Writer, arts champion and captivating queen of Irish advertising

Catherine Sheerin-Donnelly: April 29th, 1948 - October 8th, 2014

Catherine Donnelly: ‘our warrior queen’. Photograph: Tony Higgins

Catherine Donnelly: ‘our warrior queen’. Photograph: Tony Higgins

 

Catherine Sheerin-Donnelly, who has died aged 66 after a short illness, was widely regarded as one of the finest advertising copywriters of her generation. Her campaigns for Ballygowan, the IDA and Barry’s Tea are among the most iconic Irish advertising of the 20th century.

Catherine Donnelly was the youngest child of Thomas and Margaret Donnelly. She spent her childhood in the grand 17th-century Dunleckney Manor stud farm in Co Carlow, where she developed a lifelong fondness for horses.

Educated at Mount Anville, she read law before taking a job as an editorial assistant in The Dublin Magazine. Next came a job in a travel agency, where she was occasionally known to accidentally book people on the wrong plane, ensuring that her employment in that industry was shortlived. In 1973, on the suggestion of a friend, Donnelly took a copy test for Arks advertising, where her talent was quickly spotted and rewarded with a month’s trial. Taking to copywriting immediately, she also fell in love with her boss, fellow copywriter Frank Sheerin.

Donnelly’s stylish beauty and elegance became legendary and her writing skills went on to enhance the creative departments of many Dublin agencies, garnering so many accolades that storage of trophies became an issue. She was twice winner of the National Newspapers of Ireland Grand Prix and was heard to note that her success also allowed her bank manager, Mr Joy, to continue to live up to his name.

Attitudinal shift

Her campaign for the IDA, chiefly appearing in US media, was directly responsible for bringing industry to Ireland. The headline “The Irish. Hire them before they hire you” is cited as helping to bring about an attitudinal shift in the way the Irish workforce was viewed by foreign investors. Donnelly’s “train set” radio commercial for Barry’s Tea, featuring the voice of the late Peter Caffrey, has been a popular favourite of Christmas advertising in Ireland for nearly 20 years.

Wide-ranging interests outside the world of advertising led to her becoming the first chairperson of Rough Magic Theatre Company and she never failed to support Irish actors wherever possible, affording many subsequently well-known voices their first break in advertising.

“Catherine Donnelly was our warrior queen – she believed in us more than we believed in ourselves,” wrote Lynne Parker of Rough Magic theatre company. “She was living proof that intellectual rigour could be matched by effortless style; and embodied a sense of perfection that knew and understood the fallibility of human nature.”

Outside of advertising, Donnelly’s writing also flourished. Tossed Salad, a TV drama, was broadcast on RTÉ in 1993, and a well-received novel, The State of Grace, was published in 2003, the story of which drew heavily and colourfully from Donnelly’s many years in the often hectic advertising agency environment. She was also a food critic for the Sunday Independent and a columnist for Irish Tatler. At the time of her death she had just completed a radio drama, Powerplay, written for her friend Dearbhla Molloy, which has been optioned by the BBC.

Remarkable talent

As president of the Institute of Creative Advertising and Design and a director of McConnells advertising, she demonstrated a remarkable talent for spotting and fostering a spark in others. A much sought-after mentor, her unfailing kindness and generosity to rising stars of both advertising and the arts have left many forever in her debt. Christmas mornings at the Sheerin-Donnelly home were famous, when an eclectic band would make their way to Mountainview Road in Ranelagh to enjoy warm hospitality and sparkling conversation.

While US advertising had Bill Bernbach and the British ad industry had David Abbott as torch-bearers and standard-setters, Ireland had Catherine Donnelly, who lived her life with the same flair that distinguished her writing. Renowned as a captivating presenter of concepts, she approached all her work with an unstinting passion and commitment that sometimes saw the handset of her landline meet the office wall in a fury of frustration. Yet “La Contessa”, as she was affectionately known to colleagues, would in the very next moment be gently supportive of often awestruck creative acolytes.

Paragon of fashion

A paragon of fashion and style with a keen eye and a ready wit, she was a valued customer of many of Dublin’s leading restaurants where, instead of being offered the dessert menu, she would simply be brought a plate and a knife for the trademark green apple that always accompanied her. In recent years Catherine and Frank had moved to Roscrea in Co Tipperary, where they quickly established themselves among friends and neighbours as generous and fun-loving members of the local community.

Catherine Sheerin-Donnelly is survived by her three loving (step)daughters, Bláithín, Róisín and Maureen, and by husband Frank, whom she married in 2009 after several decades of what they described in their wedding announcement as a “whirlwind romance”.