Champion of the natural world who helped save Ireland’s waterways

Obituary: Dick Warner made more than 90 television documentaries

Dick Warner: the environmentalist and broadcaster at home in Donadea, Co Kildare, in 1995. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Dick Warner: the environmentalist and broadcaster at home in Donadea, Co Kildare, in 1995. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

 

Richard (Dick) Warner
Born: July 19th, 1946
Died: June 16th, 2017

The broadcaster Derek Mooney remembers spending hours in Donadea Forest Park, in Co Kildare, with Dick Warner, waiting to see a leaf fall from a tree. The younger man had just confessed that he had never actually seen a leaf fall from a branch. “Nothing was too silly for him. He never made you feel foolish,” Mooney said of his friend and mentor, who has died at the age of 70.

Life was a series of adventures for Warner, whose early years in England, Ethiopia and Austria provided a rich fount of colourful stories long before his exploration of Ireland’s inland waterways made him a household name in this country.

Warner’s father, Patrick, came from “west Cork Protestant stock” a generation out of Ireland. His mother, Pamela (formerly Fieldhouse), was Scottish. The couple met while serving with the British army during the second World War . “They were married in the army, in uniform. Dick would have been born almost immediately after demobilisation, in ’46”, said his brother, also Patrick, who described him as the archetypical postwar baby.

When Dick, the eldest of the three Warner children, was 10 the family moved from England to Addis Ababa, where their father got a teaching job in a school run by the British Council.

There was lots of hunting and fishing and an introduction to Haile Selassie, who served as emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974 and was revered by the Rastafarian religious movement.

“Myself and Dick, being English-speaking boys, were sent to improve the English of the imperial prince, Haile Selassie’s grandson, by playing rounders in the imperial palace with him,” recalled Patrick, who also remembers being fascinated by the lions and the bodyguards encountered en route to the play date.

The family later lived in Vienna, Belfast and Norfolk, in England, and Dick was sent to Trinity College Dublin, where he studied English literature and German and started a lifelong association with the media when he edited the college newspaper. Writing was in the family DNA, according to Patrick, who said the Irish association began when an ancestor was granted land in west Co Cork by Queen Elizabeth I as a reward for writing a poem.

Warner’s CV included a stint with an English-language radio station in Cologne, a job with Bord na gCapall on his return to Ireland, and then his introduction to RTÉ, where before he became synonymous with nature documentaries he worked as a radio journalist, covering politics for a while.

Although some might regard it as an anomaly, Warner spent his entire life as a passionate conservationist who also loved to shoot and fish. “He loved to go snipe shooting on the bogs in Kildare and fishing for anything anywhere,” his brother explained.

He had a great respect for the knowledge of others. He was also a great party-giver and storyteller. He couldn’t sing to save his life – and he learned to not even try

When Warner settled in Ireland his principal residence for quite a while was an old wooden motor cruiser that he kept on the Grand Canal at Hazelhatch. It was liable to sink at any time, but the waters were so shallow that the worst that ever happened was that he regularly woke to find 15cm of water in his bedroom.

Dick Warner: on the Royal Canal for one of his Waterways series for RTÉ
Dick Warner: on the Royal Canal for one of his Waterways series for RTÉ

Best known for his Waterways series, which won a Jacob’s award, Warner made more than 90 television documentaries, where his expertise in subjects from Irish railway history to trees and salmon captivated audiences of all ages. He also wrote several newspaper and magazine columns, writing for the Irish Examiner until his death.

His voice – described by many as liquid gold – combined with his depth of knowledge and passion for his subjects, is fondly remembered by friends as well as fans.

“I spent my first Christmas away from home with Dick and Geraldine and their two children, Luke and Sam,” recalled Mooney, who still cherishes the memory of the reheated Chinese takeaway the family served on Christmas Day to 13 people, including some “landed gentry”.

Patrick Warner, who worked in nature conservation with National Parks and Wildlife Service, said the couple had a knack for coaxing stories from the many people they met in their work. “He had a great respect for the knowledge of others. He was also a great party-giver and storyteller. He couldn’t sing to save his life – and he learned to not even try.”

Warner’s friend Ken Whelan, a marine biologist who worked with him on a number of documentaries, remembers the pair of them braving thunder and torrential rain for several hours in a boat in a pond in the middle of Marlay Park, in Rathfarnham in south Dublin, and barely noticing the discomfort, so entertaining was Warner’s conversation. “He was a polymath. He had an interest in so many things and a curiosity about everything,” Whelan said.

Twenty years ago Warner contracted multiple sclerosis and, according to his brother, lost half the sight in one eye. At one stage he seemed destined to have to use a wheelchair, but he got a reprieve when the disease “just went away” (although it did slow him down in later years).

Warner’s legacy is immense thanks to his television and radio documentaries and his writings, but his brother believes he will be remembered for shining a light on the once derelict Royal and Grand Canals and ensuring they did not suffer the same fate as many of Ireland’s decayed railways.

Dick Warner is survived by his third wife, Geraldine, their sons, Luke and Sam, his brother, Patrick, and his sister, Rosemarie.