Galway journalist Geraldine Warren reflects on her glory days
When the world woke to the biggest news story of the decade on the last day of August 1997, one Salthill woman was already at the centre of the action in Paris as one of the first journalists on the scene of the car crash that killed Princess Diana.
Geraldine Warren, who grew up in Renmore, was all packed and ready for a three week holiday at home in Galway when she got the voice message from Sydney: “Gerry, Dodi is dead and Diana is seriously injured in Paris, can you pick up?”
But Geraldine, then the Europe Producer for ABC Australia, just couldn’t take it seriously. Surely it was a prank. The crew had been at a barbeque the night before and were discussing various scenarios and how they would cope if those scenarios were to happen.
These scenarios inevitably involved major world figures because they would be the most demanding given the coverage they would generate.
So when that exact scenario happened only a few hours later, Geraldine thought it was her crew playing a joke.
“So I went back to sleep and when the phone kept ringing, repeating the same message, I realised ‘no, this is real’. So I picked up the phone and the Head of Foreign News in Sydney said to me ‘I hate to do this to you because I know you need to go home and it’s your choice, but it’s either Galway or Paris’. Well there was no choice. I found myself in Stansted Airport at about five in the morning. I arrived in Paris in the very early hours of the morning,” Geraldine recalled.
To the crew’s surprise, they were the first on the scene. There were no other foreign news crews at the hospital and the tunnel in which the fatal car crash had taken place also seemed to be deserted. This was unusual, given the enormity of the story. Normally, the place would be “thronged with foreign broadcasters from all over the world, but we were on our own,” Geraldine said.
As the producer, Geraldine was responsible for everything on the ground. The story was flashing on the wires that the princess was still alive. Her first priority was to establish the facts. Was the story true?
“I saw a doctor coming out the side of the hospital and I ran over to him and said to him in French ‘is the princess still alive?’ and he said ‘maybe if you ask a different question I can answer’. And he looked as if he was completely shattered and in shock so I said ‘ok, is the princess dead?’ and he just nodded and walked away.”
The other complication on this story was that the senior correspondents in ABC’s London office were all on holiday, so the task of breaking this major story fell to the office intern, Giulia Sirigniani: “It was a nightmare for Giulia, who had to go live in front of the camera on her first story, but she was brilliant.”
Soon, the story began to get out and people gathered outside the hospital in complete silence as the scale of the catastrophe sank in. But as the story became bigger, it got more frantic and people were pouring onto the streets.
“I remember being in a cafe and a tourist walked up to me and I had a big satellite phone in my hand and the camera man was there with his gear and we were working. And [the tourist] just came up to me and became really angry. And he pulled the phone out of my hand and said ‘it’s you people; it’s you people’.”
Diana’s tragic death was one of the biggest and most emotional news stories in the world, but for Geraldine and her crew, it was essential to work around the clock to break the news. There was no time to get emotional about it.
“There was no time to think. We had impossible deadlines to meet. The demands never stopped. They didn’t stop for that whole week. But it’s a job and you don’t have time to get involved with any of the emotion to do with a breaking story.”
The impossible deadlines and constant demands meant that Geraldine didn’t have time to ring home to let her father, Tom, know that she wouldn’t be home.
Luckily, Tom was a news junkie, constantly up to date with the biggest stories around the world; Geraldine is certain she got her love of news from him. When she didn’t arrive in Galway at the predetermined time, Tom knew exactly where she was as he had switched on the news and saw the story breaking.
Knowing what to do and how to cope with a situation is essential and by the time Geraldine covered L’histoire Dodi Didi as the French called it, she already had ten years of field experience with the BBC behind her.
Journalism had never been on the cards for Geraldine until she moved to London. An education in the Mercy Convent Primary and Secondary schools in Galway helped her to develop a love of languages. Inspired by her French and Latin teachers, Grace Semple and Mae Farragher, her original plan was to become a language teacher. She studied languages in NUI Galway, but after moving to London, her education brought her down a very different path.
“I was given those major opportunities [in the BBC and ABC Australia] because of my languages and got my first opportunity to break into news during the first Gulf War because I had German and French,” she said.
Almost two decades of her life were lived in extraordinary ways. A “hugely challenging” survival training course with the SAS taught her how to cope with serious situations such as an earthquake, a war zone or being taken hostage – all situations that Geraldine experienced in some shape or form.
While covering a riot in Albania, she was separated from her crew and held at gunpoint and it was by remaining calm and collected that she managed to get away.
“I remember feeling [something] right across me and it was a gun. This guy had just taken me away from the crowd because he knew I was a journalist. And in those few minutes I could see that he didn’t know what he was going to do.
“And I remember just making a very steady eye contact with him. I didn’t speak because it’s hard to know what to say in those situations,” she joked.
“And after what seemed to me hours, but probably was just a few minutes, he just kind of pushed me away.”
Geraldine regards the two decades she spent in newsgathering as an “amazing privilege to watch history unfold in front of your eyes”. She has covered the introduction of the euro, the earthquakes, war zones, and even filmed an interview with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, catching a glimpse of the human beneath the Iron Lady.
“To the crew she was absolutely charming. Politics were nowhere to be seen as she fussed around making tea. But once the camera rolled, once she put on her suit and the hair and make-up, she was back to being the prime minister.”
After reporting on the euro, while based in Frankfurt and Berlin, over the course of four years, Geraldine decided to return home. Her three sisters, Martina, Maureen and Louise are all currently living in Galway, and Geraldine herself is currently based in Salthill.
Her brother, Vinny, who studied Commerce in NUI Galway and is the creator of the very famous “Whaasup” Budweiser ad and is currently running his own ad agency in Chicago. “So maybe that creative spark is in the blood,” Geraldine said.
Galway was unrecognisable when she finally returned home, as she arrived back at the height of the Celtic Tiger. She has seen her homeland go through another transition with the recession, but believes that a “fighting Irish spirit” will help us to “weather the storm”.
Back in Galway, Geraldine is still writing and keeping up to date with the news. She feels that her education in NUI Galway opened up many doors for her: “To have had the benefits of an Irish education was also seen as a huge advantage when job-hunting in other countries and I certainly got opportunities which possibly wouldn’t have come my way if I hadn’t been Irish.”
But her extraordinary career allowed her to see every side of life through travel and exposure to so many different aspects of the world and if you asked her what the most interesting way to spend two decades of your life would be, her answer would be her career in journalism.
**This is an article I wrote for The Connacht Tribune in the summer of 2013, in which I interviewed a very inspirational journalist, Geraldine Warren, who was one of the first journalists on the scene when Princess Diana died.