By Conor Sharkey
I was in my flat on Lower Main Street in Strabane when the knock came to the door.
I’ll never forget it.
It was November 30 2013, it was 9.30am on a Saturday morning. I was slightly hungover, having been out the night before celebrating the start of what was supposed to be a week’s holidays.
I had a cup of tea in my hand that I nearly fired across the room when the visitor shouted, “Come on Sharkey, get up.”
Cautiously I opened the door to see what all the noise was about. My fear was that it was someone looking to angrily confront me over a story we’d carried in that week’s Strabane Chronicle. It was the kind of thing that happened from time to time.
“Get yourself dressed, there’s a millionaire looking to speak to you,” was the taxi man’s order as I stood there disorientated, my hair standing on my head.
“What are you…what,” I asked, a clueless look on my 37-year-old face.
“Just go and get ready, I’ll explain in the car.”
Little did I know that the meeting I was being summoned to would change my life.
The jungle drums had already told us in the Chronicle office that a local woman had scooped a large amount of money on the lottery.
In fact my colleague Michael and I had called to her door to ask the question. I explained to the person who answered what we had heard. The reply we received was that no one of that name lived at the address and that we were barking up the wrong tree. We left empty handed, wondering how we had got it so wrong. Later when I met the man again he explained with a smile that technically he had told us the truth – we had asked for her using her married name and not the maiden name she went by.
The taxi driver revealed how Margaret Loughrey was a fan of my Pick of the Week, a light-hearted column I used to write documenting my everyday life. It made me seem like a ‘sound fella’ apparently.
So she sent for me. She rang a taxi, handed the driver a tenner and told him to go and find me. Being a proud Strabane woman she wanted someone local to have the exclusive interview on how she had just won almost £27 million on the Euromillions.
Over five or six hours Margaret and I sat in her cosy Carlton Drive bungalow and chatted. I peppered her with questions – Why those particular numbers? What did you do when you realised you had won? And the most obvious of them all – What are you going to do with it?
Reading back now at the press release we both eventually agreed upon, two things jump out at me – my naivety as a reporter and Margaret’s endearing honesty and innocence.
“If whatever is out there has given me this amount of money, then it couldn’t be for anything but good. All it will do is change lives for the better and make a lot of people happy, not just me,” she told me with complete sincerity as we sat opposite each other in the warmth of her living room.
Roughly 600 words long, that article sparked a media frenzy like I had never experienced nor have since. Within minutes of me having pressed the ‘send’ button my phone was ringing red hot, everyone looking to speak to the woman herself.
For a brief moment I was able to hold off the press tsunami by going in front of the cameras myself, doing countless radio interviews and talking to print journalists as ‘Ms Loughrey’s spokesperson’.
So much for that quiet week off I had been celebrating the start of.
But I wasn’t the story they wanted and eventually Margaret bowed to the avalanche of requests and agreed to give Keiron Tourish of the BBC her first, and if my memory serves me correctly, only television interview.
Most of you know the rest of the story or at least some version of it. Tragically her prediction that “all it will do is change lives for the better” was far from what came to pass.
Revisiting the coverage for this piece, I came upon a separate interview Michael Devlin did with local man Jim Hume, himself a former lottery winner.
Asked what advice he would give, Jim prophetically said, “She’ll have to be very careful because there are plenty out there who would try and advise her the wrong way to help themselves.”
This week marks a decade since Margaret’s numbers came up and while I never saw any of the £27 million – why would I have? – what she gave me was, in the long-term, much more valuable.
That interview put me on the radar of every big-league journalist in Ireland, it got me column inches in all major news outlets in the UK and it got me exposure in Canada, the USA and Australia. It propelled my reputation far beyond what most small-town journalists will ever enjoy and it brought in job offers that otherwise would never have come my way.
Margaret and I didn’t keep in touch far beyond that crazy week in late November 2013. Life pulled us in different directions as it tends to do. But I’ll always be grateful that our worlds collided at all, that she chose to give me her exclusive.
Thanks Margaret, from the local reporter whose life you changed.
• – Margaret Loughrey passed away in 2021, eight years after winning £27million in the Euromillions.
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