Muiris Mac Conghail, broadcaster, writer and film-maker, dies aged 78
People, language and traditions of the Blasket Islands particularly informed his work
Broadcaster: Muiris Mac Conghail in 2014. Photograph: James Connolly/PicSell8
Muiris Mac Conghail, the TV and radio producer, documentarymaker, writer, journalist and university lecturer, has died, aged 78. As well as a long and distinguished career in broadcasting, he was particularly known for his significant work about the Blasket Islands.
Born in Dublin, Muiris Mac Conghail was educated at University College Dublin, trained as a producer at the BBC and joined RTÉ in 1964, becoming producer and editor of the current-affairs programme 7 Days, head of features and current affairs, head of radio, and controller of programmes at RTÉ One. He was also head of Raidió na Gaeltachta, and won two Jacob’s Awards, in 1967 and 1985.
Appointed assistant secretary at the Department of the Taoiseach in 1973, Mac Conghail set up the Government Information Service during the 1973-77 Fine Gael-Labour coalition; his son Fiach Mac Conghail, former director of the Abbey Theatre, has noted his father’s “enduring interest in general elections and his commitment to the role of public-service broadcasting in a democracy. Very early on Dad understood the importance of media to governments.”
The work of his parents, the artist Maurice MacGonigal and the art critic and writer Aida Kelly, meant that the landscape of the west of Ireland influenced him greatly
Speaking today about his father, Fiach Mac Conghail said: “The work of his parents, the artist Maurice MacGonigal and the art critic and writer Aida Kelly, meant that the landscape of the west of Ireland influenced him greatly. That also informed a lot of his work, especially his documentaries about the Blaskets and the Aran Islands, and about John B Keane and Tony O’Malley. Those four works manifested his understanding of language and seanchas [the oral tradition]. Landscape is important, but he also understood that the landscape was nothing without its people, its language, literature and oral traditions.”
As well as his acclaimed Blasket documentary Oileán Eile, Muiris Mac Conghail wrote books – The Blaskets: A Kerry Island Library, The Blaskets: People and Literature, and Aghaidheanna Fidil agus Púicíní, about the scholar George Thompson’s relationship with the Blaskets.
Reviewing Cole Moreton’s book on the Blaskets for The Irish Times in 2000, Mac Conghail wrote: “The community of the Great Blasket Island provided one of the pillar stones around which the State could have constructed a cultural and educational policy stemming the decline of the Irish language – at least – and, at most, maybe even expanding it. Such was the quality of the community language on the Great Blasket, and the calibre of its written literature, that had these two elements been transmitted to the people – and in a meaningful way – generations of students might have taken up the language as an important strand in the cultural fabric of the State. The State opted instead for the harmless version of Peig’s life as a primary text and allowed the Blasket community to die before its very eyes.”
The managing director of RTÉ News, Jon Williams, tweeted today: “As producer & editor of #RTE’s 7 Days (amid other achievements), helped create a tradition of investigative journalism that endures & set a standard we still aspire to.”
Séamus Dooley, the Ireland secretary of the NUJ, described him as a “pioneering figure in RTE current affairs, direct link to Division, 7 Days and earliest political coverage. A decent, genial man of wisdom and integrity.”
The Irish Broadcasting Hall of Fame commented: “The golden era of RTE when their broadcasters shone a light on a dark Ireland is fading out. To the likes of Muiris & Gay we owe them such gratitude and plaudits.”
In the early 2000s Muiris Mac Conghail taught journalism at Dublin Institute of Technology; former students have also responded to the news of his death. Róisín Burke of the Sunday Business Post recalled him “very fondly from the DIT for his energy and commitment to us and to journalism”. Aoife Stokes of Virgin Media called him “a brilliant and inspiring lecturer and very generous thesis supervisor to me and many others. His guerrilla style of teaching means I’ll never forget how many TDs are in the Dail!” John Roycroft of the Irish Examiner and the Echo posted that he was “fortunate to have him as a lecturer in college. An engaging and entertaining orator at the front of a class, so full of insight and knowledge.”
Muiris Mac Conghail is survived by his wife, Mary Malone, his five children, Fiach, Somhairle, Cúán, Étaín and Marcus; their mother, the genealogist Máire Mac Conghail (nee Doran); his stepsons, Barry and John Corr; and his only brother, Ciarán MacGonigal, the art critic and former director of the Royal Hibernian Academy and of the Hunt Museum.