Broadcaster and judge who became a household name

Liam Devally obituary: born – October 17th, 1932; died – April 9th, 2018

After promotion to RTÉ’s light entertainment department as a presenter in the early 1960s, Liam Devally became a national celebrity presenting Cross Country Quiz in the 1970s. Photograph: RTÉ

After promotion to RTÉ’s light entertainment department as a presenter in the early 1960s, Liam Devally became a national celebrity presenting Cross Country Quiz in the 1970s. Photograph: RTÉ

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Liam Devally, who has died after a prolonged illness aged 85, became a household name in Ireland in the 1960s and 1970s, presenting popular programmes on both television and radio for RTÉ.

His talent as a quick-thinking compere was later to be put to a radically different use, as a barrister. Called to the bar in 1974, Devally’s fluent Irish, (polished while he was at at Coláiste Einde in Galway, a preparatory academy for students intending to proceed to teacher training colleges, and then at St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra), he would go on to act as a counsel in cases conducted in the first official language.

He was as successful in his legal career as he had been in his broadcasting one, being appointed to the Circuit Court in 1991, where he was conscious of the backgrounds of defendants.

He told Gerry Curran, of the communications section of the Courts Service, in an interview after his retirement in 2002, that he was always very aware when hearing criminal appeals from the District Court that for many, “this was the last chance”, and referred to the absence of playing fields, sports and other facilities in heavily populated areas as having caused, “a great deal of unnecessary damage.”

He was critical in the article of the then-new liberalising of the licensing laws: “It is probable that the late opening of bars . . . has by and large had a bad effect on society”.

His dalliance with teacher training in his late teens was abandoned at the age of 20 when, after working briefly in the ESB as a trainee accountant, he replied, successfully, to an advertisement by RTÉ for a job as a continuity announcer. His interviewer on that occasion, Mairéad Connaughton, later, in 1954, became his wife.

Apart from his legal qualifications acquired in the 1970s, Devally also studied Irish and archaeology at University College Dublin.

Devally had launched his performance career early, winning a gold medal at the Feis Ceoil in 1947 for singing, and a silver in 1954 for songs including My Lagan Love, which he later recorded. Later still, he toured the US with a group called the Irish Festival Singers, during which he appeared, twice, on the famous Ed Sullivan Show.

His long-time friend Michael Casey recalled this week that Devally loved combining this live performance with humour, saying that he (Devally) once serenaded some cows in the middle of a field in Connemara, where he had bought a cottage in 1969, with The Flower Song from Carmen, accompanied by two of his work colleagues on accordion and cello respectively. Casey remarks that his friend “swore afterwards that those animals were the most appreciative audience he had ever had”.

National celebrity

This was most unlikely. After promotion to RTÉ’s light entertainment department as a presenter in the early 1960s, he became a national celebrity presenting Cross Country Quiz, a television show which garnered a huge following.

An important part of his career at this time were three bilingual quiz programmes, im ar Aghaidh, Ceist Agam Ort and, from 1969, hÉ, the latter co-hosted with the (later to be) famous public relations guru Mary Finan, who also had fluent Irish. These programmes both expressed his love of the language, but also what was, for the time, an enlightened approach to it.

Criticised by Gaeilgeorí who complained of “ungrammatical” Irish in his bilingual programmes, he told journalist Eanna Brophy in an RTÉ Guide interview in 1969: “I think it would be of no use having a programme of this sort confined exclusively to those who have an expert knowledge of Irish, so I try in my compering to avoid those more difficult words in Irish by using English.”

In his interview with Gerry Curran, he stressed that getting people to speak Irish was more important than grammar. “This would be regarded as heresy [at that time]. But better a live heresy than a dead language.”

Devally also presented music programmes for radio: Morning Airs, alternating with Doireann Ní Bhriain, a weekday early-morning programme, and a Sunday afternoon show, Music for the Hour, with the RTÉ light orchestra. Earlier, in the 1960s, he had presented, with Kathleen Watkins, a programme of Irish music and dance.

Perhaps the highlight of his career was his presentation for radio from 1972 until 1979, of the Eurovision Song Contest for RTÉ listeners.

His legal and broadcasting skills were also recognised when he was appointed a member of the Independent Radio and Television Commission by the then minister of communications, Ray Burke, in the early 1990s, when that body was tasked with the awarding of the licences for the first non-State-owned broadcasters in this country.

As Devally’s father was a garda, Devally and his six siblings grew up in several different locations around Ireland. Born in Cahir, Co Tipperary, he received his secondary education at the Christian Brothers School in Mullingar, Co Westmeath. His mother, Josephine, née Conboy, was a noted amateur singer. His brothers and sisters, Tom, Des, Dympna, Pat, Myra and Harry, all predeceased him, as did Mairéad. He is survived by his son Conor, and his daughter Mary.

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