the security, army on the streets … unfortunately I think the children of today still experience division, of still being segregated, that does introduce insecurity and it’s not safe to be in certain parts of town at certain times. “I would love to us get to the stage when the peace walls come down and it’s the norm for someone to go to an integrated school and more integrated housing; the way it was before The Troubles. I think Northern Ireland is a great place to live and it could be a great place for children growing up.”
Given Macaulay’s Evangelical leanings and close relations with ‘the other side’, at times it’s palpable his work and his views are not widely accepted by more traditional Protestants, I ask him how his peers have received the book? “It’s difficult because I have readers of my books from all different backgrounds. People who came from the same background as me really enjoyed the book but I was nervous of this one because it’s a bit darker; there’s more bad language. People who read about me as a wee good living boy would come with me on the journey and maybe they were uncomfortable … It’s more challenging to read but they’re interested in that, the steps that I took, what happened to my father. To be honest I don’t know, but no one has had a go at me. I think I’ve changed over the years but I’m still very proud of where I come from.”
And the future? “I worked in the voluntary sector for about 20 years, then I opened a consultancy business working mostly with charities around strategies, research and peace building; but in the last five years I’ve been doing interim C.E.O work with charities that are in transition or crisis … One day last year I was working with the young unemployed in West Belfast in the morning, got on a plane and later was working with a senior executive of a bank in the City of London. And, of course, I’m working on the next book.”