Asti president became essential reading as 'Irish Press' TV critic

Sat, Mar 6, 2010, 00:00

TOM O'DEA;TOM O'DEA, who has died aged 80, was a former teacher, president of the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (Asti), and television critic at the Irish Press.

He taught English and geography for many years at Gonzaga College, Dublin, and a former colleague Gerry Murphy this week said he was rated highly as a teacher, was very conscientious, and was always helpful to younger staff members.

A former pupil, John O'Donnell SC, described him as an "inspirational" teacher.

He was elected president of Asti in 1970, serving for what turned out to be an eventful year. It was marked by a prolonged salary dispute with the Department of Education, and deep divisions within the union, which surfaced at a special convention.

In his final address as president, he said: "The most important duty of the teacher, and the most difficult, is to assist people to find a coherent view of life."

Born in 1929, he was one of the 12 children of Joseph O'Dea and his wife Annie (née Brennan), of Ahena, Claremorris, Co Mayo. An altar boy, he used to serve Mass for An Berneach (Fr William O'Byrne), a notable Irish prose writer much admired by Máirtín Ó Cadhain.

Educated at Taugheen National School and by the Christian Brothers in Ballinrobe, he graduated with an arts degree from University College Galway.

He started his teaching career in Clifden, Co Galway, before moving to the midlands, where he taught at Carmelite College, Moate, Co Westmeath, for 10 years. In 1965 he was recruited to the staff of Gonzaga College, along with former tánaiste John Wilson.

Also in 1965 he became television critic for the Irish Press. Television in Ireland was still a novelty, as Gay Byrne observed: "For the first five years at least, the thing so filled the nation with wonder, and [ the viewers] treated it with huge importance and significance."

Television criticism was widely read, and O'Dea quickly established himself as one of the country's most influential critics. RTÉ programme-makers paid close attention to his column, which was essential reading for many people on Saturday mornings.

His final column appeared on New Year's Eve, 1983. In what he described as "a look backward in wonder", he bowed out by reviewing a number of programmes that had never been made. These included Hugh Leonard's "adaptation" of Ibsen's Rosmersholm, which had succeeded in "crystallising the wisdom that Brendel had never captured in his unwritten books".

The spoof review was a response to his ousting on the grounds that he was not a member of the NUJ.

Hugh Leonard commented: "It sounds like he is living in a Doll's House, and I deplore his attempt at shooting down Wild Ducks."

He retired from teaching in 1984 to work as a freelance journalist. By now an NUJ member, he worked on a number of assignments for the Sunday Independent, and later wrote for the Sunday Tribune.

He also reviewed books for The Irish Timesand contributed to "An Irishman's Diary". In one diary, he recalled interviewing Jeffrey Archer: "As I sat down in front of him, with my tape recorder switched on, I almost had to kick myself to stop myself liking him: such was his outrageous devotion to fakery."

He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of American literature, and The Great Gatsby was his favourite novel. His favourite writers included Gore Vidal, "the best and most readable commentator" on the US.

A moderate drinker, his main vices were caffeine and tobacco, although he gave up cigarettes when the smoking ban was introduced in 2004. Photography was among his interests.

He is survived by his wife Mona and their five children.

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Tom O'Dea: born April 29th, 1929; died February 11th, 2010