Award-winning director of film photography


DONAL GILLIGAN:NEIL JORDAN, Jim Sheridan and John Boorman were all making waves internationally in the 1980s, but the indigenous film business was embryonic in Ireland and it was unheard of to have an Irish camera crew on a feature film.

Even now there are very few Irish cinematographers who make it internationally. Award-winning director of photography Donal Gilligan, who has died at the age of 46, was an exception.

Within months of graduating from Rathmines College in Dublin, he was working around the world as a camera assistant. At 23, he made history as the youngest lecturer at the college after he was invited back to teach.

He worked on productions such as Clash of the Ash, High Boot Benny and Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, and went on to work as director of photography on dozens of productions including dramas such as Channel 4’s Shameless, ITV’s Primeval and RTÉ’s Raw.

Beautifully shot Irish productions like the feature film Countryabout 1960s rural Ireland, or his brave chronicle of Chernobyl with Adi Roche and Ali Hewson in 1993, will be his legacy.

Director Anthony Minghella told Irish director Kieron J Walsh he was blown away by his film version of the Samuel Beckett play Rough for Theatre I, a 20-minute production starring Milo O’Shea and David Kelly which Gilligan also worked on in 2000.

The second youngest of five children, Donal was born in Drumcondra to Mary and Mick Gilligan. He attended local schools and shone as a student at Rathmines College. He was mesmerised by the camera from an early age and loved the fact he could intellectualise about the craft in third level education.

His parents were from Co Roscommon and imbued in him a lasting love of rural Ireland, manifesting itself in his passion for the outdoor life, fishing, camping, barbecues and holidays with his wife Charlotte, sons Michael, Joe and Finn, daughter Siofra, and their cousins and as many friends as he could gather in his late father’s farm in Glanduff near Athlone.

His early relationship with the countryside gave him an empathy with rural subjects in later film productions, notably John McGahern: A Private World, a film that gave him great pride.

He was a devoted father who was passionate about music, Munster rugby and the GAA, and could regularly be seen, Swiss Family Robinson-style, cycling to Croke Park with kids on the front and back to see his beloved Dubs.

He was also a terrific cook – he seldom arrived at a dinner party without a marinated fish to pop on the pan, or an exotic salad. His career in film also gave him the opportunity to work with his heroes, including Bono. The U2 singer said: “His talent was he made the camera disappear in the room – he made everything so intimate.” He was U2’s cameraman of choice for over 20 years.

His humanity and empathy with people infused everything he shot. That, more than his undisputed talent behind the camera, made him one of the most requested directors of photography in Ireland. Behind the crazy fun guy everyone knew and adored lay a certain seriousness.

He was meticulous in his research before a shoot and always wanted to bring his work on to the next level. He set a high bar. He wasn’t a moody person, and was renowned for getting laughs at the toughest moments.

“He’d make you laugh just as you were about to cry,” recalls Adi Roche about the trip to Chernobyl.

His Chernobyl pictures were exhibited at the UN in New York at the request of Kofi Annan. Donal was modest about this achievement, but was deeply affected by the trip. He lost a stone, and on his return persuaded Charlotte they needed to throw a party for children affected by Chernobyl in their garden in Sandymount. He then went out to persuade Dunnes and other businesses to provide crates of biscuits, a bouncy castle and even use of a double-decker bus to show them a party.

Donal is survived by his wife Charlotte, children Finn, Joe, Michael and Siofra, brothers Brendan and Pat, sisters Marie and Anne and his mother Mary.

Donal Gilligan: born March 12th, 1964; died September 19th, 2010