Eamonn Sheehy has explored and written about regions in conflict and marginalised populations from Belfast to Beirut since he was a young man. I wanted to talk to Eamonn to get an idea of how he got into the work and what we can do to help the world’s marginalised peoples. (The photo above shows Eamonn with Amin, a young Lebanese taxi driver who escorted him around Beirut.)
Did you start your career writing, working with NGOs etc. before pursuing third level education through the Open University?
Before starting an International Studies degree with the OU I pretty much worked my way through my twenties doing factory jobs. In my free time I ran an independent record label, releasing CDs and records while putting on DIY punk gigs or organising tours. I only got into NGO work when I was 27. I took off to Russia and did some conservation work in Siberia for a few weeks and then I helped out at Loves Bridge charity in Perm, Central Russia for another month; an organisation helping street children. That was the start of working with people and human rights/social issues. I then completed a Social Studies diploma when I returned to Ireland a few months later, specialising in Asylum/Refugee work. This led to more volunteering working with Asylum Seekers and later coordinating with Amnesty International. I still worked a day job in a non-related field at the same time be it factories or office work - and this helped and still helps fund trips I take abroad.
Yours has been a fairly unusual path to journalism/writing in comparison to a more traditional way of going about. Do you think this indicates that there are more paths other than the conventional one to pursue this kind of career?
Yes definitely. Volunteering with the street kids in Perm sparked my interest in social issues and peoples’ stories. Shortly after that I volunteered with the Simon Community and heard the difficult stories of the homeless around Cork. So between full time work, volunteering and study on the side, there has been a lot of juggling going on.
I would still say I am not a journalist in the traditional sense. I have written many articles covering International Affairs and conflict for some small news websites and I have worked freelance for documentary film (Northern Ireland). I really get more out of writing slow journalism or travel pieces; an area that doesn't seem to have much paid work in the Irish media.
I think the conventional path to journalism and writing is changing and becoming more dynamic. It is more about getting out there and engaging with people and practicing your writing than the degree paper itself at this stage. The paths people can take are endless in my mind.
Are there particular people/experiences/places you have encountered on your travels that stand out as influential on you, your life and your way of thinking?
Yes for sure. Everyone has their reasons or the situations that push them forward. On social issues and my interest in minorities and culture, working with the kids in Perm was a key moment. Two street children I was buddied up with, Sasha and Vova, really put things into perspective for me and placed my priorities in order. It really brought home the importance of watching out for others and engaging with a situation no matter how desperate or grim it seemed, in order to understand what some people - even children - have to live through.
Later here in Ireland, working with some Asylum seekers, particularly an Iraqi woman and her daughter who came from Baghdad, were also important. We traded stories and experiences and gained a lot from hearing each other’s cultural quirks and perspectives.
Places, taking into account the material I write, have a huge sphere of influence over me. Places basically mould the stories of many I have encountered. Belfast, Tangiers, Pristhina, Beirut and Perm for me have set the scene for exploring many topics that impact regular people; be it racism, conflict, reconciliation, artistic expression and culture. These are places which have showed how varied life is. These cities at the same time hold a certain edge that appeals to the story of mystery and adventure.
What do you think needs to change about news coverage surrounding deprived and developing countries/ conflict zones and do you think the internet can facilitate this or does it inhibit it?
I think it depends very much on what news coverage you are listening to. Some papers come up with the most abrasive and antagonistic stories going; usually obvious attempts to fan the flames. Speaking about the deprived and sidelined in Irish society, we have seen this occur with the recent coverage of Travellers and Asylum Seekers. One media camp will take the negative and the other media camp will argue the positive. But it is never as black and white as it is portrayed by some news agencies. However we end up with a lot of polarised opinions – people should know that the media is not always right. The understanding of how media ‘plays’ and manipulates information should really be more common knowledge.
Do you think that young people in Ireland coming up today tend to have a greater degree of international awareness and engagements with global events than those in the past because of the internet/globalised economy etc.? Do you think this has the potential to create positive change?
Globalisation has contributed a lot to the awareness of human rights and in some ways young people in Ireland are more connected and engaged with events affecting people in different countries. I think the internet has contributed to awareness here in Ireland. I have come across situations and events abroad through the internet and media; as have many of your readers I am sure. The danger is the concurrent globalisation of negative stereotypes and misinformation. Even in the globalised and internationalised society Ireland has become, we still have a lot to strive for in relation to positive change. Ireland’s prison system is overcrowded and already condemned by international agencies as breaching human rights standards.
Asylum and Direct Provision is a current shame on what is supposedly a progressive society. Racism and stereotyping of the Traveller community is rampant. It will take more than the internet to solve these issues and to tackle everyday racism. I believe teaching social studies in second level schools would do a world of good at this stage. A focused education system taking in these issues is the answer to positive change.