First Encounters:

‘It was one of those things, something gels’

Des Cahill and Ian Dempsey .Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Des Cahill and Ian Dempsey .Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons


Ian and I were a double act on 2fm’s breakfast show, it was the funniest programme. Ian was the main man, I was only doing sports bulletins. Now there’s Off the Ball and other programmes, but we started doing all that in the late 1980s/90s – making the Anyone But United jokes, playing Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah when they lost. We’d have letters and jokes in about GAA counties. On the odd occasion when Man United lost, everyone would switch over to 2fm to see what we’d say.

We’d have lunch in a Malaysian restaurant, the Langkawi, on Baggot Street: sometimes meet for dinner the same night in the same restaurant. Because we had to get up so early, 5am, we’d go out early. It was a big blow for me when Ian left RTÉ, but it was probably good for me, because RTÉ said to me, we don’t want you to go anywhere. In my view, Ian was only fully appreciated after he’d gone.

We were both involved in Special Olympics, together and separately, long before the World Games in 2003, and now we’re always there whenever we’re called on. No more than Ian, I’d be involved with a lot of charities, but there’s a joy about this one in particular. My favourite memory was parents saying – and they’re generally weeping when they say it – they never thought their children would have a day in the sun. A lot of people think the Special Olympics is the world games every four years . . . but it’s about a man or woman in their 30s, an athlete, having somewhere to go on a Tuesday night.

We’ve met some famous people through Special Olympics. I met Bianca Jagger with athlete Mandy Finlay: in a restaurant in Shanghai, where the games were held in 2007. Mandy said: “Omigod, you’re so beautiful”, as Bianca walked past. Bianca stopped and said thank-you. Then Mandy says, “Have you met Des?” I tried to be blasé about it.

A survey 18 months ago showed recognition and empathy for special athletes had dropped, so this weekend’s celebrations are a reminder. We’re just trying to remind people, these athletes are part of your community. It’s also a reminder of the work being done by volunteers all over Ireland.

Jason Sherlock texted me asking about the Special Olympics challenge – he’s due to captain a team. I said ultimately it’s about the athletes feeling good about themselves. He texted saying “I play to win”. I said, “You’re the athlete I’m talking about”.

Ian’s been on breakfast shows for more than 30 years. I think he’s survived so long because the Ian on radio is close to the real Ian, more close than most.

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