01 Jul 2022

A day in the life - Miriam Donohoe

A day in the life - Miriam Donohoe

Miriam Donohoe

I worked side by side with my sister in law Miriam Donohoe for years . So I was really surprised (when she gave a talk recently) that I didn’t know the half about her incredible life. I only knew the surface details –  her hugely successful journalism career with the Irish Times, her stint in Asia covering the War Against Terror after the September 11th attacks in New York and her dedicated charity work.

There’s a lot more to this great lady and her story is fascinating, that’s why I wanted to share it with you. Miriam was born in Goresbridge 55 years ago, the second eldest of ten children. Her late father,  Ned Donohoe, died suddenly at the all too young age of 45 after suffering a mayor heart attack when his wife Kitty was eight months pregnant with her tenth child. Kitty took over running the family business, Goresbridge Horse Sales and Miriam at the age of 14 helped her mother raise the young family. 

At 17 she went to the college of Commerce in Rathmines to study journalism. Miriam was a Journalist for 27 years working for all the main Irish daily newspapers at different stages. Her last ten years as a journalist were with The Irish Times where she held the roles of Political Report, Asia Correspondent, News Editor and Features Editor. After leaving journalism she set up a PR agency MD Media in Kilkenny. She took time out and volunteered for a charity in Uganda for eight months in 2016. On her return she was appointed Communications Manager with the National Lottery and five months ago she landed her dream job as Communications Manager with Irish humanitarian aid agency, GOAL.

Miriam is mother to Stephen (29) and Catherine (27) and is proud grandmother to 6 month old Penny. Here is a glimpse into the life of Miriam…

Miriam you were recently in Ethiopia for GOAL visiting refugee camps. Describe your day in abroad in Ethiopia– 

Morning – On the recent trip to refugee camps where GOAL works we were focused on developing videos to showcase our work and help with fund raising. GOAL Ambassador Dr. Ciara Kelly was with us. Mornings were spent talking to refugees who had come to Ethiopia from South Sudan and hearing their stories. It was often harrowing to hear what they endured to reach safety. While we were filming I was also gathering stories for the GOAL website and social media platforms.

Lunch –   Typically we work through until around 2pm and then go back to the GOAL compound near the refugee camp for lunch and a break.

Dinner – This was the time of the day when we wound down, relax and reflect on all we had seen and heard. Early to bed by 10pm.

You have worked for two charity organisations. What’s the draw to that field of work?

I think my time covering the War Against Terrorism and seeing international aid agencies in action helping the innocent victims of conflict for me drawn initially to this type of work. When I volunteered for Hospice Africa Uganda in 2016, I will never forget the founder Dr Anne Merriman telling me how dying patients were sometimes put in a shed at night so the families would nothave to hear them scream in pain and could get sleep so they would have the energy to mind them during the day. That really moved me and made me determined to use my skills in communications to help those in need.

Working in the National Lottery must have been worlds apart from charity work?

It was indeed. Dealing with millionaires every week!  Except 30 cent in every euro spent on National Lottery games goes back to good causes all over Ireland so a lot of my work there was highlighting this. 

What’s the work of GOAL?

GOAL is a humanitarian aid agency working to improve lives for people affected by war, conflict or natural disasters all over the world. The four pillars of our work are emergency response, nutrition, health and livelihoods. Last year we reached over 5 million people.

How many countries are involved in GOAL?

Thirteen countries - we are in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.

Who is your idol in the media world?

Olivia O'Leary. I decided I wanted to be a journalist after she gave a talk to my class in secondary school. 

What makes a good journalist?

Someone who is inquisitive with a nose for news and a story. 

Your mother didn’t always want you to study journalism?

No she planned for me to be a nurse. I was offered a place nursing  in St. Vincent’s Hospital the same week I was offered a place on the journalism course in Rathmines. My mother told me to accept the nursing. It was the one and only time in my 55 years I defied her and said no! In fairness she has been a wonderful support always.

How did you end up moving to Beijing, a city of 160,000 people with two small kids?

The job was advertised in the Irish Times newsroom and as a joke and to tease him - I told my husband John (we have sadly been separated for several years) that I was going to apply. He thought it was a great idea! So apply I did - and got it!

Your driver Mr. Lou never accepted you as the boss.

No! Mr Lou couldn't get his head around the fact the woman was the Correspondent and the boss! He always deferred to John!

Did the Chinese government watch you like a hawk?

Yes there was one person in the Foreign Ministry who was assigned to keep an eye on me. We ended up getting on well but if I ever wrote anything that didn't reflect well on the Chinese Government she would call me for "the chat"!

What was the one question you were told not to ask the Chinese Prime Minister and you still asked it?!

I was granted an exclusive one-to-one interview with the Chinese Premier. This was a big deal as the Chinese leaders never do interviews with foreign media. I was warned in advance not to ask about China’s poor human rights record  - which of course I did! I left it to the last question - and survived. 

There was a one child policy in China and you came from a family of ten, that must have surprised them?

Yes, the people I met were amazed to hear I was one of ten children. When I was living in China there was a strict one child rule as part of an effort to stem the population figures. At weekends walking around Beijing you would see these families of three everywhere - coming from Ireland it took a lot of getting used to.

When September 11 happened you were in China. What was your next move?

Three days later I was on a flight to Islamabad the capital of Pakistan. I was the nearest correspondent the Irish Times had in the region. It was apparent immediately after September 11th that Osama Bin Laden, based in Afghanistan, was responsible so the worlds media descended on the region. It was not possible to get into Afghanistan which was then controlled by the Taliban, so we waited on the border in Pakistan. We reported on the refugees fleeing war coming out of Afghanistan to hospitals and refugee camps. 

The day after the American forces overcame the Taliban I was part of a group of around 50 international journalists who poured over the border into Afghanistan. I remember we stayed overnight in a town called Jalalabad. The local, very run down hotel was full with media so my bed was the floor on a stable out the back! I was told the following day that the stable had been occupied by a local Taliban commander up to two days earlier!  

Four journalists who were part of that group were killed. You must have been terrified. What happened?

The morning after we arrived in Jalabad half of the group decided to travel on to the Afghan capital Kabul. The rest of us decided to stay another night to talk to local people. An hour after we waved  off the group they returned with the shocking news that the convoy had been attacked by bandits and four colleagues shot dead. We were all very distressed and I was so thankful I wasn't in that group. Because there was no rule of law it took us journalists to work with the Red Cross to get the bodies back from the roadside to Jalalabad. They were taken to a filthy morgue in the local, run down hospital and I remember going with my colleagues and leading a decade of the rosary for them.

You told John you would be back to Beijing in a week but it was three months later.

Yes he was in Beijing with our two children Stephen and Catherine who were then aged around 10 and 12. Looking back I realise how understanding and patient he was.

How do you possibly cover a war?

That’s a good question! In my case I teamed up with other more experienced war correspondents and shared resources and costs and learned. The main thing is to remember you are there to report accurately, without prejudice, about what you see on the ground. It is not often possible to get very close to the centre of the action for obvious reasons, but it is important to report on the fallout of war and the humanitarian tragedies that result.

I’ve often heard you joke that you going to the ‘dark side’ when you moved from journalism to PR. Why?

Traditionally journalists look down on PR people as they are usually trying to "sell" them a story or idea. I was guilty of that when I was a journalist. But now that I have worked in the PR industry I have huge respect for most (not all!) PR practitioners  

Why did you set up a PR business in Kilkenny ?

It happened by accident. When I left the Irish Times I did a cooking course and planned on being a caterer - I met one of the Savour Kilkenny Food Festival organisers at a function and she asked me would I help with PR. I gave it a go and it went well and realised there was a gap for another PR business in Kilkenny and the South East - from there other clients emerged and before I knew it I was working with Siobhan Donohoe (my good self!) in a small office in Patrick Street!

What’s on your bucket list?

To trek in South America! It's one continent I haven't been on.

Is there anything in life that frightens you?

The idea of retirement and not having a focus to every day.

Who is the person who is most influential in your life?

My mother, Kitty, still going strong at 84 years of age and bossing us all around! From her I learned how to work hard, the importance of resilience and to be good to one another. 

Miriam is travelling to Honduras in early October to learn more about GOAL's important work there, in helping communities build resilience to natural disasters and changing practices to help halt climate change. GOAL is doing innovative work in this area in Latin America and has developed tool kits to help communities be resilience. Whilst there she will be gathering stories and case studies showing how GOAL's work is helping make important change to improve people's lives.

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